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; Episode 17; Matt enlists the help of Alex McLeish; Episode 18; Pentagon Challenge; Episode 19; How To Play Like Brazil in FM17; Episode 20; Episode 21; How To Play Like Roma 00/01 In FM17; Episode 22; Episode 23.
Think you’re good at FM17? Join us for the BetBright FM17 Cup to be in with a chance of winning £5,000. Look out for the launch of The Challenge on Thursday.
IAIN: I’ve won the League. I’ve won the Betfr…BetBright Cup and I’m in the final of the Scottish Cup. There’s not much left for me to do. Except to rub Matt’s face in his own vomit.
I’ve been telling him that I’ll play the kids for this game in order to rest the tired legs of my stars for the cup final, but I’ve got absolutely no intention of doing that whatsoever. I’ve intensified training, I’ve given them two whole days of set-piece practice. I will start by counter-attacking, as I always do, seeking to pummel him if he dares cross the halfway line, but I will not hesitate to advance if I sense weakness in their ranks.
This season isn’t over yet. He must pay the iron price for what he has done. I can’t remember precisely what it is that he has done, but it must have been bad for me to feel these feelings. Tonight, we dine on his blood.
MATT: I haven’t won the league. I haven’t won the Betfr…BetBright Cup and I lost on penalties to St Mirren in the Scottish Cup. There’s not much left for me to do. Except to have my face rubbed in my own vomit by Iain with thousands of people watching.
We’re playing Celtic in their own backyard, the home of the runaway Scottish Premiership champions, so an element of caution is required. It didn’t work last time, but I still believe sitting back, soaking up the pressure and trying to counter down the flanks is our best hope of success. Our best hope of beating…him.
I know exactly how Iain will line up. He’s as predictable as a wayward Federico Macheda shot, a Rob Kiernan mistimed tackle, a loose pass by James Tavernier, a…you get the picture. We’ll switch to 4-4-1-1, hoping to draw his deep-lying midfielder forward, then lob balls over the top for Martyn Waghorn to do his thing. I don’t what his ‘thing’ is exactly, but it’s time for him to get his freak on.
Barrie McKay starts on the right, while on the other wing it’s the Forrester v Forrest derby. That’s the real battle here.
Celtic 4 – 0 Rangers
IAIN: And that should be the end of Matt Stanger in Glasgow. It took just under 40 minutes to batter his team senseless and l’m only slightly disappointed that we didn’t add more after the break. Perhaps my players felt sorry for him. It is to their eternal shame if this was the case. Perhaps I shall have to find more ruthless agents of destruction to carry out my will. In four Old Firm derbies, we have won three and drawn one. I’m still a bit upset about the draw.
MATT: Well, we can’t be too disappointed about that, can we? By my reckoning we had more shots in the second half as we really took the game to a Celtic side that had retreated to the edge of their own box. The unbeatable Champions? Pah!
Granted, we were 4-0 down by that stage, which isn’t the ideal start in any game of football, let alone the Old Firm derby. But I wanted to do something special here. Something no one had ever done before. Imagine, after giving Celtic such an insurmountable lead, that we had then fought back to win 5-4. Barcelona’s comeback against PSG? Instantly forgotten. Liverpool v AC Milan in 2005? Don’t care mate. Where were you when Matt Stanger’s Rangers tore Celtic apart in front of their own fans at Parkhead? That would have been something special. Yes, it might not have happened, but that isn’t the point.
ALEX: And so, it all comes down to this. Ayr, away, and only a win will do. Let’s not beat about the bush here: I was handed a shit sandwich with this gig, and no amount of mayonnaise will make it any more palatable (and by mayonnaise, I mean being employed again after the fiasco at the club which we will not name).
Strangely, I don’t feel any tension heading into this game. When no one expects anything of you, nothing matters. Not to get existential about stuff, but I’ve peered into the abyss, and Martyn Waghorn has peered back at me, and so a relegation must-win against Ayr in the Championship has a slightly lighter feel to it.
Nonetheless, I want the win. Of course I do. My FM ego has taken a bit of battering and, although the odds were stacked against me from the beginning (what with the rickety squad, the failure to win, ever, and the hideously low points tally), I still feel that we can turn it around. I pick the same side, because there’s no one else.
Ayr 1 – 0 Dumbarton
Can you hear that? That faint, tinny sound, at once hysterical and horrific? That’s me, laughing. Laughing and trying not to cry. Because you know what? It was one shitty penalty, ten seconds before the end of the first half, that condemned us. A 1-0 loss that sent us straight down in a game that promised little and delivered less in terms of quality, but that held out the clammy, withered hand of hope right until the end.
I started with the 4-4-1-1 but, after conceding, went first to a 4-2-3-1, then a 4-2-4, then a 4-2-4 on overload. And nothing happened. It’s like that when you’re down. This game put me on the floor with a sucker punch to the back of the head and then danced on my face like Michael Flatley. With little pointy shoes on. And a massive grin. Where’s Frodo when you need him?
Whatever. I’m going to continue this. Dumbarton will be in League One. Half if not more of the squad will leave. But we will come again. I want promotion. I want wins. I want to feel like I can look myself in the mirror again. I want to see how catenaccio fares in the depths of Scottish football. I’m going to do this in my own time and I’m going to do it for me. And Millie, of course. She never lost the faith.
IAIN: Onwards then to St Johnstone who, as I will never forget, pumped me good and proper at Parkhead on the first day of the season. I’ll always respect them for that. But I still want the win. Not so much for the league, long since won, but to maintain morale ahead of that cup final. No changes. Let’s plough on.
Celtic 2 – 1 St Johnstone
A gentler performance than last time out, and a little slack towards the end, but three more points pocketed nonetheless. The important thing is that we didn’t pick up any injuries. If we can just get to the cup final unscathed, that would be lovely.
MATT: I don’t really want to play anymore, but Iain says it’s my forfeit for losing 4-0 to Celtic. I’ve already had to run around the office in my pants and do a knock-a-door-run on Graeme Murty’s house, so I’m beginning to wonder how long this will go on for.
League runners-up Aberdeen are just the team you want to face after being hammered in the Old Firm derby. A nice, easy fixture against a side that has remained unbeaten against the champions. We’ll mix it up a bit for this one. During the week I discover that Jason Holt is quite handy in a shadow striker role and, in the slim chance I hold onto my job, it could be worth giving that a go in preparation for next season.
Rangers 1 – 1 Aberdeen
Sometimes I wonder if I’m playing this game correctly. We make a bright start and, on 23 minutes, Holt slips between two Aberdeen defenders to open the scoring. If only I’d experimented with him as a shadow striker earlier in the season. If only I hadn’t persisted with my terrible tactics and hopeless team selections. If only I hadn’t lost all those matches. If only Alex hadn’t been sacked so I didn’t have to save another FM17 Project from prematurely going south. Yes, that feels better. Blame Alex.
Blame Iain, in fact. Were it not for his miserable spell in charge of Everton, we’d still be playing that save now, watching them languish in mid-table, Bill Kenwright wandering into Iain’s virtual office, seeing him hunched over his desk, head in hands, sobbing, doubting himself, Kenwright placing a calm hand on Iain’s shoulder, “Iain, are you okay?”, no, no he’s not okay, he’s the one struggling now, there is no Smugintosh in this reality, he’s plain old Iain Failintosh, but what’s this?, he stands up and turns to face Kenwright, “Thank you, Bill. You’ve always been there for me”, “I believe in you, Iain”, Iain lifts his hand to the back of Kenwright’s neck, gently pulling him closer. And this is why fanfiction is a bad thing.
IAIN: I spoke too soon. Ahead of the final game of the season, we lose goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic. This is bad. Craig Gordon is only just coming back from five months out and is 35% match fit, which means that he barely knows what sport he’s playing. Ross Doohan is a real talent and has proved himself in a couple of first class games for me, but he’s still ever so young.
Given that I have nothing to lose whatsoever, I give them both a half each. And given that the cup final is only a week away, I drop almost every single first team player and replace them with their back-up options. And given that Rangers can still overtake Motherwell in the unlikely event that they beat Hearts, the prospect of losing this game carries its own consolatory incentive. I will sleep perfectly well tonight, I assure you.
Motherwell 1 – 1 Celtic
It took until the 87th minute to rescue a draw and I’m quite surprised by that as the reserves played exceptionally well in most cases. We went behind to a penalty, but drew level at the end thanks to Julian Green, who finally offered some evidence that I haven’t been sold a complete pup. It’s a slight shame not to end the season with a win, but I don’t really care. Both keepers played well, there are no new injuries and we stand just 90 minutes from the treble. I’ve been in tighter spots.
MATT: And so to the last game of this wretched season. It’s Hearts at home, and I’m still so disturbed by my Macintosh/Kenwright fantasy that I have nothing else to say.
Rangers 1 – 1 Hearts
The more things change, the more they stay the same. We take the lead again, which is surprising given our miserable form, but are pegged back just five minutes later. Had we won today, and Motherwell lost to Celtic, then we’d have snatched fourth place and a spot in Europe. We would finally have had something to show for this mess other than mine and Alex’s scrambled brains and shattered reputations.
Iain and Alex say they want to continue. To carve up this beast and retreat to their lairs, feasting on rotting entrails. I don’t intend to watch. The smell isn’t so bad, but the view’s offal. Did I actually write that? Yes. Yes I did. I’ve written a lot of things, said a lot of things. And that is why this must end here.
IAIN: My cup final preparations take a hit when Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele both tell me that they want to leave and play at a higher level. I try to reassure them that this will be a higher level before long, but they don’t believe me and to be honest, I wouldn’t respect them if they did. Happily, my decision to let them go in the summer means that they both go into this final in high spirits.
Or at least, Dembele goes into this final in higher spirits. Sinclair gets a head injury and, despite my best efforts, can’t play. In a choice between Gordon and Doohan, I side with experience and the knowledge that this may be Gordon’s last chance to play in a cup final. Aside from that, it’s an entirely predictable team in an entirely predictable shape because I like winning much, much more than I like surprises.
Celtic 3 – 0 Aberdeen
It’s a procession. A glorious procession. James Forrest hits home a snapshot after three minutes and Aberdeen crumple. They go down to ten men after half time and goals from Dembele and the new Dembele, Jason Cummings, give the scoreline the gloss it deserves.
That’s the treble and that, aligned with the cruelest of near misses in the Champions League group stages and a last eight exit in the Europa League, makes this a very successful season for Celtic. We’ve pulled in piles of prize money, we’ve been given £16m to spend over the summer and we’ll probably make double that selling wantaway players. I’ve got rising talent in the U20s, who exited the U19 Champions League in the semi-finals, and I’ve won the mandate I needed to push on and restructure the squad accordingly.
I’m going to spend a week on the beach (20 minutes in the bath), I’m going to spend some time with my family (I can never tell my wife how much time I spend on this) and I’m going to come back next year (next week) and do it all over again, but better (fail to replace Dembele and quit in frustration by October). Thank you for all of your comments and advice and abuse. Whether you’ve been positive or negative, you have been instrumental in motivating me towards this success and if just one of you says, “Yeah, but it’s only Scotland,” I’ll have you buckwheated. Everton? Pah! That’s all in the past.
We’ve come to the end of the Celtic v Rangers challenge…at least as a head-to-head battle. Iain and Alex intend to keep on playing having split the save. We don’t know about Matt; he’s locked himself in the bathroom. Look out for a new FM17 Project challenge starting soon.
Oh, and if you know you can do better, then join us for the BetBright FM17 Cup. We’re hosting a UK-wide tournament in April and want you to take part. There’s £5,000 on the table for the winner.
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).