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…
IAIN: And so to the start of our season. There is barely any time or point in playing pre-season friendlies. The Champions League starts so swiftly that it will be enough to send a few of the boys out with the U20s for a bit of match sharpness and then toss them all straight in against Luxembourg’s Dudelange.
I’m weirdly anxious about this. I shouldn’t be. They’re from Luxembourg. And we’re playing at Parkhead. But we haven’t got many defenders. Jozo Simunovic, Erik Sviatchenko and Dedryk Boyata are all up on bricks. So we’ve got Kolo Toure and the youngster Eoghan O’Connell with a boy called Jamie McCart from the reserves to sit on the bench. But everyone else is all right.
I seem to have about 16 attacking midfielders of varying sizes. And yet…I decide to start with the ‘steady as she goes’ formation. Just the one man up front, eh? Just to see how it goes?
And it went rather well. I was nearly sick with terror when young Eoghan got himself booked after 20 seconds, but he held his nerve and eight minutes later Moussa Dembele opened the scoring.
We continued to press for a second goal, conservatively and with good manners, and we doubled the lead after 36 minutes. Once again, Dembele was there to finish. A third from Nir Bitton settled the affair on the stroke of half time and, while it would have been nice to add some more, I will always happily accept a 3-0 win for my first game in charge.
ALEX: While Iain begins his quest for European glory at Celtic, the real glamour is at Ibrox where my Rangers team face Cowdenbeath in the Betfred Cup.
We line up in a 4-2-3-1, with Joey Barton and Andy Halliday in midfield as Rossiter is injured. My front four is pretty much first choice, though, with McKay and Forrester wide and Niko Kranjcar behind Joe Garner. Macheda lurks on the bench and fellow newbie Poyet also makes the squad. 37-year-old Clint Hill is my reserve centre-back, with Philippe Senderos regarded as first choice. I suspect I may need to strengthen.
We cruise to a 3-0 win, with James Tavernier setting up two goals, including a lovely strike from new signing Macheda. The Italian came on because Joe Garner, infuriatingly, picks up an injury after 31 minutes in what is to become something of a theme – one that teaches me with painful alacrity the value of easing players into proper football. Pre-season isn’t just for lucrative tours to China, you know.
Danny Wilson also stands out at the back, netting one from a corner and setting up another. It’s a relief to know we have one centre-back who isn’t Senderos or Hill. It’s a confident display all round, with three times as many shots as The Miners, four times as many on target. I am pleased.
IAIN: Giddy with power and excitement, I make sweeping changes for the second leg against Dudelange. Even I can’t blow a three goal lead to a team from Luxembourg. I’m fairly sure about that. Well…mostly sure.
Not sure enough to drop Craig Gordon, but certainly sure enough to give David Carmona a debut and Leigh Griffiths a go up front. Young Kieran Tierney looks tidy too and we may as well rotate a few midfielders, given how many we’ve got. Also, there’s a big lead. So we’re going to go with our more aggressive ‘Gargh’ formation.
That was almost perfect. We scored five, Griffths got a hat-trick, everyone played well and an 8-0 aggregate score seems to have impressed the board. But we also lost Griffiths to injury for six weeks and somehow allowed Dudelange to make three really good chances. But hey, let’s not be fussy.
ALEX: A quick glance at Celtic’s results shows their new manager has safely navigated the Dudelange tie. I hope they get a tough draw for the next round – certainly tougher than our next Betfred Cup opponents Montrose.
Injuries have robbed me of Forrester and Garner for this away match, so I start with Waghorn on the left and Macheda up front. The back five remains the same, as does the central midfield in Barton and Halliday. We are very much a workmanlike spine until the front four, trying to achieve quick forward transitions to players who can do more than clog, supported by Tavernier and Wallace who provide quality down the flanks from full-back.
We start brightly, but within 11 minutes McKay goes down with some sort of knack, and Joe Dodoo comes on. Barely 20 minutes later, Kranjcar also gets carried off, with Poyet making his debut. I shake an angry, futile fist at the screen.
Macheda scores, though, and Dodoo gets two from the bench as we notch up a fairly straightforward 3-0 win. Lee Wallace gets two assists as an overlapping full-back, rampaging up the left as Waghorn, and then Josh Jeffries, drift inside to allow him space. Despite a strong game from Montrose centre-back Cammy Ballantyne, the result is never really in doubt, and I’m especially pleased to see new boy Macheda with two in two.
IAIN: Now what I’d really like is a nice piss-easy tie to calm my bubbling tummy. What I get is…Red Star bloody Belgrade. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that they’re not the team they used to be. But the team they are is still good enough to ruin everything.
Tierney was so good that he can keep his place, but apart from that it’s the same team that began the campaign. And obviously, we’re in the steadier formation. The one that didn’t give up three clear cut chances to a team from Luxembourg. That should at the very least prevent anything catastrophic from happening.
Well, to a point. Alex has always been a little dubious of my claim to be the unluckiest football manager in the world, but when Scott Brown is sent off in the 33rd minute for two bookable offences, he has cause to revise that view. Indeed, he peers over my laptop with the horror-filled face of a scientist who turned up to prove that the house isn’t haunted and has just been hit on the head by a floating plant pot. Welcome to my life, Alex. Welcome.
We have to react to Brown’s dismissal, we can’t continue to push forward. For just over half an hour we’ve traded punches with Red Star, neither of us able to make the breakthrough. But they have almost an hour with an extra man. Accordingly, we move to our defensive shape, albeit without the anchor man. Defensive mentality is the order of the day too. And we respond well. Half time arrives without incident.
But we can’t keep them out forever. In the 56th minute, Marko Petkovic rises to score and we’re looking down the sharp end of an early European exit.
There are two choices. Do we make a heroic push for an away goal and risk further damage? Or do we take it on the chin and hope to keep the deficit down to one? The chin, it is. We’re holding the ball well, we’re even making the occasional chance, albeit not very good ones. And so we stoically play out a gallant 0-1 defeat. That could have been much worse. It may still get worse. It generally does when you’re me.
ALEX: With injuries piling up and Garner, Forrester, Kranjcar, and McKay all absent for the third game of the Betfred Cup group stage, the front four is far from first choice. Macheda starts again, as does Dodoo after his two goals in the last game, while Josh Windass comes in for Forrester and young Jason Holt replaces Harry Redknapp’s go-to signing. I am indeed down to the bare bones.
I can also finally select Rossiter, dropping gentleman philosopher Joey Barton to the bench. I hope he brought a book with him. Hamilton, the best side we’ve faced so far, bring the bus and plot up, playing four across the middle with Massimo Donati sitting behind. Poor, lonely Richard Roy is their only forward. With two 3-0 wins behind me, I am confident enough, even with all four first-choice attacking players injured.
How wrong I am. We are awful, toothless, pedestrian, static and, by the end, exhausted. Philippe Senderos plants the cherry on top of my shit pie with an own goal that condemns us to a 1-0 defeat. A 1-0 defeat that came despite being at home and with Hamilton going down to ten men after Donati scythed down Macheda on 37 minutes.
There is very little comfort to take from this. Yes, we had 17 shots, but only five were on target and we produced no clear cut chances. Hamilton also did next to nothing, but they at least had the bulk of possession to grind us down. You can’t allow the opposition to force Senderos to think for 90 minutes.
The injuries to key players are beginning to hamper us. As my frustration mounts, I can see Iain’s glee doing likewise. In between games, the bookies, those doyens of Glasgow, give us odds of 4-1 to win the SPL title; Celtic are extraordinarily short at Evens with Macintosh in charge.
IAIN: After our 1-0 first leg defeat to Red Star, things gets worse within 24 hours. Kolo Toure overexerts himself in the gym and gives himself a chest injury. I now have to play a game that could prematurely compromise my tenure with two pimply defenders who should be playing Call of Duty with each other.
Unless, of course, I can inject Kolo with enough painkillers to make him forget that he’s injured? Yes… I could do that. I mean, it’s not entirely ethical and it could make his injury much, much worse but this is my life we’re talking about. If I lose this tie, I can never go on Twitter again. I figure that Kolo will understand my fears and so I call him into the office and tell that that’s he’s about to feel a bit of a prick.
But the return leg brings more concerns than Kolo’s health. Obviously, I want to go for the throat, panic Red Star with an early goal and whip the crowd up into a fervour. But if I concede first…well, our fans will be in a fervour all right. They’ll be calling for Ronny Deila’s return. We have to be careful. We’ll start with the ‘Gargh’ formation, but with controlling tactics. We can always go up through the gears if it stays goalless for too long. There’s no hiding the nerves though. Three games into life at Celtic and I’m already facing a must win game. Not for the first time, I wonder why I didn’t suggest blogging a game of Civilization IV. I’m quite good at that.
And that’s why! Because routing Montezuma with a surprise assault of Redcoats might feel good, but absolutely nailing a game of Football Manager always feels better. We are incredible! Dembele puts us level inside 100 seconds and we never look back. He adds another on 19 minutes and while Red Star are still asking themselves what happened, Patrick Roberts adds a third. Tom Rogic makes it four on the half hour, Roberts sends us into half time with a five goal lead and Dembele wraps up his hat-trick with 25 minutes to go when he adds another.
There could be more, there should be more, but who cares? Parkhead is rocking. We’ve absolutely destroyed them. We’ve sent them back Belgrade with their egos in a sling. Take that, Red Star! Take that, Champions League! Take that, Bill Kenwright! You never gave me a chance, did you? You never gave me a chance! You never let me show you what I could do. Well, I’m going to show you now, Bill. I’m going to show you all over your face!
Erm…But we’ll take each game as it comes, Clive, and to be honest, we’re all just thinking about St Johnstone on Saturday now.
ALEX: Next up for Rangers is Stranraer away. I make one change to the team that floundered at home to Hamilton, bringing in Poyet to feed the back-up front four. My central midfield axis has an average age of 20, which brings tears of joy to my computer-screen-bleared eyes as Iain and I order our fifth coffee of the afternoon. The staff at Costa have started giving us strange looks.
The re-jigged team doesn’t exactly sing, but it mumbles reasonably enough. Poyet’s first start is decent, but it’s Dodoo who catches the eye with his third goal of the season, again assisted by Lee Wallace. Forrester makes a comeback from injury off the bench, and I give Waghorn a run out up front after Macheda draws a blank again.
The back four average 7.7 – restricting our opponents to three shots on target compared 12 for us – and we win all our tackles. Building a team around a solid, consistent defence is absolutely key and the chaps are heading in the right direction. We top our qualification group and go through with nine points and a goal difference of plus six, which I’ll take as a pre-season.
I then loan McQueen to Airdrie with the proviso he can be recalled, and lose 5-2 to a Manucho-inspired Rayo in the most hipster vs least hipster friendly of all time. Pre-season is done. We’ve qualified for the next round of the Cup but, to be honest, a failure to do so would be worse than even Iain might have managed. Our first SPL fixture is Aberdeen away. It’s time to get down to business.
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).