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 battle between Celtic and Rangers has already defeated Alex Stewart. Can Matt Stanger clean up the mess at Ibrox and wipe the smile off Iain Macintosh’s face?
Episode 1; Episode 2; Moneyball Rangers; Episode 3; Episode 4; Episode 5; Old Firm Preview Part 1; Part 2; A Message From The Board; Episode 6; 5 Things We Learned From The Old Firm Derby; Episode 7; How To Play Catenaccio In FM17; Episode 8; Episode 9; Episode 10: The First Cup Final; How To Play Like Atletico Madrid In FM17; Episode 11; Episode 12; Iain returns to Everton; Episode 13; Episode 14; How To Play Like Chelsea 04/05 In FM17; Episode 15; Episode 16.
MATT: The last episode was all a bit of a blur. People talk about managers being parachuted into a job, but I feel as though I was literally thrown out the door of a 747 as a grinning Alex Stewart waved a cheery farewell from the cockpit. The pressure is suffocating, and somehow Mark Warburton’s departure from Ibrox – leaving me as the only Rangers manager fictional or otherwise – has only added to the stress. I haven’t slept in hours.
This Warburton leaving situation is Rangers' most chaotic manager switch since, erm, earlier this week when @AFHStewart got sacked by them.
— Sean Douglass (@Sean_Douglass) February 10, 2017
Aberdeen was a disaster, but the Scottish Cup win against Dunfermline provided faint hope that I can get a handle on things. Iain’s Celtic side only beat Dumbarton 2-1, after all. Which reminds me – I need to resolve the Dumb Barton issue. Some 4/10 wordplay there to ease you into Episode 17…
I stick Joey on the transfer list in a bid to find him the first-team football he’s adamant he deserves. Come on Sean Dyche, with your voice like the sound of stampeding wildebeest, offer him a contract and I’ll waive the fee. I’ll even pay for the petrol to drive him down to Burnley.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s Player Liaison Officer Steve Ferguson with one of the tea ladies, who I assume is acting as a witness. Apparently the squad are unhappy with my treatment of Barton. Brilliant. FM17’s creators clearly have the midfielder’s personality down to a tee and now I’m left to pay the consequences. I don’t remember Alex having to deal with this shit.
For a brief moment, I begin to doubt myself. Perhaps I should try to build bridges? Squad morale is already dangerously close to rock bottom. But no, I won’t be bullied. Not by a computer game. Not again.
With Deadline Day fast approaching I want to get the Partick Thistle match out of the way so I can concentrate on some last-minute wheeling and dealing. Joe Dodoo is given a chance in the target man role with Andy Halliday promoted from the bench. Other than that, we’re basically the same as the heroic win over Dunfermline.
Rangers 1 – 0 Partick Thistle
Well, that was unconvincing. It doesn’t bode awfully well that Partick managed 58% possession at Ibrox, with a higher pass completion rate and 11 shots to our 10, but at least we got the win. A scrappy, pathetic 1-0 win.
Realising it was perhaps a bit too cautious to be playing a counter-attacking style at home to a team two places below us in the league (albeit equal on points) we switched to 4-4-2 with a controlled approach at half time. Dodoo and Halliday made such little impact that they were hooked at the interval for Federico Macheda and young Ryan Hardie, a speedy 19-year-old striker with ’15’ finishing.
Suddenly there was more life in the team, with Macheda opening the scoring shortly after the hour mark. It was all going swimmingly but then Hardie pulled up with an injury, and Partick began to take control again.
With the clock ticking down, and Alex watching gleefully over my shoulder, there was a feeling of the inevitable about one last painfully drawn-out highlight as Partick passed the ball around nicely on the edge of our box. “If we throw this away I’m setting my laptop on fire,” I smile at Iain and Alex. We hold out and I put down the matches.
IAIN: Dundee should not be the sort of opposition to cause me undue concern, but these are stressful times. To recap: Top goalscorer Moussa Dembele’s head was turned by a derisory bid from Borussia Monchengladbach, he had a tantrum, requested a transfer and mentally is in no position to play.
Second top goalscorer Leigh Griffiths then had a tantrum because I didn’t sell Dembele and went on to complain to me that Jozo Simunovic hadn’t been fined for being sent off. When I told him not to be such a fucking grass, he led the rest of the squad in a rebellion against me.
I managed to put the rebellion down easily enough, but Grassiths is unhappy. He’s not the only one. Chopper Brown is upset that I sold Kolo Toure. I don’t understand why. Kolo never played. I’ve lost Craig Gordon for the rest of the season to tendinitis and because of injuries and suspensions I’ve been forced to play reserve centre-backs.
Celtic are better than every team in this division. But even we are a reduced force when more than half of our ideal starting XI are injured or missing, presumed twats.
Dundee 0 – 2 Celtic
Well, we needed that. I won’t exaggerate, but we should have scored six there. We comfortably overwhelmed Dundee to the extent that they didn’t even have a single shot on target. It was, for the most part, an attack vs defence training session.
Goals from Scott Sinclair and lovely young man Jason Cummings – oh what form he’s in – sealed the result and, given the mounting unpleasantness in the dressing room, I’ll happily take that. The gap between me and second-place Aberdeen remains at seven points though. The Dons keep winning.
ALEX: It’s weird being out of a job. I sit around in the office. I organise my stationery. I flip disinterestedly through some Rothmans Football Yearbooks. I reorganise my stationery.
I’ve applied for two jobs, the only two available, at Raith and Dunfermline – though Avram Grant is apparently looking vulnerable at Ghana, which would be a weird move for a Scotland-based FM series.
Matt and Iain are gleefully busy, throwing back and forth transfer ideas, bantering about loan signings between the clubs, generally getting on with being actual football managers. I, meanwhile, am ‘living the dream’, according to some:
@AFHStewart @MatthewStanger @FM17Project you're living the dream, being employed to be unemployed #valueadd
— Taha Abrar (@TahaAbrarSays) February 10, 2017
But it’s tough being on the outside, peering in through the steamed-up windows at Matt and Iain. They seem so happy together. Matt’s got this big grin on his face, Iain’s shoulders are heaving up and down as he chortles. I hope they don’t see me. Shit, I think they saw me.
Things then take a slightly surreal turn of events, as my relationship with Millie Henderson, my loyal personal assistant, becomes the sole focus of my idle mind.
@AFHStewart it's amazing how fine a line there is between writing about Football Manager and writing Football Manager based erotica….
— Joe Furlong (@JoeMFurlong) February 10, 2017
I take Millie to watch Matt’s Rangers play a game against some other side. It’s dead. No fans, no atmosphere. I drift off into a reverie, where it’s me down there, barking instructions, living through the ups and downs, the ebb and flow of the game.
Millie adjusts my blanket and brings me a Bovril. Then someone recognises the Lorient 2004/05 season third kit and we are forced to flee under a hail of insults and possibly a hurled pint.
I'm at @MatthewStanger's first Rangers game. It seems the fans are staying away pic.twitter.com/1xtNTXbM1Z
— Alex Stewart (@AFHStewart) February 10, 2017
MATT: With just a few days of the winter transfer window remaining, we make moves for several players. Iain finally relents to my persistent bids for Gary Mackay-Steven, and we sign the Celtic winger for a reasonable £350,000.
Stoke goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard also comes in to replace Wes Foderingham as No.1, while Joe Garner, one of nine players supporting Barton in our ongoing dispute, is offloaded to Reading for £775,000. “You sold Garner?” asks Alex, ever the master of the loaded question. “Heard anything from Raith?” I reply.
We also tie up a loan deal for Middlesbrough midfielder Julien de Sart, just as Joey Barton decides to skip training. Like fellow recruit Jack Hendry, he’s injured for the next couple of weeks, but I can’t see that being an issue. No siree. Almost immediately a message pops up in my inbox to inform me there’s a complication with De Sart’s recovery. He’s ruled out for the rest of the season. No bother, I think. I’ll just terminate the loan. And that’s when I realise I’ve forgotten to include a termination clause.
Quietly seething at my own stupidity, yet vocally blaming Alex for everything that’s wrong at Rangers, I start preparing for the trip to Hearts. They’re third in the league, seven points above us and occupying the final European spot that I’m confident can secure my future. What we need is a smash-and-grab 1-0 away win, so we adopt a compact 4-1-4-1 formation with Macheda leading the line. “Keep it tight lads,” I tell the players as they head out the tunnel.
Hearts 4 – 3 Rangers
In some ways it’s reassuring to have my suspicions confirmed: the players don’t listen to a word I say. I am talking to myself. Screaming, pleading, laughing and sobbing at words and pictures on a computer screen, Iain and Alex looking on, horrified, like Ed Norton’s boss watching him repeatedly punch himself in the face in Fight Club. I am Jack’s pitiful desperation.
This game had everything, except the point we needed to avoid Hearts extending their lead in the race for third. We took the lead twice in the first half, only to be immediately pegged back by Tony Watt on both occasions, before he wrapped up his hat-trick inside the first half-hour.
At half time I was forced to send on Harry Forrester for the injured Mackay-Steven, as Iain giggled to himself like an excitable schoolboy. He really can be insufferable at times. Macheda grabbed his second of the game on 55 minutes to make it 3-3, but then, with ten minutes remaining, Conor Sammon scored the winner for Hearts. Connor bloody Sammon. And people say this game is realistic.
I’m gutted. We didn’t deserve that. Is there no fucking justice in this world? I ask Alex for a cigarette and he kindly obliges. I ask him if I can walk his dog for a while, to which he agrees despite not seeming totally okay with it. I then ask if I can sleep over because I don’t want to be alone tonight. He says his girlfriend might find it weird. Iain says I can stay at his, but I know he’ll make me play Football Manager, because that’s literally all he does, every single day.
IAIN: Once again, we’re so short on first teamers that the crucial rear triangle of Gordon, Simunovic and Sviatchenko is sat in the stands watching. We battered Motherwell 4-1 last time we played them though, so here’s hoping that our back-up players continue to do the job for us.
I just wish that everyone wasn’t so unhappy. We had a wonderful atmosphere at this club, right up until the moment the transfer window opened. The only good news is that AJ has rebuffed the advances of Manchester United and PSG to stick with us for a little longer.
Celtic 0 -1 Motherwell
Yep. I suppose that’s been in the post for a while now. A slow start, a poorly defended cross, a Luka Belic header, an Eldin Jakupovic fumble and Motherwell go ahead with one of only two shots on goal they’ll have all game. But that’s not the problem. You have to be able to cope with a mistake, especially when you have nearly an hour to recover. We’re Celtic. They’re Motherwell. They’re in our house. But we were so, so awful everywhere.
Most of our game was there. We’d move the ball about, make a little space, play in one of the wide men. But then the wide man would suddenly decide to have a crack from 40 yards. Or just run with it until he was dispossessed. Or just fall over. Every highlight brought a new way for us to mess up under no pressure whatsoever. Even the late deployment of Leigh Grassiths didn’t work.
We lost and we deserved to lose. Matt thinks this is all hilarious. He ponders a scenario where Celtic’s form collapses and Rangers race back into contention. Bless him.
MATT: With Garner gone we have a bit of cash in the transfer kitty. Paul Hanlon, a 27-year-old centre-back, joins from Hibs to partner Danny Wilson in defence. I make offers for another six players in the hope that a number of new arrivals will give the squad a vital boost for the run-in.
Delaying every transfer until 22.30 on Deadline Day, I’m left to juggle the finances with the window set to close. If I sign Chris Kane, a striker from St Johnstone, for £550,000, we can’t afford anyone else. But I don’t know exactly how good he is, because somebody decided playing with attribute masking on was a great idea. I confirm the deal and look at Kane’s stats. He’s crap.
“You should have scouted him properly,” says Iain, who has been busy abandoning his philosophy of signing young Scottish talent. “You should have killed me when you had the chance,” I tell him. Iain looks nervously at Alex: “It was more fun when you were playing, mate.”
IAIN: I am delighted to see the transfer window close. It’s been nothing but trouble. I let a few kids out on loan, including my pet project Jack Paterson, sell Matt the injury-prone, lethargic Gary Mackay-Steven and make two bids, one for Bayern Munich starlet Julian Green and another for Hearts’ defender Alim Ozturk.
I figure, given that 29 clubs are after Dembele and that a £5m deal is already agreed with Hoffenheim for Tom Rogic, that I’ll have money to spend. I realise, by the way, that neither Green or Ozturk are Scottish, but the former is a real talent and the latter is arguably the best centre-back in the Premier League outside of my dressing room. The intention to keep it local was always much more of a guideline…
But in the end, I can only have one of them. No-one is prepared to offer more than £10m for Dembele, and I’m not that stupid. Rogic’s move breaks down because Hoffenheim don’t have any money, which is really annoying, and I have to make a choice.
I opt for Green, because I’ve noticed Premier League clubs sniffing around Scott Sinclair and I want a replacement ready just in case. But I am delighted to report that no more players departed. After all those fears, we were able to keep every one of our stars.
And better still, when he realises that he’s not going anywhere, Dembele rescinds his transfer request and is welcomed back into the fold. We still have issues with Grassiths and Brown, but our goal machine is back and our squad is stronger than ever. That will do.
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).