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…
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.
IAIN: I have a simple theory about qualifying for the Champions League knock-out round. Don’t worry about the brilliant team (Atletico Madrid), thrash the crap team (Basel) and just make sure you do better than the other halfway competent team (CSKA Moscow). Now it’s time to test it out.
Diego Simeone’s lot battered us, the curiously underwhelming Swiss were easily put to the sword at Parkhead and now we’ve got the double header with the Russians. Having rested a few players for the draw with Hearts, we’re back to full strength, playing our compact, counter-attacking way. We’re in good shape. For once.
Is it possible to have a good, encouraging defeat? It shouldn’t be really, but this is as close as you can get. A nightmarish first 20 minutes threatens to overwhelm us immediately, but I’m proud of the way we refuse to piss our pants. Roman Eremenko opens the scoring in fortuitous fashion after 12 minutes when his shot cannons off the ribs of Erik Sviatchenko and past Craig Gordon. Then referee Mark Clattenburg awards a ridiculous penalty that Bibras Natkho calmly converts.
But instead of folding, we just carry on doing what we do. James Forrest makes one for Leigh Griffiths, we threaten to equalise and then with thudding inevitability, Lacina Traore heads CSKA into a 3-1 lead. Still we stand tall. Moussa Dembele pulls one back before the end and we go close through Scott Sinclair. But this is not our day. We lose 2-3. But I’m still proud of them.
After two games without a win, a chance to restore some confidence in the Betf…BetBright Cup against second flight Hibernian. We lost Callum McGregor in Russia, so it’s a chance for Tom Rogic to prove that he’s as good as his attributes suggest. Hibs deploy a curious Christmas tree formation, so I’m not sure how this will work out. Having put out strong line-ups throughout this competition, it would certainly be very embarrassing to slip up now.
No slip-up here. But not a hugely convincing result either. Leigh Griffiths puts us ahead after 26 seconds, with a goal that is fast becoming a trademark move. With so much emphasis given to the flanks, their exploitation and the delivery of quick, low crosses, we seem to score at least one goal a game that is sourced from out wide, in this case from attacking full-back Kieran Tierney, and prodded home from close range.
I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the way we throttled back after taking the lead. Just one more goal would do wonders for my blood pressure, but they refuse to oblige. Complacency, according to my coaches at least, has set in. At full-time, I deliver a bollocking of Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen proportions.
ALEX: Pressure? What pressure? Well, actually, an awful lot. Imagine the entire mass of ice found in Antarctica bearing down on your sternum, and you might have some idea of how I feel right now.
Ross County at home is eminently winnable…normally. Unfortunately, Rangers are not currently operating within the parameters of ‘normal’. I’m in a foxhole, shells of Twitter shade exploding around me, wiping the spray of online bile from my eyes. Iain’s chirpy too, which never helps.
This management lark is tough. Watch our post-match interviews here via @BetBright : https://t.co/RAjeZpTV88 pic.twitter.com/JO0Ftrwg5s
— Alex Stewart (@AFHStewart) January 17, 2017
@AFHStewart @FM17Project @BetBright No one to blame but yourself Stewart, I heard you've lost the dressing room. Third door on left.
— Adam L (@chairlord) January 18, 2017
What does a manager do when the chips are down? I go to the tactics cupboard. I turn the key. The door creaks open. And there it is, a little worn, a touch dusty, unloved and overlooked: 4-4-fucking-2.
Of course, this being Rangers and this being me, it’s not an entirely straightforward 4-4-2. I’ve developed a tactic that apes Diego Simeone’s style at Atlético Madrid with a defensive mentality because we clearly need to keep it tight at the back. I use a moderate press, a wide playmaker on the left (for Koke, read Josh Windass), a deep lying playmaker and box-to-box midfielder, while my full-backs have licence to push up.
The aim is to win the ball back and break quickly, exploiting the flanks, and relying on the skills of McKay, Garner, and Macheda to carve out chances while the rest of the team keep their two banks of four. It’s Cholismo, Rangers-style. And it might just work.
The team doesn’t need much of a re-jig, despite the tactical change, with Senderos, Kiernan, and Wallace keeping their places, and the injured Tavernier replaced by Lee Hodson. The midfield four is Windass, a right-footed inside forward who I am retraining as a playmaker, Poyet, Rossiter, and McKay, while Garner and Macheda start up front. Danny Wilson stays fit long enough to make the bench.
Crucially, I also drop McCrorie 1 and reinstall Foderingham in goal. It goes against my desire to blood the youth, but he’s made too many errors and we need reliability in goal, not progress. And we need to win. It’s that simple.
I cannot lie, that was so tense. It was so tense that, if I were Iain, I would come up with some sort of clever simile to describe just how tense it was. But I’m so spent that I don’t have the capacity to do much more than dab down my brow and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
We defended beautifully, keeping our shape and intercepting as often as Ross County were able to get to within thirty yards of our goal. But the attacking play was all too often predictably one-paced, and it took a moment of brilliance from Joe Garner, latching onto a Joe Dodoo flick, to grab a win that had threatened to elude us. My relief is palpable, so much so that even Iain is moved to congratulate me. “See how good that feels?” he says, not even a bit smug. “£19m in wages,” I respond. He just shrugs.
IAIN: As the first lap of the Scottish Premiership comes to an end, we have two games against two considerably weaker opponents and I want to make up for lost time. Kris Ajer, or AJ, as I prefer to style him now, can have a run in the team with the increasingly wonderful Chopper Brown, who hasn’t even been booked since I moved him to a more advanced position. That’s a formidable pairing. I’ve resisted the urge to rotate players too for our trip to Hamilton. We should be clear at the top, not meekly nosing ahead. I want points.
That’s more like it. That’s much more like it. We do exactly what we should to Hamilton; we obliterate them. The only bad news is that we lose Scott Sinclair, our top performer this season, for two months. That’s really taken the gloss off things.
Kris Commons comes on for his first appearance of my reign and scores, but then everyone scores. I’m particularly pleased with Ryan Christie, who hasn’t had many chances and makes the most of his 24 minutes here, scoring one and making two. But let’s not get too excited. It’s Hamilton. This is only what is supposed to happen.
ALEX: Next up, we travel to league leaders (by what voodoo, none of us can quite fathom) St. Johnstone. I am pretty much already planning my post-match concession. The Perth-based team seem impossibly strong and, even though the vanquished Ross County beat them, I can’t help but feel pessimistic.
Before the game, I also have another issue to deal with: bloody Harry Forrester. Forrester, a young-ish English inside forward, has been stagnating on the fringes of the first team squad since the season’s beginning, offering little to any of the (how many?) formations I’ve so far used.
It turns out he’s been hunkering down with Joey in haters’ corner and demands some first team football or he’ll do a Payet. I tell him that I’d be fine with that and he glowers. End of, I think. But it transpires Harry is surprisingly popular with the lads in the dressing room and almost the entire first team squad is furious with me. We’ve just won our first game in what feels like forever and now I must deal with a player revolt. Life really is not fair.
And so, given that I’ve more or less consigned this game to the ‘L’ column, I think ‘why not?’. I drop the unfortunate Windass and stick an unfit Forrester straight into the first team. Take that, you insurgent prick, and do your worst.
“Take me by the hand and say, ‘Harry of England, I am thine…’” Ok, this is Henry V talking to soon-to-be Queen Catherine in the famous play, but it could have been my very own Forrester, wooing me with a performance of pure brilliance. And I would, you know.
After a man-of-the-match showing, which includes a superb goal, constant pressing, tactical discipline, and basically just being amazing, I’d do pretty much anything Harry asked of me, within the realms of basic decency. Macheda also scores a lovely, looping header; Hodson, Wallace, and even Senderos play brilliantly at the back; and Foderingham makes a fine stop with the score at 1-0.
The goal we concede is freakish too, with a St. Johnstone shot cannoning off Kiernan’s back and directly into the path of Liam Craig, who would have been offside but for the unluckiest of breaks. It’s not enough for the Saints, though, and we hold on.
Two wins on the bounce and we shoot up the table, only three points off second place and with a home tie against Aberdeen up next. It’s a chance to leapfrog the Dons and make a spot in the top three our own. The formation and system are working, Wilson is coming back from injury, Senderos is a titan, and it turns out I had a Koke in my squad all along. “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…” Rangers are coming for you, Iain.
IAIN: With Sinclair up on bricks, there’s a chance for Patrick Roberts to work his way back into the team against Kilmarnock. I’m also keen to keep Moussa Dembele involved, despite Griffiths’ prodigious scoring rate, so he gets a start too. AJ moves to the anchor man role because Nir Bitton is exhausted, but again, I want to keep these changes to a minimum. We’ve only just found our groove, there’s no point losing it again by over-thinking things.
Alex’s struggles at Ibrox have really helped, but it would be foolish to think that Rangers are going to be in the bottom half for much longer. He’s too good at this and his return to conventional tactics might just be the catalyst for a sudden revival. We dropped too many points early in the season to get the cigars out in November.
It has been a long time since I was able to enjoy a game of Football Manager, and I’m not there yet, but I’m certainly not sweating through shirts and chewing my fist every time I play a match now. This was as comfortable as it gets. They had just two chances, neither of which caused undue concern.
We scored early through Dembele (broke down the flank, cut the ball back for a close range finish – trademark) and added a second with a Brown thunderbolt, which sounds upsettingly like a euphemism for soiling yourself.
A third goal, a second from Dembele, gave the scoreline some shine, but it was like a testimonial by that point. The Sunderland Travelodge seems a long way away now. We are, thanks to Alex’s fine work against early pace setters St Johnstone, four points clear at the top.
Tonight, we will determine our European future. If we beat CSKA Moscow by more than one goal, or just win 1-0 or 2-1, we’ll have the head-to-head edge as we battle for second place. Anything less will mean that we’ll probably need to beat Atletico Madrid to have a chance of progressing. And I know that we’ve improved recently, but that might be pushing it.
We go back to full strength, with the exception of Roberts in place of Sinclair, and we can only hope that the improvement in the league is replicated in Europe. This seems unlikely, given that CSKA are CSKA and not Hamilton, but I like to be optimistic at all times. There’s a good mood around the club. I’ve won the Manager of the Month award again. Chopper Brown has won the Player of the Month award. These are good times. It would be nice if they could continue.
The Europa League is a good competition, isn’t it? Lots of interesting teams and it gets pretty exciting in the knock-out stage. Plus, there’s a semi-realistic chance of success. Not like the Champions League where it’s only a matter of time before you end up in the path of a cash-bloated behemoth like Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. Yep, that’s where we want to be.
And that’s where we were headed when Zoran Tosic strode through our midfield and lashed one into the bottom corner, cancelling out James Forrest’s early header. But there’s something about this lot now. A swagger, perhaps. A softly glowing inner belief. They just kept going. And then in the 90th minute, substitute Moussa Dembele found a little space in the box and cracked home the winner. And my nipples have never been this hard. It’s in our hands now.
After a result like that, the iron feels hot enough to strike. I march into the boardroom and tell the directors that I want everyone at the club to know that I’m going to be here for a very long time. That this is the way we’re going to do things. That we’re going to play fast, attacking football, that we’re going to promote our own, that we’re going to scour Scotland for talent before we splurge our money on mercenaries from overseas. To my surprise, they agree. A three-year contract is thrust in front of me and I cannot put ink to paper quickly enough. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here.
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).