Part 2 - The Journeyman's Journey
How will TheMorty's side fare against the league giants Manchester United and Arsenal? And will the Magpies finally get one over bitter rivals SAFC?
When it comes to Football-based gaming, you could say I've been around the block a few times. The ultimate journeyman of the sport. The video-gaming equivalent of Steve Claridge.
Since playing Italia 90 on the Commodore 64, I've graduated from the school of Sensible Soccer, owned the entire EA-FIFA catalogue and invested/wasted more years than I care to remember flicking little Subbuteo pieces around the table in my garden shed. Yet, in all the years and all the games, this was undoubtedly the most pressure I'd felt to perform.
I'd played Chamionship manager hundreds of times and gotten teams to a fair few virtual cup finals along the way, but it was always in the comfort of the bedroom. Here, I was about to put my reputation on the line, knowing full well that my tactics and approach would be publicly available and inviting scrutiny. Before it was good fun but now it felt like there was something riding on this. Was I actually any good at this game? or was i just another football fan who talked the talk but hadn't yet passed his fork-lift truck drivers licence.
Squad vs Ipswich (Away)
Starting 11: Given, Duff, Said, Distin, West, Dyer, Kallstrom, Robert, Shearer ©, Solano, Madeira
Subs: Harper, Acuna, Cort, Bellamy (on 82), Dabizas
Here I was, going into the opening Premier League game of the season and it was fitting I'd been given a fixture down at Portman Road to kick it all off. Facing one of Sir Bobby’s favourite clubs – Ipswich Town, where he notably won The UEFA Cup and FA Cup with the Tractor Boys. My chances to win the former were dashed by the qualifying defeat to Pribram, but to emulate the FA Cup run in my first season in charge would be a dream (some might say a fantasy). There were debuts for Said, West and Duff as my new look defence took shape and a first start for Kim Kallstrom in a 2-man midfield with Kieron Dyer – who is returning to face his former club in Suffolk for the first time since his £6m move to Newcastle in 1999.
The game didn’t go exactly as planned, but there were positives. A very low tempo 0-0 draw was the outcome, Shearer and Madeira both having a 6 rated game and nowhere near the level you’d expect from that calibre of striker. Yet, the defence were superb in keeping an in-form Markus Stewart at bay particularly the three new lads on their debuts. Sylvain Distin deservedly picked up the MoM award. However, as it would transpire - that would be his last game for the club…
Distin was always about money. In his teens, his lightening quick-out-of-the-blocks speed made him an Olympic hopeful for France. He could have been a sprinting great, but he saw his future in the mega-rich world of football opting to sign as a scholar in Paris. In 2002, he had the option to fulfil most players dreams and play Champions League football at either Newcastle or PSG, but instead opted to join newly promoted Manchester City and help them in their relegation battle – almost entirely because they were willing to pay the highest wages. So when the news flashed up that PSG had accepted a bid from Rennes of £1.1m, it was no surprise that we’d likely lose our loan man. And lose him we did, so off went the scouts looking for the ideal replacement. In the meantime, there was another game to prepare for...
Squad vs Spurs (Home)
Starting 11: Given, Duff, Said, West, Elliott, Dyer, Kallstrom, Robert, Shearer ©, Solano, Speed,
Subs: Harper, Madeira (on 46), Cort, O’Brien, Barton (on 46)
From the North East of London to the North East of England come Tottenham Hotspur. A team filled with ageing – but still very dangerous – talent. Poyet, Rebrov and Sir Les Ferdinand were just a few names on the team sheet that had the ability to really punish us. With my team still very much a work in progress and finding their feet, I opted to go for a much more defensive approach. Bringing in Gary Speed as a second defensive midfielder and opting to go with just the one up top, Shearer being preferred to Madeira. Elliot comes in at LB with West moving centrally in place of the departed Distin.
The game gets off to a flyer, with Kieron Dyer banging in a volley from distance to put us 1-0 up on 25 minutes. 4 minutes later though and its only bloody Robbie Elliott (AGAIN) who gives away a penalty. The luck of the Irish was with us, Shay Given pulled off a wonderful diving save to deny Uruguayan striker Gus Poyet an equaliser. Spurs were having most of the possession, but I was reluctant to change things – the plan was to get to half time and regroup. But, typically, I didn’t get that chance. On the stroke of 45 Sergei Rebrov got on the end of a corner and powered a header past a helpless Given to make it ones-a-piece. While it wasn’t mentioned in the on screen text, one can only imagine it was Robbie Elliott that let his man go..
At half time, changes must be made. I switch back to my favoured 4-1-3-2 system, bringing on Tó Madeira to get his first taste of the atmosphere of the 52,000 roars inside St. James Park. Speedo makes way for a fresh striker and I haul off Elliott, moving Taribo West to left back and bringing Warren Barton in at centre back. It only took 9 minutes for my plan to work. Supersub Madeira scoring from close range after rounding the keeper to make it 2-1. After a couple of late scares (including Poyet having a goal disallowed for offside!) We edged over the finish line for the first PL victory of TheMorty’s reign.
One of the many, many things I love about Championship Manager is how easy it is to conduct your transfer business. There’s essentially 3 bits of criteria you need to meet:
Club Asking Price
Player Wages & Signing on Fee
That’s essentially it. There’s a goal and assist bonus, a relegation/minimum release clause but they’re optional and only really needed for high-profile players who need that extra bit of convincing to join your club. In the latest iteration of the game (Football Manager 2018) there are far too many options and sets of criteria that need to be met. Seasonal landmarks, target-based wage increases, appearance fees, substitute fees, unused substitute fees. Fees if you win a trophy, fees if you don’t win a trophy. Fees for when they get international recognition and fees when they score international goals. Now, that’s all well and good, it’s modern day football and incentive based contracts are the norm, but when you play a 'game' you long for the simplicity, you don’t need every detail to be incredibly realistic. For example, in Call of Duty you hit ‘X’ to reload. You don’t go into a mini-game where you take out the clip, clean the chamber, replace bullets individually and then re-position the sights. The reason you don’t do that is because it’s supposed to be quick and it’s supposed to be fun. Championship Manager 01/02 prides itself on that perfect balance, you take care of the basics and the machine will take care of the rest. My foray into the transfer market here is exactly as I’d hoped – fun. I can buy, sell and sack whoever I want as long as I meet the three outlined standards and boy am I enjoying doing so.
I start throwing out offers to clubs in search for my midfield missing link. First Steven Gerrard turns me down, then Joe Cole at West Ham. Derby see Tonton Zola Moukoko as a hot prospect for the future and reject my offer and, despite meeting Blackpool’s asking price, the club cancel my transfer for ex-Man Utd starlet Richie Wellens because they think the money offered is unrealistic for an unproven youngster. Despite the setbacks, I’m having a whale of a time playing the young Harry Redknapp, trying to wheel and deal my way to spending the limited transfer budget that I have. After the relative success I had bringing in Kim Kallstrom, I turn back away from the English league and look to the Scandi countries, criteria being a midfield player under-21 years old with high work rate, influence, flair and finishing. Eventually, I make a breakthrough… Kennedy Bakircioglu is the name, the 20-year old arriving for £1.9m from Swedish side Hammarby. He’d scored 5 goals in 26 games the season before and been voted young player of the year in the Allsvenskan league. Not bad at all for an 8th of what Steven Gerrard would have cost me!
Squad vs Man Utd (Away)
Formation: 4-5-1 (defensive)
Starting 11: Given, Duff, Said, West, Elliott, Dyer, Kallstrom, Robert, Shearer ©, Solano, Speed.
Subs: Harper, Madeira (on 46), Cort (on 67), O’Brien, Bakircioglu (on 46)
After a great result against Spurs, I thought I’d try the same tactics again. Contain Manchester United as best I could, trying to nullify some of the best players on the game (and in the world at the time). Giggs, van Nistelrooy, Cole, Veron and Beckham were an attacking force to be reckoned with. If my defensive line could hold, get to half time 0-0, perhaps I could change things up in the second half and bring on some pace in Madeira and Bakircioglu and try to nick a win. Hell, settling for a point this early on at a place like Old Trafford where Newcastle hadn’t won since 1972 would be fantastic. Afterall, the scorers from that day, Stewart Barrowclough and John Tudor, were long gone from the Geordie squad. The plan was good… the execution however… was anything but.
Half time and we were 0-2 down. van Nistelrooy and Cole on the scoresheet as Man Utds front three were all having 10/10 games. I brought on Madeira and Bakircioglu at half time as planned, dropping Gary Speed and – again – Robbie Elliott who were both playing at 5s. Carl Cort came on with 20 minutes + stoppage time to go, but couldn’t stop serial dog-knocker-off-er-er Roy Keane from adding the icing to a very bitterly tasting cake. My first Premier League defeat against one of our oldest enemies. Needless to say, the board weren’t pleased.
Having had enough of Robbie Elliotts antics, I added him to the transfer list and dropped him to the reserves. He’d become a liability and as much as he's a top lad and fun to have a beer with, I just couldn’t risk against the leagues best anymore. I had to step up my search for a centre back and again took a trip to the Nordics. Young Swede Fredrik Risp fit the bill and soon became my latest addition to the squad in a £3m deal. Whilst scouting Risp, I noticed a player who had scored against him a week or two previous and had a 10-rated MoM game. Abgar Barsom. Another young Swedish player who was valued at only £70k! Similarly to Paiva, it was a risk free move to strengthen the reserve team. In the departure lounge, Bassedas was waiting for a flight to Spain as the Argentinian departed for a record fee of £9.5m to La Liga outfit Real Sociedad. Not that I really wanted to sell him, but he was surplus to requirements and that kind of money was just too good to turn down.
Growing up, my mother’s best friend lived in Falkirk. We’d often take trips up there to visit her and her family. She had a son my age and we got on really well (bonding naturally over football). In the summer of 2001, we were up there for the weekend and me and the lad went along to Brockville Park to see a game. I remember it well, because they were playing St. Mirren (who I was quietly cheering on, given they're my Scottish grandfather’s boyhood club). It was 2-2 and the game was into stoppage time, when suddenly out of nowhere the ball was in the back of the onion bag and The Bairns had hit a last-minute winner. The 7,000 fans inside the stadium were on their feet and cheering. It was a great atmosphere for such a small club. The scorer of that winning goal was Mark Kerr, and naturally his name rang around the terraces. I got CM 01/02 that year for Christmas and everytime I’d play, I’d always sign him – he was to me as Niko Kranjcar or Jermaine Defoe is to Harry Redknapp. For that one goal I saw him take – I’d take him anywhere with me in return. Keeping up that 100% record, of course he was the next body through the door - signing for my Newcastle project in a £425k deal.
Squad vs Fulham (Away)
Starting 11: Given, Gavilan, Said, Risp, West, Dyer, Bakircioglu, Bellamy, Shearer ©, Solano, Madeira.
Subs: Harper, Kerr (on 77), Lee, Barsom (on 77), Kallstrom (on 77).
Back to 4-1-3-2 and a return of the attacking intent. I was done playing to my opponents strengths – time to play to ours. Mike Duff missed out after picking up a training injury and Laurent Robert was very unhappy – he felt he deserved to be paid more and was asking for a pay rise. Much like the late Rev. Ian Paisley - I don’t negotiate with terrorists, particularly not those who’ve only been in the team for 5 minutes and are demanding to be the highest paid player in the club! So Robert got the naughty step treatment and would spend a week in the reserves to contemplate what he had done.
What an incredible game for the neutrals. We thought our luck was in when former Monaco midfielder John Collins got crocked in the 39th minute. However, his replacement Bjarne Goldbaek came on and made an instant impact, putting Jean Tigana’s boys 1-0 up before half time. We fought back with a goal from Bakircioglu on his full debut and we very nearly took the lead, but Shearer’s strike was ruled out for offside. Steve Marlet restored Fulham’s advantage before Madeira struck in the 75th minute to make the game all square. Heading for a draw, I made a 3-man substitution. A last roll of the dice. Kallstrom, Barsom and Kerr – the latter I had hoped would repeat his feat from the St Mirren game I remembered so fondly as a boy. Alas, the opposite happened. Fulham scored a 90th minute winner on the counter attack as we committed men forward. Sods law it had to be ex-nufc striker Louis Saha with the winning goal to cap his Man of the Match performance. Newcastle were on 4 points in 15th position and the board were not happy, making it clear that they expected us to be “winning that type of match”.