THE MISSION: Enter the world of Football Manager 2017 and beat your bitter rival to claim glory in the Scottish Premiership and bragging rights in Glasgow.
THE CATCH: The Everton challenge did not end well. Can Iain Macintosh bounce back to build a homegrown empire at Celtic? Or will Alex Stewart’s meddling Moneyballing ways bring silverware to Rangers? The Set Pieces’ money is on an Aberdeen treble…
ALEX: There comes a time when Luke Skywalker has to take on Darth Vader. When Ali faces Foreman. When the young pretender has a tilt at the icon – and hopefully prevails. And so, I am taking on Iain Macintosh, a man about whom it could be written, “what he doesn’t know about FM, isn’t worth knowing”. And yet oddly it never has been.
If I were old school, I’d see this as the ideal time to take on Iain, still smarting from his dismissal at Everton. But I’m not a Proper Football Man. I like metrics. I like spreadsheets. I once had coffee with Duncan Alexander from Opta. I’m not saying Iain is a blood-and-thunder, wants-it-more sort of gaffer, but there’s definitely a contrast of styles, to put it politely.
As if you needed any more excitement, it’s all taking place in the cauldron of the Old Firm. Rangers are the ideal team for me and my Moneyballing: skint, newly promoted, skint. It’s no place for the faint of heart, but I’m hoping my cool, rational approach – and my endless lists – will give me the edge.
I think I’ll need all the help I can get. I cast an eye over the Rangers squad. Well, to be honest – firstly I cast an envious eye over the Celtic squad, take in just how much better they are, and console myself that they at least have the distraction of European football and greater expectations.
My squad are decent, if unbalanced. I have clogging central midfielders – Jordan Rossiter aside – who are good at winning the ball but not much else. I have strong, creative wide players in Barrie McKay and Harry Forrester, but if they get injured there’s hardly strength in depth. I also have very capable full-backs, but no cover in that position. Indeed, beyond the first team squad, it’s all a bit dry and dusty, as my assistant manager informs me ruefully.
We’re also not very good at jumping, but that’s hardly a priority right now…
IAIN: It is often said that the best thing to do when a horse has kicked you off is to climb straight back on and prove a point. Interestingly, only people who have never met a horse say this. Horses, as beautiful as they are, can be utter bastards and if they throw you off, it’s probably because they didn’t want you on in the first place. So perhaps the best thing to do when a horse has kicked you off is to leave the big-nosed twat alone and go for a cup of tea. Tragically, that’s not an option for me.
Having been humiliated by Everton, I am contractually obliged to return to the saddle. And I’ve been sent to Celtic; a particularly well made and luxurious saddle, superior to all the other saddles in Scotland. If I can’t stay in it this time, I’ll never hear the end of it. And worse still, if we’re going to stretch this metaphor to breaking point, the man in the other saddle is Alex Stewart. And he actually knows how to ride a horse. In real life too.
But no-one can say that I haven’t prepared for my comeback. I have been to Football Manager HQ for a refresher course in a game that has clearly evolved past my understanding. I have read Kevin McCarra’s wonderful “Celtic: A Biography in Nine Lives”, and have been inculcated with the very spirit of the club. I have even spoken to Cleon, one of the internet’s leading authorities on Football Manager, and with his help, I have honed my long-term tactical plans.
So here they are: I want to win football matches. I want to win all the trophies. I want to do that by playing attacking, entertaining football and I want to draw on the legend of the Lisbon Lions by moulding my own heroes, if not from the streets of Glasgow, then at least, as much as possible, from Scotland. And while Celtic are certainly superior to Rangers at this stage, I know that Alex will be hard at work, doing his number stuff and making them much, much better. They get 50,000+ crowds over there. It won’t be long before they are back on their feet.
ALEX: First things first: the backroom staff. There’s real room for improvement here as, while my facilities are good, my team are stretched thin across all training categories and my scouting team barely exist. Maybe they all walked out because they heard I was installing air-conditioning and bringing laptop?
I don’t bother advertising the position because I want to investigate who’s available myself. But it quickly transpires that no one wants to join Rangers. When you can’t get Derek Langley or Phil Cannon, things have started badly.
Still, scouts Charlie Palmer (£300 per week), Jim Mullin (£350), John Brown (£375), Pascal Nouma (the former PSG striker who ended up at Livingston – £825), and Ian Currie (£325) all sign. Dave Sykes arrives for £2k per week as a fitness coach, as do general coaches Alan Robertson (£1k) and Willie Pettigrew (£650). And quite rapidly, my relative training metrics increase to one of the best in the league.
In the sort of oddity that appeals to people like me and OptaSporran – or whatever they’re called in Scotland – Alan Robertson made his senior debut for Kilmarnock against my newly beloved Rangers on 30th September 1972. Jim Butter, a goalkeeping coach (£350), also bolsters the backroom team because one of my best prospects is young Robbie McRorie and I want him to have all the support he needs to displace Wes Foderingham as soon as possible.
In some of my less thrilling appointments, I pick up Alex MacQueen as head physio (£1.5k per week and £50k to Killy), and Andrew Blair (£650 and £11k to Motherwell), Pip Yeates (£400), and Kenny Crichton (£950) as physios, having carefully observed that our medical department consists of nothing more than large dose of goodwill.
Also, despite being a little unsure of how to quantify their ability, I sign an U20s data analyst, Scott Ramset, for £220 per week. For that little, what harm can really come of it? Similarly, Paul Duff joins as a U20s sports scientist for £230 per week. A veritable bargain.
IAIN: Dear reader, I shall spare you the hours of tweaks and deliberations. Just know that for several hours in Costa Coffee, Alex and I sat opposite each other silently assessing our squads, assigning our scouts, arranging our training session and aligning our tactics. And then we tried to think of other verbs that began with A.
While Celtic have a bit of money with which to play, there’s really only so much you can do with £2.2m these days. But within days, I am presented with opportunities to increase that total. When Sion make a move for Efe Ambrose, I drive him to the airport myself. He has a concentration of 3 and my old heart isn’t ready for a season of watching him chase butterflies while Partick Thistle break through our lines.
Mikael Lustig though…what do I do when Swansea make a £2m bid for him? Well, first of all I haggle them up to £3.5m. And then I have to make a decision. He’s 29 and he’s pretty decent. Plus, he’ll probably throw his toys about if I don’t let him leave. But I’ve got Christian Gamboa marked for right-back. And my coaches tell me that Saidy Janko is the best talent in the team, albeit a talent inexplicably sent out on loan. But still, it’s £3.5m, innit? I could do with that. See you around, Mikky.
Now, assuming that Janko is as good as everyone says, there’s no point in bringing in a permanent replacement. With that in mind, I grab David Carmona from Sevilla on a year’s loan.
For the future, I splash £250k on Jack Paterson, a young man with precocious talent that could be harnessed by our coaches. But I’m not in a hurry to make any further purchases. We’ve got a strong squad and I’d rather spend the time scouting than spending.
I’m also quite perturbed that Alex is reinforcing his staff to such an extent that my coaching team’s rankings are visibly dropping. I nervously shore up my own ranks.
ALEX: I have £1.2m in the kitty at Ibrox and around £20k a week in wages available – but given that I’m playing by Moneyball rules, I won’t be buying anyone. I do, however, decide to scout every single free transfer going on the off chance I might find some gold. I can hear the server creaking as I do it.
Diego Poyet, a 21-year-old midfielder, joins for £12k per week to add creativity to my tactical set-up. He’s a four-and-a-half star prospect and the fans are delighted; the board, similarly, recognise I have made an astute signing that could yield a healthy future profit.
I find my Gazza, talented but tempestuous, in former Manchester United hero Federico Macheda, who signs for £13.5k per week. He’s a good example of Clough and Taylor’s knack of finding undervalued ‘outcasts’ and rolling them in glitter so they become cheap, reliable performers.
Lastly, I sign Alexander McQueen (£775 per week), partly because of his name, but mostly because he’s a four-and-a-half star prospect who can play in either full-back position. Three free signings, two as prospects and one who’s a striker – pure Moneyball.
Bristol City (remember them, lads? Halcyon days) try to buy Kenny Miller for £55.6k and I happily say yes. He’s old, slow and crocked (sorry, Kenny), but he prefers the ‘vibrant’ atmosphere of Glasgow to southwest England and opts to stay.
I request a board meeting to discuss philosophies, and ask, very politely, that I be allowed to sign young players and develop players through the youth system. Apparently, I make “a strong case”. The board then remind me that I’m supposed to win the league and reach the semi-finals of the cup. With one hand they giveth, with the other I’m dealt a swift blow to the gut.
My chief scout, Frank McParland, presents Celtic’s pre-season report. The media predict they’ll finish first, but that piece of information is comically juxtaposed with the fact that their manager is Iain Macintosh.
The Betfred Cup groups are also drawn. We get Cowdenbeath, Hamilton, Montrose, and Stranraer. Hamilton are weaker Premiership opposition, Stranraer in League One, and the other two are from League One.. For a novelty, we forgo any pre-season matches and plunge straight into competitive football. Or as competitive as Cowdenbeath at home can possibly be.
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Football Manager is widely available for download, but you know that already because you’ve bought it already. If you want to replicate this challenge, we’re using the release day database with six full leagues (Scotland, England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France).