The wait is over. Nope, not the new season of the Walking Dead (shocking premier, by the way) I’m talking about the latest edition of the greatest manager sim in the world. Before we go any further, let’s address the big hulking elephant in the room. By their definition, a lot of these kinds of games get jaded and boring after a while. Sega games, the developers of Football Manager, put a great onus on keeping things as realistic as possible, and also take great delight in throwing the odd curve ball. The latest version of the game is probably the first computer game in the world to incorporate Brexit. Three possible scenarios are built into the gameplay involving varying levels of fuckery, and you have no option but to wait and accept your fate. You voted for it, you got it. The knowledge that the effects of Brexit loom large influence your decision-making right from the start. I was wary of being caught in a position somewhere down the line where half my squad would be unable to gain work permits, so immediately began focusing my efforts on scouting British, and in particular, Welsh players, as my chosen team was Cardiff City. I don’t know why because in all my years of playing this game I’ve never achieved anything with them, except the odd promotion. This is coming from a man who spent his university years making Carlisle United the undisputed kings of Europe. Finding good players within such a limited scope is a challenge. I kept having flashbacks to the time when City qualified for the Cup Winners Cup every year (courtesy of winning the Welsh Cup) then got royally spanked by the European elite because, on top of being a lower-division team, they were only permitted to play a handful of non-Welsh players.
A couple of new features are evident immediately: You are able to use a photo of yourself to generate your manager likeness (I look awful) and you are given a handy breakdown of your team’s strengths and weaknesses right off the bat. Other new additions include a medical department overhauled to include sports scientists, a revised contract system, and tweet displays helping you gauge how supporters feel about potential new signings and other developments. Innovative stuff. The gameplay, constantly improving, is smooth and hitch free. You might want to change to a darker skin, though. The light one can be hard on the eyes.
So, on to team-building. One of the most overlooked aspects of the game is the coaching and training set-up. I invariably have to fire at least one coach to make way for improvements, and the same goes for the scouts. My tip is to bring in specialist coaches for key areas (defence, attack, tactics) and draft in some scouts from different countries. They bring their knowledge with them.
The Cardiff squad circa 2016/17 is decidedly average. And with barely any room to manoeuvre in the wage budget and just £1.2m in the kitty, it’s going to be tough, especially with a glaring weakness between the sticks which needs to be addressed. £650k got me Adam Smith from Northampton Town. Admittedly not the biggest name, but an improvement on my existing goalkeeping options and plenty of potential and sell-on value. I also managed to draft in centre-back Yohan Tavares and defensive midfielder Diego Poyet on free transfers. That’s almost £6m worth of talent. Incidentally, a few other very good Championship-level players knocking around on frees at the start of the game are Jordan Spence (CB) Ivan Bandalovski (RB), Wiljan Pluim (CM), Roland Lamah (AM), Federico Macheda (ST) and Ivan Bolado (ST).
To raise some capital and make room in the squad I sold Bruno Manga to Sassuolo for £4m. That was a gamble, Manga was one of my better players, but he was on massive wages and in the last year of his contract so the transfer made financial sense. Besides, he wasn’t THAT good and Tavares is a more than adequate replacement. I also shipped-out squad players Kadeem Harris and Lee Peltier for a combined £600k, sent loanee Ben Amos back to Bolton, and loaned out a bunch of youngsters. With some money in the bank I was able to splash out on a marquee signing. Enter Raphael Holzhauser. What do you mean ‘who?’ He’s a 23-year old central midfielder available for about £1.7m from Austria Vienna. There are cheaper options around in his position and my squad was already reasonably strong in that area with Joe Ralls, Emyr Hughes, and Aron Gunnarsson, but Holzhauser’s passing and dead ball ability made him an attractive option.
I started with a 4-4-1-1 formation, and had an undefeated pre-season leading into the Championship fixtures. I scraped a win at Birmingham in the first game then knocked Newport County out of the EFL Cup, but scoring goals was proving a problem. I only managed two in the first five games, not enough for a board who demanded ‘attacking football.’ After that I switched to a 4-2-3-1 with two deep holding midfielders, and promptly lost 6-2 at Norwich. Thrashed Preston 4-1 in the next game, though, and at least the games were less turgid. Then, disaster struck. Rickie Lambert, my talismanic top scorer with eight goals in ten games, broke his foot. I have a lot of strikers on my books. Problem is, none of them are any good. Marouane Chamakh is decent, but he threw his toys out when I refused to play him every game so I banished him to the reserves where he ran out his contract which, luckily, expired in January. That left me with limited options, and results suffered accordingly. I did manage to pick up enough points to be in 6th place mid-way through the season, which was better than expected.
I spent a bit of time scouting Europe for the answer to my goalscoring problems, and the January transfer window gave me an opportunity to put my plans into action. In came Danish international striker Marcus Pedersen and Hungarian winger Lucacs Bole for a combined £600k. Pretty good business, even if I do say so myself. I also picked up Marius Lundemo on a free as a replacement for Lex Immers who I sold to PAOK for £1.1m. He just wasn’t cutting it and at 31 his value was only going to depreciate. Rickie Lambert was also back from injury so I was optimistic of pushing for a play-off place. However, it wasn’t to be, and my team capitulated in the last third of the season, winning only one game out of the last 12, finishing in 13th position with 60 points. My top scorer was Anthony Pilkington, a midfielder, with 12, and perhaps the only positive was Emyr Hughes winning Championship Goal of the Season. Apart from that, the biggest shock of the season was Sam Allardyce finding gainful employment again at Everton.
On that showing, I was a bit surprised to be offered a new contract, with the modest proviso of finishing in the top half of the table. The board also handed me an £8 million transfer kitty, which was nice of them. The main issue at Cardiff was the fact that there were too many average players on the books. My weekly wage bill was well in excess of £440k a week, so the first thing I had to do was trim the squad with the aim of sacrificing quantity for quality. Out went Joe Bennett, Tom Adeyami, Stuart O’Keefe, Raphael Holzauser, Deli Oshilaja, Idriss Saidi and nine youth/U23 players. My biggest signing was Welsh international left-back Paul Dummett from Newcastle for £2.7 million, and young centre-back Alfie Mawson, who was a steel at £1 million from Swansea, the signing given extra bite as I would be playing the Jacks in the Championship following their relegation from the Premier League (yay!). My only other cash signing was Romanian striker Denis Alibec (600k for a £3.5 million player), while midfielders Jota (valued at over £9 million) and Yasir Kasim (2.6m) came in on frees to fill out the squad.
I cruised through pre-season, then got decent results in my first few fixtures, replicating the achievements of the previous season. But then, the moment the transfer window closed, came the first murmurings of dissent. The team started complaining about ‘broken promises,’ specifically, that I hadn’t strengthened the team. But I had! Okay, it was missing Gareth Bale or Lionel Messi, but the squad I built had 13 full internationals, for fuck’s sake. AND Peter Whittingham and Sean Morrison. The grumblers didn’t seem to realize that if I’d signed more players, their own places in the team would come under threat. Some people just don’t think. With the dressing room in disarray, straight defeats to Hull, Wolves, Villa and Leeds followed, and before I knew it I was in the relegation zone. I’m still in a job, for now. But only because I’ve been afraid to play any more games for the past two days. I know I’m probably getting sacked in the morning. I won’t even keep my job long enough to experience the Brexit shenanigans. Sigh.
Nobody said being a football manager is easy.
Football Manager 17 is out November 4.
Thanks to Sega Games for the sneak preview.