The Football Manager Challenge Episode 1

Well what do we have here? An opportunity to become thoroughly depressed and obsessed by a bunch of virtual footballers playing for a club I have no emotional attachment to with practically no chance of anything tangible being achieved by spending countless hours on a computer game?

Well count me in.

Football Manager has been a huge part of my life since a young age, was arguably a factor in my chosen career and has made me that mate in the friendship group with an encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure footballers that makes everyone else worry for my welfare at the pub every weekend. So, when I saw The Athletic had decided to create a community challenge on a game I’ve dedicated thousands of hours to, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get the creative juices flowing again after a mammoth scouting project ahead of the U21 Euros.

So, who are the obscure club I’ll be attempting to take to glory in this series? Oh, it’s Sunderland. I’m sure this is going to be cheery. The first message I receive upon starting the game is my assistant manager telling me about all of the players (and there’s a lot of them) who are set to leave the club in a year’s time and how many of them aren’t good enough to be a part of the squad, which is an encouraging start.

PRE-SEASON

Before pressing continue, my first job is to organise my staff. It’s a boring task I never particularly enjoy, but nevertheless is important and if I do it now and forget about it, I can get on with the important job of trying not to get sacked. My main observation is that Kevin Ball is wasted as a Loan Manager with his coaching attributes but refuses to change role, and before I’ve even been given the obligatory tour of the training ground the club legend is out the door, which I’m sure will be a popular decision. A search goes out to fill the myriad of unoccupied roles before being informed we’re going on a pre-season tour 40 minutes up the road to Newcastle, which I’m sure will get the squad very excited.

I’m not stubborn when it comes to tactics, but I do tend to default to an attacking 4-3-3. However, there are some immediate observations. Some of the players I wanted to transfer list have only just been brought into the squad which is worrying, and the squad is bloated. I don’t tend to attempt a massive overhaul in my opening summer but some work needs to be done. I want this side to press high, keep the ball and create plenty of chances for the striker – at the moment I’m backing Ross Stewart because I can’t sell him but Charlie Wyke can be moved on – and the inside forwards. If we can also find a way to hit teams on the counter attack that would be a lovely bonus.

Certain clubs have a term for when events happen during their games that are synonymous with their team’s performances. Spurs fans use the term ‘Spursy’, Fulham fans ‘Fulhamish’ and if Sunderland have a similar word I need to learn it ASAP. Pre-season was going well, too well arguably, but the below screenshot might end up summing up this side’s fortunes.

What should have been a famous, not quite deserved, but well fought victory against Manchester United (well, their second team) was snatched away from us by Hannibal Mejbri in the 96th minute. You might wonder why there were five minutes of added time in a pre-season friendly, and the answer for that is simple. Our best player – Jordan Jones – picked up an injury that is going to keep him out for a month. I thought that would be the biggest talking point of our pre-season. I was wrong.

There’s so much to unpack in this game, including seven goals in the first half, and three of my back four being booked in the last ten minutes, despite all coming on after the 70th minute. The 95th minute goal from Rodri has set a worrying precedent of conceding last minute goals that I fear will continue for some time given how on edge the entire squad seem to be at all times. However, four goals against Real Betis is definitely a positive, and a 0-0 draw with Verona in our final friendly suggests there is some defensive ability in the squad. So, what could go wrong in our first competitive game against Barrow; the worst ranked side in the Carabao Cup?

Well this was sprung on me three days before said Carabao Cup game, so that was a promising start.

We have 27 shots, 12 on target, record an xG of 2.76 with a 90% pass completion rate, and yet an 88th minute Neil Eardley free-kick nearly takes us to extra time in the most one-sided 1-0 victory I’ve seen for a very long time. A smart stop from new signing George Long prevented my depleted squad from having to endure a penalty shootout we would almost certainly lose, but we thankfully progress to the second round of the Carabao Cup.

SEPTEMBER

  • Three wins out of three in the league
  • An unlikely cup run
  • A squad we were trying to thin out somehow grew
  • We won a game in something called the Papa John’s Trophy

I had been lead to believe this challenge was going to break my spirit. I was lead to believe that this team was full of disinterested halfwits that would make me want to uninstall this game forever (or at least until November when the new one comes out). Right now, and I know I’m asking for trouble saying this, the absolute opposite of this is true.

Fleetwood Town were defeated in the Papa John’s Trophy in our opening group game, where Carlisle and Aston Villa’s youngsters make up our group. We scored twice in the first five minutes to put Bristol Rovers to the sword 3-1 in the league, before repeating same scoreline in every league game we played this month to find ourselves joint top at the end of month. But the highlight of this month in a sentence I never thought I would say was the Carabao Cup.

An away draw to Leeds United was enough for me to believe this minor distraction was going to be just that, until we beat them 2-0. A second away draw to a Premier League side saw us visit Crystal Palace a week later, but Roy Hodgson’s men were no match for us and a 3-0 win saw us advance to the last sixteen. Championship promotion challengers Brentford were our final opponents, and despite going ahead through captain Max Power, Ivan Toney equalised and the game ended 1-1 after 90 minutes. As I prepared to make another team talk, I was presented with a screen asking me to choose my penalty takers.

Oh bollocks.

Miss. Miss. Miss. Miss. It had not been a shootout to write home about for either side. We scored two of our first five, and that was somehow enough to take it to sudden death thanks to the heroics of George Long. However, Carl Winchester looked about as confident as the most timid child at Alvaro Morata’s Academy of Penalties, and the unexpected cup run came to an end.

But there are so many positives so far. George Long in goal has been fantastic, Lee Burge and Remi Matthews can only stand and admire him from the sidelines. He’s helped no end by a solid back four, especially left back Denver Hume and Winchester in the ball winning midfield role, and Ross Stewart up front is currently in pole position to win the Golden Boot. I have a good feeling about this.

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