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.
IAIN: Back into Europe we go, the games coming in torrents, my players earning selection by virtue of being the only eleven people at the club who can get out of a chair without groaning. It’s Florence. It’s the Europa League and it’s a chance for this star-studded side to make history with a famous victory. Or, alternatively, a chance for Celtic to progress to the next round.
Fiorentina 1 – 3 Celtic
Okay, I have no idea what’s happening now. We bag our all important away goal after just 12 minutes through Dembele and, just as the commentators are outlining the simple fact that Fiorentina have to score three to progress, we score a second. There are 68 minutes left and that’s pretty much game over. It’s absolutely game over when Dembele adds a third. We’re not even watching when Fiorentina score their consolation goal, we’re up at the bar getting the drinks in. The next day, we avoid all the English clubs in the draw and land Villarreal in the last eight. That could have been a lot worse.
ALEX: The day has finally arrived. When Dumbarton, semi-professional Dumbarton, anchored to the bottom of the Scottish Championship Dumbarton, offer me a job at £500 a week, I leap at it with the ferocity and lack of shame that only a starving hyena could match.
The issues with Dumbarton are legion. The squad is pretty terrible and we (how wonderful it is to be able to say that again) are the only semi-pro side in the league. We have a paltry 19 points and a quick glance at the recent fixtures shows nothing less than systematic failure of an almost unprecedented scale. I also have three days to ready the team for an away trip to Dunfermline, who are higher than us because everyone is higher than us. It’s a hell of an ask to avoid automatic relegation, but that’s my target.
Having assessed the squad and knowing how easy it is to screw things up with over-complication, I settle for a 4-4-1-1, with a target man and a shadow striker just behind him. The midfield has two wingers on support, a central midfielder on defend, and an attacking playmaker on attack to get up and support the front two. I hand a debut to 16-year-old prospect Stuart O’Keefe in the AP(A) role because there’s nothing like a relegation dogfight away to blood teenagers right?
Tony Parratt, who the stats tell me is my only reliable player, is at right-back, with Alan Martin, who I vaguely remember from Leeds saves aeons ago, in goal. I have just enough time to set up some training, plan some corner routines, and get to know Sophia, my new Press Officer (who Millie definitely, definitely doesn’t like – might have to keep an eye on that), before we board the rickety-looking team minibus and head off to Dunfermline.
Dunfermline 1 – 1 Dumbarton
Well, I’ll tell you what – it’s good to be back. Yes, we conceded an 89th minute equaliser to an own goal having played very well away with a new formation, because obviously (did I mention, I hate this game), but the feel of being back in the manager’s box, pacing the side-lines, snarling at decisions and feeling every kick, every tackle, every stupid own goal, is blissful.
I don’t care that we drew. I don’t care that we threw away two points because one of my defenders made Rob Kiernan look adept with his shanked clearance. I don’t even care that we now have only six games in which to clamber above Ayr to the relative safety of a relegation play-off (I think anything else is ludicrously ambitious and perhaps even mathematically impossible). I don’t care because I’m back where I belong. I now understand why players say they love their clubs. I love Dumbarton. I fucking love them. I’ve never loved anyone more. Now, if I could just get them to pass and shoot a bit better…but hey, I’m here for the challenge. And Dumbarton are certainly that.
MATT: After losing four matches in a row, I’m approaching our trip to Inverness Caledonian Thistle with all the excitement and good humour of a death row inmate. The only difference is that a death row inmate gets to pick his last meal, while all that’s left in the Rangers training ground canteen is some cold mashed potato and a few slices of bread and butter. Armed with a mashed potato sandwich, I board the club coach bound for the Highlands and listen to the players whispering about me in the seats behind.
With the injuries piling up, I’m bringing back Martyn Waghorn for this match. He’s been injured pretty much all season, but his attributes are encouraging and he should do a job on the left side of our trusted 4-1-4-1 formation. Listen to me, still trying to sound like I have any control over this. There’s also a surprise return for Kenny Miller on the bench, because at this stage, why the hell not? I am perilously close to selecting the club mascot and ensuring no one ever asks me to be a football manager ever again.
Inverness Caley Thistle 2 – 2 Rangers
When I was six years old, we went to visit my mother’s friend and her family in the Easter holidays. I remember walking along the beach, collecting stones and shells with another boy of the same age, until a large wave crashed onto the shore, knocking him over so that he dropped all his little treasures. Trying to cheer him up, I offered to share mine, but kept the one stone that was most precious to me hidden behind my back, tightly squeezed in the palm of my hand. “What do you have there?” asked mother. “Nothing,” I hesitated. “If you’re going to offer to share, you have to share them all,” she replied. And you can guess which stone that little prick chose to take, can’t you. “It’s not fair,” I complained to mother, to which she said: “Life isn’t fair.” I am reminded of that story, of those three familiar words, after our 2-2 draw at Inverness.
IAIN: But for all this European fun, I’d really like to get the league sorted out before the 33rd game split that breaks the league into two for the final five fixtures. We’ve been seven points clear for ages. When we slip up, so do Aberdeen. Annoyingly, they win when we win as well. Seven points isn’t enough, especially the way these fixtures are coming at us. But if we can get a win against Hearts, the sudden appearance of a ten-point gap might be the mental barrier we need to knock Aberdeen out of their stride. We’re tired, we’re hurting, we’re riddled with injuries and suspensions. But we just need this one win.
Celtic 1 – 1 Hearts
I want to take this opportunity to apologise. I have to apologise to Matt. He’s been through a lot himself this season and he didn’t need to see this. I have to apologise to the people in the office of Totally Communications, who provide a home to The Set Pieces and must wonder why at times like this. I also have to apologise to my wife, who gave me a look when I bought this new laptop to replace my perfectly functional old laptop, and then an even stronger look when I said that my purchase was driven purely by my desire to load more leagues on Football Manager.
I am sorry to all of you. I should have not screamed, “**** in the ****, Connor Sammon, you ****ing **** of *****,” and I should not have *literally* flipped my laptop over in rage and I should not have stormed out and I should not have painted those words on the wall in reception in handfuls of my own shit. I should be better than that. I am not. Oh, I am not.
ALEX: Oh, the sweet release of actually managing again. I have things to do. I send Millie out for croissants and dust off my address book. We need staff. I hire John Docherty as an Assistant Manager because a) we don’t have one and b) we need someone who can judge the players and do a bit of goalkeeping coaching.
We’ve got very little time before the next fixture, and so I stick the lads on a team cohesion training regime and attacking set-pieces as a match training. We’ve got a good corner routine and they’re always a good way of scratching out the odd goal when everything else is falling apart. We’ve not won in 12 games, although the fans were delighted with the 1-1 draw away to Dunfermline, which should give you an idea of the levels of expectation.
Next up are third place Falkirk, who boast FM legend Mark Kerr (still) in their midfield. We retain our 4-4-1-1, which functioned pretty creditably against Dunfermline, and start off with a counter-attacking mentality because, although we’re at home, we are quite, quite bad at football. The only change sees Barr come in for the suspended Docherty at left-back, which is not great, as Barr is a left-footed centre-back and can’t play left-back. At all.
Dumbarton 2 – 2 Falkirk
Goodness me, that was a hard won point. We go 2-0 down, the second particularly upsetting after Barr plays a stupid clearance right to the centre of the box, from which Falkirk spray it wide, pull it back across and score (it’s such a quintessential FM17 goal it almost makes me smile).
But then, the fightback: Thomson, our leading scorer, slams home after some lovely interplay, before Crawford, on as a sub, dinks a finish past the impressive Aberdeen loanee Danny Rogers. I am utterly delighted – yes, it’s only a draw, but it’s a salvaged point from 2-0 down against the third-placed side in the league and Mark bloody Kerr.
And, more’s the point, we are finally off the bottom of the table, on goal difference alone, admittedly, but it’s a huge psychological step forwards. We’ve still not won in (now) 13 games, but I can see in this squad the possibility of pulling it together enough to avoid automatic relegation. God, it’s good to be back.
MATT: The league has gone. The cups have gone. Europe has gone. But in a season of ever-changing ambitions for Rangers, we have a new target to aim for: The top six. I am hoping that if we survive the split, you will allow me to hold on to the last shreds of my dignity. I may even get one more crack at beating Iain in the Old Firm derby, and just imagine how sweet it would be if the real punchline to this challenge was derailing his title charge in the final weeks of the campaign. I am licking my lips at the very thought.
But first, we face St Johnstone. And it’s live. We all know what happened last time I faced the glare of the cameras; Paul Hanlon’s own goal against Celtic and then, sweet lord, 120 goalless minutes versus St Mirren followed by spot-kick heartbreak. Surely it has to be better this time? A return to 4-1-2-3 says we’re going for it, and at least Peter Konsel’s nan is still on my side.
St Johnstone 1 – 0 Rangers
I have nothing left to say.
"It's an encouraging start, there's a lot of movement…" pic.twitter.com/Vnx5Bx3YDx
— FM17 Project (@FM17Project) February 27, 2017
I am trying here.
I really am.
What else am I supposed to do?
I just can’t catch a god damn break.
IAIN: Anyone who has ever played this game long-term will know that when it goes, it really goes. And you never know when it’s going to go. It just goes. It could be injuries. It could be dressing room discontent. It could just be that you hit the woodwork twice, two games in a row, against your only realistic league rivals, creating a three-points-from-a-possible-
Morale is fragile and it doesn’t take much to invoke a crisis. By rights, I should be 12-15 points clear by now. Instead, the gap is just five. Ahead of what really should be a routine home win against Kilmarnock, I spend over an hour going through the numbers from those last three winless league games. Are we bad, or just unlucky? The numbers say unlucky. I assess the shot data to see if what looks dominance is artificially inflated by wild long range efforts. It’s not. As much as I’m tempted to make sweeping changes, I think it’s all okay. I think we’re just unlucky. Let’s find out.
Celtic 2 – 0 Kilmarnock
Yeah, we were unlucky. In fact, you could say that this routine 2-0 victory was unlucky too. It should have been four or five. We’re doing everything right. We have 60% possession, we make seven clear-cut or half-chances and we hit the woodwork yet again.
Moussa Dembele scores both of our goals, though he did give me palpitation when he missed a penalty with the game still goalless. But we’re okay. The lingering fear that I could somehow fuck this up will remain until the trophy is safely clasped in my clammy hands, but we’re okay. Ross County’s surprise victory over Aberdeen gives us an eight point lead with six games to go.
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).