And so my tenure as editor of The Set Pieces draws to a close. In just a few days, Matt Stanger will have taken up residence at this desk. He’ll probably have his own ideas about what constitutes a workplace environment too. He’s unlikely to feel comfortable with a 12 inch Jose Mourinho glaring down at him from the bookcase and he may consider that a large wooden display case of individually sealed Earl Grey tea bags is a little unnecessary. Naked Thursday is probably a thing of the past too. Probably. But the drinks globe is likely to stay and so too will a healthy commitment to good football writing.
So, if you’ll forgive the self-indulgence, there now follows a top five of my favourite articles on the site. It’s in no particular order and it’s not so much the articles that I think are the best, as it is the articles that I enjoyed publishing the most. I ask those writers who are not include here to forgive me and to take no offence from their omission. I could quite easily rattle off a top 100 here, but I suspect that might be pushing my luck. The bar is set high, Matt. I look forward to seeing you vault it.
What happens when you play Football Manager according to a strict list of Moneyball/Soccernomics rules? It was such a simple idea, but it was superbly executed by Alex. This was never supposed to last for more than three episodes. It eventually ran to ten and I still get complaints for ending it when I did. I stand by my decision. After ten seasons all Football Manager games become overloaded with newgen players and expecting people to listen to stories of their exploits is a little too close to expecting people to listen to your dream stories. It’s hard to understate just how difficult it is to make a feature like this work. The CM01/02 Project is easy in comparison because you simply document every game and every signing. This was different. Alex had to pace himself, building tension for the story of an entire season, all the while staying true to the challenge he had set himself. The first episode is the most viewed article in the history of the site.
How much relevance does the new wave of analytics have on football discourse? How much relevance should it have? In trying to explain that most footballers didn’t use the same language as analysts, Rory managed to offend a significant portion of a very vocal online community. His response was measured, balanced and thoughtful. Very thoughtful. It came to over 3,000 words. I don’t think many other outlets would ever have considered publishing something of this size or style. But I’m very glad we did.
The story after the story can often be more interesting than the story itself. When Stephanie Roche blasted herself into contention for the prestigious FIFA Puskas award with an astonishing goal, she made a name for herself around the world. But where did she go after that? And how did she feel about the overwhelming publicity? Carrie has an unrivalled book of contacts in the women’s game and she went to find out.
There were so many wonderful Pieces of Hate through 2015, fuelled by your rage, rational or otherwise. But few were as profoundly sad as Alex’s observations on Paul Scholes. There was always something about Scholes that made him seem pure, certainly in comparison to some of his contemporaries, but perhaps that was just because he didn’t ever say anything to ruin his image. When he retired and the punditry work started to flood his way…well, Alex takes up the story.
When I grew up in the 1980s, I remember being surprised to discover that Leeds United had been such a powerhouse in English football. They were relegated when I was four and so the awe-inspiring stories and iconic player profiles in my dad’s old Eagle and Valiant annuals seemed strangely at odds with the reality; a perennially second flight side that rarely threatened to return. Now there will be younger football fans who will look at the league table and think the same. They might not know that Leeds returned, won the title and briefly threatened to challenge Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United…before exploding in a puff of IOU notes. I like to think that Ayman’s retrospective will have the same effect on a new generation that those old articles had on me.