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: Just three days after a result that people are already describing as one of the greatest nights in the history of Celtic, if that history only began last week, we have the more sedate challenge of St Johnstone at home. Given that poor old Alex has ended up with Aberdeen away, I’m quite pleased with how this has worked out.
But I do have a bit of a problem. The press asked me if I felt that our success or failure was dependent upon Scott Brown and I said that it was dependent on lots of things, like all the other players. It seems that this has gone down very badly with Scott. This, allied to the fact that we just battered Red Star Belgrade, allied to the fact that it’s St Johnstone at home, is why I’m going to keep the same team and leave him on the bench. We’ll have Nir Bitton as a deep lying playmaker and hopefully we can put down this St Johnstone challenge nice and quickly. But there is a danger here. We have FOUR injured centre-backs, so we have to go with the kids, Eoghan O’Connell and Jamie McCourt. But they seem like good kids. And it is only St Johnstone.
Get to the bunker. Don’t look back, just get to the bunker. I had it built when I took over. There’s food down there, water, cigarettes, the drinks globe. Come on, before it’s too late. You can hear that booing, can’t you? You can hear that fury? If they get past security, there will be no escape. Get to the bunker.
It was all going so well. We seemed comfortable. Moussa Dembele had run through the defence, only to slip the ball just wide. Scott Sinclair had rattled the crossbar with a free-kick. And then they scored. It came from nowhere. Graham Cummins lost O’Connell in the box and touched home from close range. 0-1. And then it got worse. Much worse. They were awarded what appeared to be a very dubious penalty. And they scored it. 0-2. I got them in at half time and I told them they were unlucky. And they were. St Johnstone had only had two shots and they’d scored them both. The lads looked reassured, more confident. And then it got worse. Much, much, much worse. Eight minutes after the restart, Craig Gordon let a routine shot straight through his hands. 0-3.
I made changes. I changed everything I could. I put Brown on, I put James Forrest on, I put David Carmona on. We started to go more direct. And it worked. We scored. 1-3. But we couldn’t get a second. I switched to attacking and then to overload, I forced players up the park. But every time we had a cross, it went behind the goal. Every time we had a corner, it was easily defended. Shots were wild, passing was awry. We’d gone to pieces. And then St Johnstone scored again. 1-4. So get to the bunker. Quickly. And bring the scotch.
ALEX: I can hear the crowing from the other side of Glasgow as Celtic secure a decent result against Red Star Belgrade to progess to the Champions League play-off. You’d think they invented football. I have more prosaic concerns, of course, beginning with Aberdeen in the league.
Given that Iain is managing Celtic, I’m viewing the Dons as my most likely title challengers, so the journey north to Pittodrie will be a good test of where my side are at. I’m respectful of the opposition, so I tweak my line-up, dropping my attacking midfielder to a deeper role, where Poyet comes in to patrol in front of the back four and mark James Maddison.
Rossiter and Barton play in front of him, and Macheda retains his starting spot up front. This focus on solidity is also partly because in defence, suspensions to Danny Wilson and Ross McCrorie mean that Clint ‘over the’ Hill is on the bench, with Rob Kiernan and Senderos picked at centre back. It’s hardly ideal and, annoyingly, I can’t even find out what awful behaviour prompted my best defender to be sidelined.
We start with counter mode on, cagey and sensibly only pushing forward on the break. It quickly pays off as Tavernier wallops in a direct free-kick to send the travelling fans into raptures. McKay adds a second after Tavernier’s fine overlapping run and low, cut back cross finds the winger in space. We are 2-0 up and I send Iain a triumphal message. Like any good tragedy, though, hubris brings about a swift downfall. Aberdeen proceed to score four unanswered goals from their nine shots on target and five clear cut chances. I throw on Hill and Halliday but it makes no difference.
I also send for Dodoo, but to no avail. It’s woeful. 4-2. Iain would probably pen some moving paean to crippling, existential doubt right now, but I’m going to think with my head rather than the heart. I look at the numbers. Aberdeen have played 12 games, six of them competitive Europa League qualifiers. I have played four cup games against minnow opposition and one friendly. By the end of the game, most of my team are showing a condition rate of around 60%. We started well and tired quickly, and Aberdeen – already fully match fit – ripped us apart after the 60 minute mark.
Yes, it’s bad, but it’s also easily explained. We are currently weak towards the end of games because of a curtailed pre-season. I breathe a sigh of relief. I can work with that.
I notice, however, that Iain is far from sanguine. He too has guided his side to a first week defeat, but 4-1 at home to St Johnstone. Relief quickly turns to schadenfreude.
IAIN: That was so bad that I’m not even remotely cheered up by the news that Alex has lost to Aberdeen. I’ve got my own problems. I’m trying to keep it in perspective, but it’s hard. We were on top, a few things went wrong, it snowballed. It happens. But it always fucking happens to me. Everything was fine. We were cruising through the Champions League. Scoring goals for fun. Now it’s not fun anymore. We have Alloa at home in the Betfred Cup and I have made sweeping changes. But the area I need to change most is the area that I can’t change at all. O’Connell and McCourt are still my only centre-backs. It’s fucking Alloa at home and I’m scared.
That was distinctly uncomfortable. For multiple reasons. First, that we started appallingly, looking genuinely terrified on the ball. Alloa wasted a one-on-one, bounced a header off the bar and held out easily against our attack until the 40th minute when Scott Sinclair finally scored. After that, we seemed to calm down a bit. At least until three minutes after the break when Scott Brown was sent off again. He’s played four games and he’s been sent off in two of them. I’m not even angry. Angry isn’t cutting it. I am several levels beyond angry, somewhere north of incandescent. I’m utterly dumbstruck. I cannot believe that he’s done it again.
Fortunately, we’ve had a bit of practice at playing with ten men. We lock everything down and see it off. 1-0. But it’s hardly the morale boosting victory I wanted. Later, I tell Brown that his conduct is disgraceful and that he’s letting the club down. I wait for him to punch me in the face, but it turns out that he feels much the same way, so that’s nice.
ALEX: Next up for Rangers is St. Mirren away, in the second round of the Betfred Cup. Or warm-up football as I now see it. St. Mirren string five across the midfield, clearly terrified of a side that mustered only four shots on target against Aberdeen.
Jason Holt comes in as I push a midfielder forward again, my 4-1-2-3 becoming a control-based 4-2-3-1. Rossiter and Poyet are my midfield axis and, fortunately, I can recall Wilson and bring Ross McCrorie onto the bench to keep his brother Robby company. Lee Wallace and James Tavernier, my most consistent performers, retain their places at full back, and Macheda again starts up front.
Now this is football. I am not sure I’ve ever encountered a game more drab, more lacking in anything even faintly resembling attacking intent or joie de vivre. St. Mirren seem intent of stifling the life out of the game and manage only six shots, three of which require saves from Foderingham. By contrast, we hit the target with three of 14 attempts – I’m actually not sure which is worse.
A Dodoo scuffed effort, the youngster having appeared from the bench, is enough to secure the dourest of 1-0 wins. I’m tempted to say it sums up everything I had feared about Scottish football, but slating my own side hardly seems like good strategy, so I tell the chaps I’m pleased. I’m not, really, especially after I see that Iain has guided his Bhoys past Alloa in what I’m betting was an equally scintillating spectacle.
IAIN: So let’s assess the situation. My goalkeeper is throwing the ball into his own net, my only two centre-backs are exhausted, inexperienced and traumatised, my captain has been sent off twice in his last two starts, my wingers are no longer as effective as they used to be and my striker is firing blanks. I can’t really make any changes of note because seven first teamers are injured. And I’m alone in the Sunderland Travelodge. With no booze.
I’ve had to promote Lewis Bell to the first team squad because the boys at the back are so tired that they might not last 90 minutes. He’s 17. But that’s the least of my problems. I still don’t understand how the Gargh formation can be so effective against Red Star Belgrade and so horribly flawed against Kilmarnock. The standard 4-4-1-1 is okay, but it doesn’t exactly overwhelm teams. And I need to overwhelm teams. If I don’t get ahead here nice and early, I’ll be in trouble. We haven’t got the legs for this.
Well, it’s nice to have a clean sheet. The young lads deserve great credit for that. We had to fight for it though. Having predictably failed to make an early breakthrough much of the second half was played in defensive mode after Dundee had two big chances and I nearly soiled the carpet of the Sunderland Travelodge.
Strangely, we were much more threatening in defensive mode. Scott Sinclair bounced another free kick off the crossbar and Patrick Roberts, unmarked and six yards out, somehow blasted the ball straight into the goalkeeper. It ends 0-0. Only I could make a 0-0 draw at Dundee seem, on balance, like a decent result. We’ve got Rosenborg next. I really hope we have some defenders fit by then. I feel a bit queasy.
The good news is that we’ve got a nice, easy draw in the Betfred Cup quarter-final. St Johnstone at home. Again.
ALEX: Finally it’s time for our first proper game at Ibrox as we host Partick Thistle in the Scottish Premiership. While the defence played well in the last game, with plus-sevens across the board, my midfielders are still finding their feet.
Joe Dodoo has consistently done well off the bench, though, scoring three, so I want to find room for him. I leave the team set up as a 4-2-3-1, moving McKay off the wing into a central attacking role with licence to potter about and try to ‘make things happen’, or a trequartista as people who know more about the internet than actual football call it. Dodoo slots in on the wing. Partick are matching my 4-2-3-1 and largely play through the middle, so I’m hoping that my full-backs and wide men see plenty of the ball.
That was more like it. As I sit back and ponder Iain, alone in a Travelodge in Sunderland dealing with a dour 0-0 with Dundee, I can afford to feel a little smug. A Macheda goal from a Dodoo assist after a lovely, sweeping move vindicates my changes. A Senderos bullet header from a Tavernier free kick puts us 2-0 up. Wilson is then injured, rather upsettingly, but that gives me a chance to bring on some youth, with Ross McCrorie making a debut.
McKay is stuttering in his unfamiliar, central role, and so I throw on Jason Holt who soon finds the net. Azeez pulls back one for the visitors to make it 3-1, before Macheda completes his brace for a comfortable 4-1 win.
We create 13 shots, 11 of which are on target, despite ceding the majority of possession (just) to Partick. I’m a little concerned that our passing still seems wayward and that most of the team are still a long way short of match fit, but two wins on the bounce and fifth in the league seem like a steady point of departure for the rest of the season, especially with my opposite number already blaming fate for his ill fortune.
Mind games? Who needs them?
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).