FM17 Project, Celtic v Rangers…v Dumbarton: Episode 22

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 1Episode 2Moneyball RangersEpisode 3Episode 4Episode 5Old Firm Preview Part 1; Part 2A Message From The BoardEpisode 65 Things We Learned From The Old Firm Derby; Episode 7; How To Play Catenaccio In FM17; Episode 8Episode 9Episode 10: The First Cup FinalHow To Play Like Atletico Madrid In FM17; Episode 11Episode 12; Iain returns to EvertonEpisode 13Episode 14; How To Play Like Chelsea 04/05 In FM17Episode 15Episode 16Episode 17Matt enlists the help of Alex McLeish; Episode 18; Pentagon ChallengeEpisode 19; How To Play Like Brazil in FM17Episode 20; Episode 21.

IAIN: On paper, Hamilton should be the ideal opposition for this, the last game of the regular season. But the games aren’t played on paper. Or on grass. They’re played on my bastard laptop and all sorts of things can go wrong. Hamilton are bottom. We are top. We’re still playing with a loanee goalkeeper, Eldin Jakupovic, and Eoghan O’Connell, my child centre-back, so we’re hardly water-tight. But we should be able to do this, shouldn’t we?

Hamilton 0 – 3 Celtic

Yes, we should. And yes, we did. It takes five minutes for Scott Sinclair to score the weirdest goal I’ve seen on this version of the game, running into the box, stopping just before the ball ran out for a goal-kick and then turning to face the goal and just running it in. But they all count.

Moussa Dembele adds a second shortly after half time and then, as I’m shutting the game down and pressing the ‘waste time’ button, substitute Ryan Christie smashes home a third from distance. Sadly, Aberdeen won as well. So we have five games to go and we’re eight points clear. Two wins and a draw from our final games will, with our enormous goal difference, guarantee the title. It’s just a shame that the first three of those games are away against Hearts, away against Aberdeen and then at home to Matt Stanger’s misfiring Rangers. We’re not there yet.

ALEX: Dumbarton, the Sons, are now masters of the draw. Well, maybe not masters, but our recent form could be enough to save us, despite having not actually won a match since December. For once, this cannot be blamed entirely on me, which is a sweet relief, too.

I sign Becky Dunphy as a physio, because we strangely don’t have any physios. I’m not entirely sure how we expected players to recover from injury prior to my arrival – dock leaves and good wishes? Anyway, Becky barely dents the staff wage budget, and should assist if anyone gets a knack in the next five games.

The next match is away at Morton, who are sixth. They are 23 points above us, but we are no longer bottom. Dunfermline, 10 points ahead of us, are just about catchable, albeit in a very unlikely scenario in which we suddenly discover how to play football. The goal is simply to pull ahead of Ayr. For the Morton game, we stay exactly as is, with match training on defensive positioning.

Morton 1 – 0 Dumbarton

We lose 1-0, but it’s cruelly encouraging. Just like watching my beloved Saints on Sunday last, it’s not the loss that kills you – it’s the hope.

Morton’s Tidser is sent off after 28 minutes for a horrendous challenge. I resist the urge to push forward immediately, knowing that with Ayr 1-0 down against Hibernian, a draw will lift us above them on points rather than mere goal difference. And then, disaster strikes.

With three minutes left, Quitongo runs onto a long through ball with my centre-backs dawdling in some sort of Escherian half space. He smashes it past Martin, because that’s what happens in this life. We are bottom again for a short period, but fortunately Hibs beat Ayr 2-1 and we remain ninth on goal difference, which is +10 in our favour. As long as we can match Ayr’s results, we will go into the relegation play-offs rather than straight down.

MATT: This is it. This is the day we turn it all around. If we lose to Ross County at home, it’s almost nailed on that we’ll drop into the bottom half after the split, suffering the ignominy of having to see out the season in what is known as the Premiership Relegation Group. We won’t even have another shot at beating Iain’s Celtic. There will be literally nothing left to play for, no purpose to my meagre existence.

But we won’t lose to Ross County. Despite their three-game winning run, despite their four successive clean sheets, despite the fact they thrashed second-placed Aberdeen 3-0 in their last outing, we are going to win. I can feel it in my bones.

I tell the players they can do this, that the beatings will continue until morale improves. I can’t remember the last time we savoured the sweet taste of victory, but spirits are suddenly high again, like sailors on a shipwreck who have broken into the rum cabinet before the ocean slowly takes them. I sing an old sea shanty in the dressing room before the game. Rob Kiernan stands on the massage table and yells out, “O Captain! My Captain!” Sit down, Rob, I tell him. You’re ruining my moment.

Rangers 3 – 0 Ross County

Hold the fucking phone. We actually did it. We actually did a win. Three-bloody-nil. I am lighting up a fat cigar and puffing the fumes of victory into Iain and Alex’s faces. No, I don’t care about your asthma, Iain.

It was such a dominant performance that I’m left with more questions than answers. Why haven’t we played like this for the past month? Why doesn’t Harry Forrester drive forward with the conviction of his opening goal every week? Why have I been forced to tolerate “6.3” displays from Federico Macheda when today he played like the lion he truly is? But let’s put that to one side for now, because tonight my friend, we dine in the finest restaurant in Glasgow.

Waiter! I’ll have a cocktail. What sort? An expensive one with a fancy name. Can you suggest an Old Fashioned? To remind you of when Rangers were good? You’re being a prick, aren’t you. I think we’d like a different waiter. What’s that? There is no waiter? This is all in my head? In that case, I’ll splash out. The venison, please. Yes, I am stroking my chin. It’s because Ross County are nicknamed The Staggies. You don’t think that’s very clever? I don’t believe I asked. If you were me you’d stop typing now? Just go and get my Old Fashioned you irritating figment.

IAIN: I didn’t really expect to get this far in Europe. To be a part of the last eight, especially a last eight that includes Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Roma, is a real honour.

I’m still a bit miffed that nine points wasn’t enough to see us into the last sixteen of the Champions League, and I’ll never forgive Atletico Madrid for missing the penalty against the Russians that would have made it so, but I’ve moved on and I almost never think about it now, especially not late at night when my head is filled with tension and regret.

Jozo Simunovic returns at the back and so does Leigh Grassiths, to the bench at least, now that he has nobly decided to stop being such a tit. I’ve been enjoying stronger performances recently with a more adventurous defensive line and I’ll hold it where it is for this. Just one goal will give us a real chance. Assuming that they don’t score four, of course.

Villarreal 2 – 0 Celtic

Sometimes, you’re just not good enough. You can’t blame the referee, you can’t blame bad luck, you can only blame yourselves. This was one of those nights.

We got ourselves two-thirds of the way towards a goalless draw and we made a handful of chances to grab that away goal too. But we weren’t confident enough on the ball and we made mistakes at the back that cost us. Most notably, having already gone a goal down, when Scott Sinclair lost the ball in their box, when Simunovic missed the header from the resultant Villarreal clearance and when Cedric Bakambu lobbed the oncoming Jakupovic. That was not our finest hour. There’s still a chance though. A very, very small one.

And so we play the same team at Parkhead, but in a more aggressive manner. We seek to control the game and again the line is high. I would back us to score three, especially here, but we cannot afford to let them even have one. That would be the end. But hey, it’s Celtic. It’s a European night. It’s a time for magic, isn’t it?

Celtic 1 – 1 Villarreal

No, it is not. It seemed that it might be for a very short time. Callum McGregor put us in the lead after just 14 minutes and we pressed on looking for a second that would level us up.

I was torn. Do I leave them to push up, knowing that a single mistake could kill me? Do I drop back to counter-attack, waiting for them to settle, drop off and seek to protect their lead before throwing caution to the wind for a dramatic last half hour? I elected to laugh in the face of conservatism and push immediately for a second. Five minutes before half time, Villarreal scored their crucial away goal.

We didn’t react well. We got frustrated. We were still very much the better side, but Simunovic really lost his shit and tried to kill someone, so we had to see out the game with just ten men. I don’t know how many red cards we’ve had this season, but I think it may be in double figures now. It’s an end to our European adventure. We’ve played 18 games in both the Champions and the Europa Leagues and we’ve ended up with nothing. But it was fun. And for a moment, we believed. And then we fucked it right up.

ALEX: Next up are Queen of the South, again away. Ayr have Dundee United at home. This could be where it all goes horribly wrong. I change the formation a touch, dropping O’Keefe for the greater stability of Stewart as a box-to-box midfielder. Although O’Keefe has not done badly, he is a bit lightweight, and while his creativity is a bonus, we are looking to match the Doonhammers’ midfield strength in the hope of salvaging something from another tough fixture.

Queen of the South 0 – 0 Dumbarton

It was heart in mouth stuff at the end, but we managed a superb 0-0 draw away from home against a side 27 points and five places above us. Having 56% possession helped, as did withdrawing my shadow striker into an attacking playmaker role with 20 minutes to go, stringing five across midfield and squeezing the playing area, congesting the centre and preventing Queen of the South attacking.

We also managed four shots on target, yet no clear cut chances, but we restrict a superior team to three shots on target and two clear cut chances. I’ll take that, and with an Ayr draw as well, we are still ninth. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

MATT: I should be on a high after the 3-0 win over Ross County, but the Scottish Premiership split hasn’t been kind to us. First we face my old nemesis St Johnstone away, the St Johnstone of “That’s St Johnstone, that’s St Johnstone” infamy, then it’s Motherwell, also away, before we complete our road trip around the country with the final Old Firm clash of the season at Celtic Park.

Of course Celtic are at home. I’m not normally one to encourage conspiracy theories, but let’s throw some petrol on this bonfire: Iain, being the sole owner of the network challenge, has somehow corrupted the game in his favour. It’s as clear as day. Just look at Celtic’s squad and transfer resources. Oh, that’s just based on reality, is it? Stop it with your lies, Iain. You make me sick.

In the week leading up to the St Johnstone clash, I receive a news bulletin informing me their manager, John Hughes, thinks I should be sacked. I’m straight on the blower to him. “Is that any way to speak about another hardworking pro, John?” He doesn’t reply. “John, you coward! Answer me!” Alex slowly takes the receiver out of my hand. “Matt, this is a child’s Batman phone,” he says, gently patting me on the back. 

We line up unchanged, although Joe Dodoo is still struggling with injury, causing some to cast aspersions about him on social media.

St Johnstone 0 – 2 Rangers

Waiter! Another Old Fashioned please!

We are finally on song again. Back-to-back wins by a combined score of 5-0, a free-scoring Federico Macheda, and sweet revenge against St Johnstone for the embarrassment they caused me in the last live stream. Take that, John Hughes! That fly in your ointment? That’s Matt Stanger, and boy, can he manage a football team.

Our next match is against Motherwell and then it’s the big one: The last Old Firm game of the season against Iain. If we can just keep this momentum going, we could…oh god, I’m starting to dream again. My heart is full of hope, my eyes twinkling at the thought of Iain kicking and screaming on the office floor, the live stream camera fixed on him in stony silence. Finally, we have something to play for.

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).

FM17 Project, Celtic v Rangers…v Dumbarton: Episode 22
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