Part 1 - The European Dream
TheMorty begins his retro playthrough as Newcastle's Manager. It's a hell of a season.
Playing Football Manager 2018 I realised just how much I missed the olden days of Football Management simulators. A simpler time long before complicated contracts, press conferences and boardroom turmoil. Long before agents, transfer windows, Saudi Billionaires and financial fair play. Specifically, I didn't just miss a simpler time, I missed Championship Manager 01/02. When I noticed that it was now freeware and available to download for nowt, I decided to embark on a season long journey through a childhood classic - but would it be as good as I had so nostalgically remembered?
I have a love-hate relationship with Championship Manager. I love it, because it's a god-damn near perfect game that encapsulates all of the good bits of managing and supporting a football team. I hate it, because I very nearly failed my GSCEs, A-Levels and Degree because of it. One of the most addictive games on the market, it can last forever. There's no completion point, no expiry date. Keep going until you get bored. It has you at 12am saying "just one more game" and before you know it the suns coming up, you've not slept and you need to leave the house for school/college/uni/work (delete where applicable). It's repeat play-through value is priceless with a seemingly unlimited amount of clubs and countries to choose from and manage - you can literally play this game forever and have a different experience every single time.
The problem with football games though is their shelf-life. While you can replay the game often with different clubs, the games themselves are seasonal and each year you have a new "upgraded" version on the market, with updated rosters and re-skinned with bells and whistles. Yet, with each bell and every whistle added, you lose a good chunk of the game's essence. You lose part of the simplicity that made the game great and within a decade it's unrecognisable from the original. The Championship/Football manager sims are the perfect example of this, as it's latest iteration is almost too realistic, like you're actually working for a football club and have the stresses and pressures that come with the job - just without the company Bentley and the £5m a year salary.
2001 - A Geordie Oddysey
As the game loaded, I had a very tough decision to make - who in the hell am I going to select to play as? This isn't Borderlands where I have 4 protagonists to pick from or Saints Row where I can design my own character - this is a real life Football Management Simulator and I have every team in every league in the world to pick from. I decide to go with my heart and pick my boyhood club. The team I had a season ticket to watch growing up, the team I cheered for week-in, week-out in the whole of the 2001/2002 season, wearing a replica kit with my hero's name on the back. There couldn't be a better choice for me and there certainly couldn't be a bigger challenge - after all, in 2001 - Newcastle were absolutely crap! Nevertheless, I'd picked my team, been given a nice £12m transfer budget and had a whole year ahead of me.
The squad was thin in 2001, Sir Bobby Robson was embarking on his first full season with his beloved club, having staved off relegation the season before. To do so, he wasn’t given a sizable war-chest. Far from it. Sir Bobby only had a budget for two middle-of the road players. He opted to strengthen up top and out wide, bringing in volatile, Welsh gobshite Craig Bellamy to Leazes in a £6.5m deal and some French flair in a man many were touting as the next David Ginola, Laurent Robert for £9.5m from Paris Saint Germain. With the coffers almost bare, Sir Bob managed to bring in a cheap loan deal of a young, pacey centre-back in the form of Sylvain Distin, again crossing the channel from PSG.
The new faces added to a team that had stared down into the abyss in the not too distant past. International-class players like Robert Lee, Gary Speed and Warren Barton were deep into their 30s. Alan Shearer was coming back from a career threatening knee injury and the centre back pairing of Nikos Dabizas and Marcelino would almost certainly struggle in a league featuring some of the best forward talent in the world. So the squad I was inheriting was neither flush with talent nor exuberant with youth. It was clear that I had to conduct my business quickly and decisively if I was to stand any chance of delivering silverware to a club that had gone without for far too long.
One of the most amazing things about CM 01/02 is that takes place before the current transfer system came into effect. So you weren’t restricted to only buying players in 2 windows per season. In FM 2018 and in later CM titles, there are so many restrictions. Squads are limited to 25 players with a "homegrown" restriction meaning 8 of those players must have been trained in England. The transfer window means you need to get all of that business concluded between July-Sept - with an additional winter window opening and closing in January. However, with this game, I could sign and sell players whenever I needed, have up to 50 of them in my squad and they could be trained wherever the hell they liked. This feature meant I could be a more reactive manager if I needed, providing I didn't blow my budget early, I could keep a little away in a rainy day jar so that I could sign cover for injuries and suspensions later in the season.
Pre-Season - The European Journey
The club expected European football next season, but I had a chance to deliver this early. Some of you may be too young to remember the Intertoto Cup, as it was abolished in 2009. For those that remember it fondly, it was a cup developed by Swedish visionary Eric Persson – a man for whom football coursed through his veins. He came up with the idea as a “cup for the cupless” a way of giving hope to teams that may not qualify for European tournaments through conventional means (I.e. winning leagues and trophies). In 2001, Newcastle and Aston Villa both applied to take part in the Intertoto Cup as they bid to be one of three victorious teams from a number of parallel knockout games entering the 2001/2002 UEFA Cup.
It would be this cup where my season long journey as Newcastle United manager would begin. Starting a two-legged tie at home against Swiss minnows Yverdon-Sport FC. It came too soon to sign any players, so I had to pick a side from the squad at my disposal. The defence pretty much picked itself, so I opted for the famous 4-1-3-2 formation…
4-1-3-2 is cult. It’s almost synonymous with this version of Championship Manager. It had everything. Numbers in defence, three attacking midfielders, two strikers and full-backs that bomb forward. If you have the right personnel, it’s extremely effective. However, the wrong players in this formation and the game becomes a suicide mission. Either way, I figured I may as well start as I meant to go on.
Squad vs Yrvden (Home)
Starting 11: Given, Barton, Elliott, Dabizas, Distin, Bassedas, Gavilan, McClen, Lee ©, Bellamy, Robert.
Subs: Harper, Ameobi (on 65), Lua-Lua (on 65), Hughes, Quinn (on 86), Marcelino, O’Brien
The game started well, Newcastle controlled the possession as you’d expect and Laurent Robert very nearly opened his account for the club crashing a shot off the underside of the bar in the 32nd minute. At half time, it was still 0-0, but we’d been on top. I saw no reason to panic and started the second half exactly the way I’d ended the first - attacking. GOAL: McClen (47’) Almost straight after the restart Jamie McClen pops up with a beauty. Bellamy with the knock-down into the box, McClen with the finish from close range. We’re cruising in this game, so I drop the pace. Changing the tactics to normal from attacking and put men behind the ball. Quinn comes on at left-back for Robbie Elliot whose playing a 6-rated game and Lua-Lua comes on up top for Bellamy. On the 85th minute, something bizarre happens. Sesa puts in a naughty tackle on Dabizas and our gallant Greek retaliates by sticking the nut on his opposite number. The red mist results in a red card for both men and we’re playing the final 5' a man down on each side of the pitch. Thankfully, the final whistle goes and TheMorty starts his tenure as Toon Gaffer with a win!
Champ Man sticks to the basics, there’s no post-match press conferences, no awkward conversations I need to have. Just two main options when dealing with a sent-off player; appeal the dismissal with UEFA or take disciplinary action against the individual. No chance I’d ever discipline one of my boys for giving his opposing striker a Glasgow kiss, nor would I have a hope in hell of getting that rescinded, so I opt for a third choice – do sweet FA.
With the return leg in Switzerland just 4 days away, I try my best to strengthen in the short space of time I have. Carl Cort and Club Captain Alan Shearer are still a week away from fitness, so my first foray into the transfer market has to be for a striker and there’s only one name on my shortlist… Tó Madeira.
Now, Championship Manager and the proceeding Football Manager titles pride themselves on their scouting database. In later years, the same scouting network has provided information to professional football clubs and media outlets about upcoming talents and player attributes. But, no game is without Easter Egg or safe from rogue developer or scout. See, Tó Madeira doesn’t exist. He’s pure fiction. As legend has it, one of the scouts went on a scouting trip to Madeira, the little group of Portuguese Islands, and presumably for a laugh submitted “To Madeira” as one of his scouted players. As to not to arouse suspicion, the scout added a little acute to the “o” - that'll get past 'em! By the second patch of the game, the developers had figured this out – mainly because his stats were so insanely brilliant you couldn’t help but notice him. They killed him off from that release but fortunately, for both Newcastle United and myself, I was playing the day dot version so off I headed to Clube Desportivo de Gouveia and submitted a paltry £9,000 bid. Within 24hours, Tó was a Newcastle United footballer and his legend would begin.
The return leg to Yverdon was the perfect place to give the big man his debut, and with a 1-0 aggregate lead, I decided to keep the formation and tactcis the same, maybe with a slight change in personnel in the midfield area to reflect Acuna and Solano returning from international duty. In the absence of suspended hot-head Nikos Dabizas, I was forced to field a makeshift CB pairing of Warren ‘centre parting’ Barton and Sylvain Distin. After a good week of training, Newcastle were buoyed to have Club Captain Alan Shearer back from injury and ready to make his first start under the new gaffer.
Squad vs Yrvden (Away)
Starting 11: Given, Gavilan, Elliott, Distin, Barton, Solano, Acuna, Dyer, Shearer ©, Madeira, Robert.
Subs: Harper, Cort, Ameobi (on 86), Robert (on 76), Bellamy, Griffin (on 76), O’Brien
It was another 1-0 win for the Toon Army, making it 2-0 on aggregate to the mighty mags and it was a debut to remember for our friend Tó Madeira, netting the only goal of the game on the 43rd minute to send us through to round two of the cup. Making it 2-in-2 for the gaffer as he kept his 100% record intact.
The next round of the cup would see us drawn against FK Pribram. A mid-table team from the Czech national league. They didn’t have any real talent to speak of, but Josef Csaplár’s men had finished 4th the season previous, so might pose a sizable threat against a tired Toon side playing their 3rd game in 8 days.
Squad vs FK Pribram (Home)
Starting 11: Given, Gavilan, Elliott, Distin, Dabizas, Lee, Acuna, Dyer, Shearer ©, Madeira, Bassedas.
Subs: Harper, Cort (on 21), Solano (on 60), Robert (on 60), Bellamy, Griffin, O’Brien
Well… this didn’t go to plan. 21 minutes in and former England captain Shearer is crocked. He’s picked up an ankle knock and needs to leave the field. Carl Cort takes his place but before he even gets chance to get going, disaster strikes. Robbie Elliot is given a straight red for his two-footed lunge on their nippy right winger. Half time comes and we’re a man down. I’m forced to react so I push Dyer to fullback, making it a 4-3-2. 9 minutes after the restart and we’re 0-1 down. Czech Republic striker Marek Kulič slotting home after capitalizing on a Dabizas defensive error - lets just say Nikos is not exactly endearing himself to his new boss. I'm forced to react quickly again, bringing on Solano and Robert and switching to a wide formation to exploit the wings, but it’s too late. The damage is done and with the man advantage, Csaplár shuts up shop, handing me my first defeat in virtual football management.
We had 3 days until the rematch and there’d been a double breakthrough in the transfer department. The most notable being Swedish U21 starlet Kim Källström who had arrived from Gothenburg-based BK Häcken for £1.2m. The Nordic Market on CM 01/02 was always a favourite, the whole of Scandinavia was ripe with talent and you could pick up a bargain in the low millions that could do a relatively good short term job whilst, with the right training, would go on to be a leading Premier League star. The goalkeeping issue still needed to be addressed and my scouts had found me a great keeper in the form of Hugo Pinheiro, joining for £20,000 from Marinhese. One for the future this lad and one I can give a run-out to in the cups, but with a game of some magnitude approaching, the 19 year-old custodian would have to bide his time before making his debut.
Squad vs FK Pribram (Away)
Starting 11: Given ©, Gavilan, Barton, Distin, Dabizas, Lee, Speed, Dyer, Solano, Madeira, Robert.
Subs: Harper, Kallstrom (on 74), Acuna, Cort (on 85), Bellamy (on 85), Griffin, O’Brien
We’re out of the cup lads. The European dream ends before it really begins. It all started so brightly when Madeira popped up at the back post with a bullet header on 32 minutes but just on the stroke of half time, it was that man again Marek Kulič who proved a thorn in our side and dashed our hopes, finishing a 1-on-1 low past Shay Given. There were some positives, it was 2 goals in 3 games for Madeira and Kallstrom had a very good debut, but Robbie Elliott’s indiscipline had cost us over the two legs.
It was at this point I knew the squad needed an overhaul, out with the old timers and in with the new blood. Robbie Elliott would be the first to make way, he’d cost me and I wasn’t the forgiving type. Nikos Dabizas had to go too. He’d proved a handful and a liability in my short time in charge. So I decide to focus firmly on defenders. A left back for Elliott, a centre-back and a right-back to replace 35 year old Warren Barton would be my first priority.
With a budget of £10.5m remaining, I looked into the free agent pool, see if there were any quality players unattached. Knocking around were a couple of quality internationals. First Up Josep Guardiola. A world-class DM recently released by Barcelona. I offered a contract but even breaking my wage barrier by offering him £50k-a-week wasn’t enough to tempt him to Toon. Instead he moved to Germany. Okay… so who else is knocking around? I filter by full-backs and spot one, a left-footed, crazy haired Nigerian by the name of Taribo West. Just released by AC Milan and can play both left and centre back. My Ideal replacement for Elliott. I offer him the contract, he accepts and we await the results of a work permit. I also spotted a young Portuguese lad named Joao Paiva with a very high finishing rating. He’s free, so I figure why not take a chance on him for my reserve team. Right back is going to be a bit more difficult. Instead of the experience of Barton, I opt for youth and taking a punt on young, pacey right-back Mike Duff from Cheltenham Town. I manage to pick him up for a bargain of £240k. My long-term Dabizas replacement comes in the form of Ibrahim Said, an Egyptian-born, versatile defender from Al Ahly. After having two sub-million pound bids rejected, I have to pay double the asking price and get him for a cool £1.7m. I transfer listed Spanish reserve defender Marcelino and offered him out at asking price. Malaga offer just over that at £3.6m and I bite their hands off. West’s work permit should be a formality with the number of international caps he has, so that means I have significantly upgraded ¾ of my defence for a collective £1.95m with a net defensive profit of £1.65m. That will do nicely!
With my squad starting to come together, I look at the next game and my managerial debut in the Premier League. It was the real start of my season-long journey. Could I end Newcastle's trophy drought? Would I be in for a relegation fight? OR would I even keep my job? I embarked on a season where absolutely anything could happen...