Category Archives: games

Time for a New Six Nations?

So the Six Nations tournament is in full swing. This always gets me thinking about rugby, and in particular, the competition’s format. Rugby fans might find what I am going to say controversial, whilst nobody else will give much of a shit. But as a rugby fan, I want to make my feelings heard. And before we go any further no, this blog isn’t about the self-destructing Wales team.

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You see, I don’t think the Six Nations should be six nations. Not any more. Frankly, Italy (wooden spoon winners in two of the past three seasons and odds on for a hat-trick) are not strong enough to contest and do themselves no favours by continuing to slug it out with the big boys of European rugby. From the 85 games they’d played up to the start of the current championship, they’d lost 72 and their overall points difference stood at an alarming -1553. That’s more than twice as many as the second worst team, Scotland.

It’s nothing personal. I admire the way Italy stick to their guns, often in the face of overwhelming odds. They are a strong, powerful team, and have produced a couple of top players. But this season really should spell the end of their involvement in the Six Nations tournament. Who needs it? They were effectively out of the reckoning after just two games, having been on the end of two home thrashings at the hands of Wales and Ireland (7-33 and 10-63 respectively). They usually have one good game a year, and that came last week at Twickers. They gave England a scare, more through clever exploitation of the rules than any real skill, but still ended up losing by double digits. All the evidence suggests that Italy are getting worse at this rugby lark, not better. It could be time to go. And you know what? They can take France with them.

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Controversial? Let me explain…

At several points in it’s long history (the first comparable tournament was played way back in 1883) the Six Nations was known as the Home Nations, and consisted of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Then in came the French and it became the Five Nations. Then Italy made it six. Where’s it going to end? Shall we just invite every rugby-playing nation in Europe and call it the 17 Nations? Of course not, that would be impractical. But then you have to wonder why Italy deserve a place. Georgia are actually above them in the world rankings and Romania and Russia aren’t far behind.

I want a return to the old days. But not because I’m some Neanderthal racist who hates Italians and Frenchies. Nope, I have a plan. The tournament should return to its roots, but I think we should do it differently this time. I want the home nations to play every other home nation twice a season, for a total of six games. And lets mix up the draw each year, pulling the fixtures at random, instead of having the format and fixtures set in stone. That gets boring. The draw for the next tournament can be made at the end of the previous one to give fans time to make arrangements, and thereby amping up the drama even more. Put it on live TV, make a spectacle out of it like the FA Cup draw.

Let’s be honest, nobody really likes playing the French. Not because anyone is afraid of them (though they do have a nasty habit of running in good tries), but because they bring nothing to the tournament, especially the way the team is at the moment. They currently stand at 8th in the latest World Rugby rankings, lower than any of the home nations, and haven’t been serious contenders for years. They were fortunate to beat Italy last season. If they’d lost, they would have suffered a second whitewash in four years. Not good enough, sorry.

There’s long been talk of introducing a two-tier system into the Six Nations, with promotion and relegation. If that ever happened, Italy would undoubtedly be the first team relegated. And there’s a decent chance France could follow. I suggest we take the initiative and cull them now, then put them in a separate European group with two of Georgia, Romania and Russia. Maybe even Spain, Germany or Portugal. All are emerging nations ranked in the world top 25. Playing each other (along with France and Italy) on a regular basis would improve their game immeasurably, which can only be good for the sport. The European group of four (even five or six would be manageable as these teams play less games per year than the elite) can also play each home and away, then face the winners of the British group in a grand final every year at a neutral venue. Obviously France would dominate for the first couple of years, but I the other teams would soon catch up with them.

There, sorted. Think about it. This proposed new format would benefit everyone involved. The British teams would only have to play one (or two, if they get to the grand final) more games a season, there would be more opportunity for sponsors and TV revenue, the fans would get more of what they really want (Wales v Scotland, England v Anybody), the smaller rugby-playing nations would have a framework and a chance to develop, and there would be a huge showpiece final every year to rival the (football) European Championship.

Who’s with me?

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FM17 – First Play

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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.


Rolling the Dice, Man

I don’t know how many people reading this would be familiar with the now-defunct British magazine Loaded. For men of a certain age, it was something of a lifestyle bible, and told you everything you needed to know about, well, life and style.

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In a 1999 issue they named an obscure (to me, anyway) American writer by the name of Luke Rhinehart, ‘Novelist of the Century.’ He was awarded this accolade largely due to a book he wrote called The Dice Man, which carried the rather catchy tag (on some editions) ‘Few novels can change your life, this one will.’ Until that point, I’d thought Stephen King was ‘Novelist of the Century.’ Still do, actually. So this was news to me. Loaded were very rarely wrong about such important things, so I went out and found a copy of said book in HMV. Then I stuck it on my ever-expanding book shelf and promptly forgot about it. Fast forward a few years, and I’m a mature student with a lot of free time on my hands. Enter The Dice Man.

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In a nutshell, the book tells the story of a psychiatrist called Luke Rhinehart (which makes it kind of a mock autobiography) who, feeling bored and unsatisfied with life, decides to stop making decisions. Instead, he rolls a dice, and lets fate decide which path he should take. As far as I remember, the rule of the ‘game’ is that you give yourself six options, one for each number on the dice. Five reasonably attractive things that you wouldn’t mind doing, and one thing you don’t want to do. But you have to be prepared to do it.

On the surface, its a book about freedom, the search for adventure, and fucking the system. I’m sure many of the deeper psychological concepts and themes were lost on me at the time. You kind of grasp most of them, but not with much clarity. The result is that they linger in your subconscious for years after.

I was so taken with the book that one summer I bought a one-way ticket to Spain and decided to live by the dice for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t let the dice decide anything important. That would be stupid. I just let it dictate the little things like which places I should travel through and in what order (as it tuned out, it was Alicante, Benidorm, Murcia, Granada and Malaga, in that order), and when I got there which tapas bar I should I stop at, which hostel should I stay in, and whether or not I should hit on the cute American tourist with the flower in her hair. Nothing remotely negative happened, apart from the cute American tourist with the flower in her hair saying no. But even that wasn’t a total blow-out. The two of us got talking to a Spanish gypsy girl called Estrella (Star) and I took her home instead.

Playing the dice was a liberating experience, and I spent most of the time strolling through the sunshine wallowing in a carefree attitude sadly missing from my daily life. But at the same time, it was slightly unnerving. I wasn’t in control of my life anymore. Something else was, some higher force. Call it what you want; fate, destiny, the Cosmic Joker, God, whatever. After a while you begin to wonder what path you are on, and why. Is it really all random? Or is there some kind of plan involved? Interesting times, indeed. It’s also kind of dangerous, in the sense that the dice allow you an excuse to be reckless.

Why did you do that stupid thing? 

Because the dice told me to do it.

Ironically, it was Tim Southwell, writer and one-time editor of Loaded, who said:

“A man without responsibility is like Genghis Khan.”

Luke Rhinehart is the pseudonym of George Cockroft, who has written numerous books and essays, including several other ‘Dice’ books. The original, first published in 1971, has attained cult status, and been published in over 60 countries. In 2012 he pranked his own death, the mentalist, but in reality is still going strong at the age of 83. Throw a dice for him. You won’t regret it. Actually, you might. But that’s part of the fun.

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How to Have the Perfect Bank Holiday

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In Britain, we are lucky enough to be gifted the occasional Bank Holiday. When you are kid it’s like having two Sundays in a week, but when you grow up and start work you learn to really appreciate any extra down time. The big question is, how to spend it?

Time Management

As tempting as it may be, if you spend the whole day in bed (especially if you are alone) you will regret it later. Have a lie-in by all means. But set an alarm and get up at a reasonable hour. Make a list the day before of all the things you want to do, and be realistic about your goals.

Chores

Everyone has them, nobody wants them. Get used to it. Doing the laundry, popping to the corner shop for some milk, washing the dishes that have been festering in the sink since last weekend’s curry night, whatever little jobs need doing, get them out of the way early doors. Then we can all move on.

Fun Time

We all have our guilty pleasures in life. Something we truly enjoy, but rarely have time to indulge. If only there were more hours in a day, right? Well, today there is! Kind of. It might mean firing up the Xbox, going for a walk, having a kick about with your mates or masturbating furiously to repeats of Charmed. Whatever floats your boat. Just remember to lock the door if that last option appeals to you, and don’t let ‘fun time’ last too long.

Spread Your Wings

This part is key. It’s very simple. Do something you’ve never done before. It can be anything from visiting that museum you’ve always fancied, to taking up a new hobby. It’s your call. It will make this particular Bank Holiday memorable, and make you feel as if you’ve actually achieved something.

Chill

What you shouldn’t do is have a big night in the pub. That would equal a short week from hell. You should have done that on Friday. Or Saturday. Maybe both. In a recent survey, ‘watching a film at home’ topped a list of people’s favourite things to do on a Bank Holiday, coming in just above ‘doing chores’ and ‘relaxing.’ The chores should be done by now. At least, the important ones. So now you can relax and watch a film. Two birds, one stone. You’ve had a busy day. You deserve it.


Football Manager 15

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I’ve been playing Football Manager on Windows for about 12 years. Not constantly, obviously. I take breaks for sleeping, eating, and maintaining a career. My obsession might go some way to explaining why I have spent the majority of those 12 years as a single man. Although I’m never really alone, because I have my team. I’m not the only one who thinks like this. Rumour has it that no other game has been named more during divorce proceedings. Every year I eagerly await the new version of the game, and it absolutely kills me that it doesn’t come out until November. It’s been OK the past few seasons because I’ve been able to get my hands on beta versions, which means I can start playing a few weeks early. Bugs and all.

Probably the most important thing you have to do in FM15 is expand your scouting network. Doing so means more players show up in your searches. Whatever club you choose, my advice is to get hold of the scouts Patrik Anderson and Ronnie Rosenthal. Both are available on low wages, will go almost anywhere, and bring a wealth of international knowledge.

When I first started this year’s version I played two games in the Championship with Cardiff City, and got sacked both times. Once during the January transfer window when I was mid-table, and again after seven games of my second season after I had failed to win promotion. Vincent Tan is one intolerant bastard. After that, I decided I needed a different challenge and started a game with Bristol Rovers of the Vanarama Conference, logic being that having just been relegated from the Football League they should have a decent enough squad for the division. Plus, I’ve always liked pirates.

It’s an entirely different game over at the Memorial Stadium. The bookies make you 1-10 outsiders to win the league, but you have a core of decent players. Neil Trotman and Tom Parkes make a good centre-back pairing, and in Jamie White and Ryan Brunt you have two solid forwards (even though Brunt hasn’t scored in real life for about two years). Left wing is also in good shape, with arguably your two best players, Angelo Balanta and Andy Monkhouse, vying for game time. Unfortunately, that’s about it.

The club are properly skint. But you do start the game with about £70,000 in the bank, which you are better off converting to wages so you can offer prospective signings better deals. Upon arrival, I cancelled the pointless loan signing in midfield and sold Mark McChrystal and young goalkeeper Kieran Preston. He’s a good prospect, but I thought I might be better off cashing in. An SPL club will pay in the region of £130,000 for him, and I inserted a substantial sell-on clause. I factored that money into my wage budget, too, and offered some existing players new contracts on reduced terms. I find giving them impossible bonus incentives is a good strategy, like telling a centre-back you will give him £12,000 for hitting 20 league goals, or a £1,000 bonus for every cap he wins for his country, knowing he is about as likely to win international honours as I am.

Then it was time to go shopping. By that, I mean, it was time to go rooting through the free transfers. A problem area is centre-midfield, which I addressed by snapping up ex-Man Utd prodigy Jack Rudge. He’s only 19, but has great potential, and is worth his place in the team just for his corners and free kicks. Other options are Damien Mozika and Tim Jakobsson. A decent right-sided midfielder is also required, Johnny Gorman can do a job out there. In defence I brought in Slovakian U21 right-back Kristian Kostrna and utility defender Daniel Boateng. Kostrna went straight into the first team, being a dramatic upgrade on Daniel Leadbitter, and though I originally got Boateng for cover because he can play in a few positions, he soon forced his way into the team. 28-year old Spaniard Manuel Ruz is a fantastic option at full-back and would easily be one of the best in the division. The thing is, he isn’t cheap. If you sign him it will fuck up your wage budget.

The U21 team also needs some love. I replaced Preston with Alex Gott, another young Scot who has even better attributes, and brought in Emmanuel Monthe (LB), Billy Simpson (CB/DM), and Heath Harrison (CM). You can pick up all four for a combined £500 a week or so. The object here is not to find players for the first team, but talented youngsters who can fill a gap in an emergency, with the ultimate aim of improving them and selling them on at a profit.

This being the lower divisions where the onus is more on kick and rush rather than technical ability. I started with an attacking 4-4-2 formation with a defensive forward playing off a more advanced attacker, two wide midfielders (one in attacking mode and the other supporting) and a ball-winning midfielder. After some experimentation, when I had the luxury of choosing from a full-fit squad, I settled on this first XI:

Steve Mildenhall (GK)
Lee Brown (LB)
Tom Parkes (CB)
Daniel Boateng (CB)
Kristian Kostrna (RB)
Andy Monkhouse (LM)
Ollie Clarke (CM)
Jack Rudge (CM)
Johnny Gorman (RM)
Jamie White (ST)
Ryan Brunt (ST)

Bench: Puddy (GK), Trotman (CB), Lockyer (CB/RB/CM), Balanta (LM), Taylor (ST)

So how did it go? Pretty fucking well, to be honest!

By Christmas I was top of the table, with White banging in something like 22 goals in 25 games. Brunt also got into double figures before getting injured. Boateng, Kostrna, Rudge and Gorman all established themselves in the first team , and by that stage were worth a cool £500,000 between them.

However, my squad needed to be slimmed down a little, so in the January transfer window, out went Leadbitter, Lee Mansell and Jake Gosling, all on free transfers to get them off the wage bill. I also tried to get shot of Stuart Sinclair and Ollie Clarke, but I wanted fees for those and nobody was interested. In came forward/right-winger Alex Nicholls and defensive midfielder Gary Deegan. Both the optimum age of 27 and with experience of having played in higher divisions,

In the second half of the season I won the FA Tropy, beating Southport at Wembley, and finished second in the league behind Gateshead (who?). I had led for long stretches before falling away, but was secretly glad to qualify for the play-offs as even that exceeded all expectations. There, my team beat Woking 3-1 on aggregate in the semis, and Kidderminster 4-2 in the final. Promotion and a return to league football was the prize. At the end of the season, White was the highest scorer not just in the league but possibly in the known universe with 45 goals from 55 total games and Rudge topped the assist chart with 17. Brunt and Monkhouse also did well. All things considered, it was a successful season. Though I was a bit peeved at not winning the Manager of the Year award. What does a man have to do?


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