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.
IAIN: I realise that this could be said of every domestic game I play, but as I approach this Scottish Cup semi-final I am anxious, for all I can do is lose in varying degrees.
In three days, I commence my final attack run on the title, facing Hearts away and then Aberdeen at home. They are the best of the rest and so I cannot be complacent. Nor can I take a chance with Dundee United in the cup, not with a possible treble within reach. The very best I can do here is to beat an opponent I am expected to beat and remove three key players quickly enough to keep them fresh. The worst I can do…well, you can imagine.
Celtic 1 – 0 Dundee United
A win that was rather more comfortable than the scoreline suggested thanks to Nick van der Velden’s decision to have the first go in the Hampden Park showers. We were dominating before his 32nd minute red card and it only got easier after he’d left, something that Matt observed through the medium of howls of frustration and ragged shouts of, “Why do you get it so easy? You don’t need it to be easy! Why does this never happen to me?”
As he left to kick over some bins outside, Callum McGregor scored to ease the nerves and, though we made 24 chances, we didn’t add another. It didn’t matter. Dundee United retreated to the edge of their own box and took their thrills by kicking us up in the air whenever we came close. With no desire to lose or exhaust players, I slipped us into defensive mode and activated ‘waste time’ and ‘retain possession.’ Duly, we completed a 281 pass move to close out the game. I have no regrets. I am not here to entertain you.
And now the real battle. If we lose to Hearts and Aberdeen, there’s a real chance that the last Old Firm derby of the season could give Matt a chance to derail my season. His pledge to throw his match against Aberdeen, “just for the privilege of a front row seat at your greatest humiliation,” is not something I take lightly. I cannot give him the chance to hurt me.
We are without Erik Sviatchenko and so Dedryck Boyata returns to shore up the defence. Ryan Christie comes in for Nir Bitton, with AJ dropping back to anchor the midfield. We were beaten 1-4 by Hearts earlier this season, but when we met again in the league we were unfortunate not to win. This time we have to win.
Hearts 1 – 2 Celtic
A disastrous start. Matt may have railed about my good fortune earlier today, but these things have evened themselves out at the worst possible time. Hearts win a dubious penalty after only four minutes. I feel sick. I can see this unfolding already. We lose here and then morale drops ahead of Aberdeen’s visit. Aberdeen beat us too and my players turn on each other like rats trapped in a sack. We come to play Rangers and Matt unfolds some mad-arsed, unorthodox formation that our dejected superstars cannot repulse and we head into the final two games with destiny wrenched from our hands. Matt plays Mackay-Steven in goal against Aberdeen, giving the Dons the points they need to romp home while he points and laughs and falls off his chair, losing control of himself, rolling gleefully on the floor in puddles of his own hysterical piss.
I need a hero. I need one more than I ever have before, in this life or beyond. Eldin Jakupovic is that hero. The penalty is firm and true, bound for the roof of the net, but there is a flash of green and the sort of heavy slap of leather upon rubber that would keep a Conservative party conference tumescent for a week. And Hearts fail to recover. An emphatic finish from Scott Sinclair before half-time gives us the lead and three minutes after the break, Moussa Dembele gives us comfort. Yes, Hearts snatch one back because I’ve neglected to enact my ‘drop deep when you’ve got a two goal advantage’ protocol. But we hold out. We hold out and claim the points. I look at Matt’s face and I smile for all the light in his eyes has been extinguished.
ALEX: It’s now mathematically impossible for us to finish higher than ninth, so ninth it must be. I decide to pull out all the stops against a Raith side who’ve just lost 4-0 at home to Falkirk, and who cruelly fobbed me off, allowing caretaker manager Darren Jackson a go holding the reins. He’s still there, and the gods of narrative, i.e. Matt, tell me that we should therefore beat them like an elephantine avenging angel.
I go 4-4-2, with Donald McCallum up front alongside Thomson in a more advanced role, and retain Stewart in a solid, workmanlike midfield. I’m hoping that assists will come from out wide, and that Thomson’s physicality and McCallum’s movement will pose Raith questions they can’t answer. In the build-up, my press conference is taciturn: “Is this a good time to play Raith?” – no comment. “Will Ayr win?” – no comment. I can’t risk upsetting the squad, or empowering the enemy, with a misplaced word. Millie nods approvingly, while Sophia grumbles that I’m not giving her enough to work with. Millie arches an eyebrow.
Dumbarton 1 – 1 Raith
The start is a disaster. Mark Stewart scores inside a minute for Raith and we spend the rest of the half chasing shadows. McCallum, who has been poor, is yanked midway through the second half, and then we get a chink of light. Thomson lofts a ball forwards to Todd, on as a substitute, and he charges through and pokes it past Lennox in the Raith goal to draw us level. The game finishes 1-1, but with Ayr winning 2-0 at home to St. Mirren, all our hard work counts for nothing, and we drop to 10th place again. Ayr are away at Dunfermline next, and then host us. We play Hibs at home, before the relegation everything.
Pressure, what pressure?
MATT: I’m feeling good about this again. We’ve won our last two matches by a combined scored of 5-0 and the mood at Ibrox is no longer mutinous. I’m also reading a new book that might offer some help. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it?
I found it in a cardboard box by the bins. There were hundreds of them. A man was kneeling over the box, sobbing. I can’t quite picture his face, but what I can say is that he certainly wasn’t handsome. Yet, even through the tears, he had this smug look about him. I didn’t know the man, but I immediately felt a profound hatred for him.
Anyway, to Motherwell, for which I’m missing a number of players after allowing David Weir to take training for a week. It appears he’s been taticking the shit out of them and they’re all exhausted for what I’m hoping will be our third win on the bounce, leading us nicely into the final Old Firm clash of the season.
We should be strong enough to take three points here, but I’m worried about West Ham loanee Luka Belic on the Motherwell bench. He scored the winner against Celtic at Parkhead earlier in the campaign and grabbed two in a 2-1 victory at Ibrox, including a belter from the edge of the box. I urge my defence to mark him tightly, repeatedly close him down and go in hard should he come on.
Motherwell 1 – 0 Rangers
Well, wasn’t that fucking predictable? Just when you think you have the players back on side, they refuse to listen to a word you say – yet a-fucking-gain – allowing Belic to crack in an 82nd-minute winner.
I’m really not very happy about that. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I’m downright bloody annoyed. We had them pegged back for most of the match (ignoring that we had the same number of shots on target), and if anyone looked like snatching the crucial goal in the final ten minutes, it was us.
But of course, you can’t legislate for this Rangers defence, and, when Belic was brought on shortly after half time, Rob Kiernan turned to the dugout and gave me a wink and a nod that left me thinking “he’s going to balls this right up”. And whadda ya know?
It’s the Celtic game next, and Iain could already have the title sewn up. We have played pathetically all season. I have managed pathetically; so did Alex before me. This is our only chance to salvage some pride. And then soon it will all be over. Thank god.
ALEX: I hold a team meeting. These things can go either way, but I tell the boys that we can still stay up if we work our bollocks off. Millie pops in a VHS of the stirring speech from Any Given Sunday. There’s blood and thunder and morale improves noticeably. We bloody need it too, as next up are league topping, runaway winners Hibernian.
Hibs have 78 points and have only lost six games all season; we have 23 points and have only won four. Under my stewardship, though, we’ve lost once and drawn four times. It’s something. I revert to the 4-4-1-1 and get the lads practicing defence again (although I pronounce it dee-fence having surrendered to the urge to invite Millie over to watch the rest of Any Given Sunday; I tell her it’s work-related and she offers to bring popcorn). Todd comes back into the shadow striker role after his goal off the bench against Raith; he’s also my highest averaging player in the league, with 6.88 (which gives you an idea of how poor this side are).
Dumbarton 1 – 3 Hibs
We hold out for 12 minutes, then concede. Eight before half-time, we concede again. I go to 4-2-3-1 to try to push back their wing-backs, but we simply don’t have the players. I go to attack to try to salvage anything, but we don’t have the players. Keatings adds a second and we are 3-0 down before half-time. Did I mention, we don’t have the players?
Todd has had a shocker, so I yank him on 55 minutes and bring on Stevenson. Stirling pulls one back, but it’s 3-1 with 20 minutes to go. Ayr are drawing, so as things stand, we would need to beat Ayr on the last day of the season to avoid automatic relegation. Finally, with the minutes ticking away, we start to play well. Thomson has three great chances to score but fluffs one and forces Marciano into two good saves. The games finishes 3-1 to a really good Hibs side. Ayr draw. That means the last game of the season, away at Ayr, will decide who goes down. Fucking narrative.
IAIN: And so it is simple. If we can avoid losing to Aberdeen, we win the league. We don’t have to worry about the title, we don’t have to worry about the Old Firm game and we don’t have to worry about the crushing, gut-wrenching, confidence-obliterating humiliation that would greet any Celtic manager who tossed away a lead like this so late in the season. I might finally be able to make it until dawn without sweating through my pyjamas. This is as good a line-up as I could hope for. Stay on target. Stay on target.
I don’t celebrate at the final whistle. I just exhale. Something that I don’t think I’ve done for over ten minutes. It should have been simple. It looked like it was going to be simple when Sinclair scored after just nine minutes. But nothing’s ever simple for me. Despite 15 efforts, we can’t score again. And then Aberdeen come at us like wild dogs on a Nigel Pearson walking holiday. Adam Rooney equalises. We’re in trouble. I can see it in the tiny pixelated eyes of my players. Doubt floods across our lines.
I have to take action. I drop the line deeper, I stop us from flying into tackles. We’ll mass up and then hit them on the break. I use the fresh legs of Patrick Roberts to give them something to think about on the right, focusing only on that flank. I don’t care if he runs the ball straight off the pitch as long as it’s not in my half. With 15 minutes to go, we switch to defensive. With 10 minutes to go, we begin to waste time. With 5 minutes to go, I switch all supporting players to defensive modes, leaving Roberts as our only attacking outlet. It all works. Aberdeen don’t make a single chance of note as the game ebbs away. We are there. We have won the title.
I have no urge to celebrate. I feel only relief, not joy. I needed that. I needed to get that one title on the board, just to prove something to myself. After all I’ve been through; the pain, the hurt, the anguish, I needed to win the league here. I just sit and take it all in. When I leave the office, I feel knots in my shoulders unravelling. I feel free.
Walking home, I sense something odd, like a sudden gust of wind, but somewhere deep down in the very ground I walk on. I feel a lightening of the stomach, like the moment after take-off when the engines throttle back and for a moment the plane seems to be hanging on the wind like a lost kite. I stop and look up at the heavy, overcast sky. There is a distant rumble. Above me, a small patch of cloud seems to dissolve in the air and a bright light emerges. And something else. Someone else. High above me, the face of a heavy-set, middle-aged man appears, his head thick with Brylcream, his eyes fixed down upon me. It is him. The man I have spent so long attempting to emulate.
“How…how am I doing, boss?” I stammer.
“Who gies a rat’s arse, ye smug wee English shite!” he shouts. “Ye’re Celtic, what’dye expect? Ah won ten. Come back to me when ye’ve done Europe. Now get tae fuck and away with ye, I’m getting ma celestial kip.”
The clouds close again and I am alone. And you know what? Jock’s right, I am doing a great job. A great job. And I don’t ever want to stop.
Think you can do better than Iain, Alex and Matt? Then join us for the BetBright FM17 Cup for a chance of winning £5,000.
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).