Part 8 - End of an Era... or Error?
As TheMorty ended his epic, 3-month play-through of Football's greatest simulator, he remembered he was supposed to be reviewing the game...
Well, this was it. My Championship Manager journey was finally coming to an end. A game that could, quite literally, go on forever had to stop somewhere and I’d decided to stop it here. I’d tasted domestic silverware success twice, winning the League Cup and the FA Cup and I’d comfortably finished third, securing Champions League qualification in the process. So why not end on a high, eh?
Before I switched off the laptop and said a final goodbye to a childhood friend, there was just one piece of business left to finish. A loose end to tie up. A season ending swansong. While on paper a game away to West Ham was meaningless for the Geordies, it presented itself a unique transactional opportunity. Nothing less than a win for the Hammers on the final day would suffice in their battle for survival and I had the opportunity to relegate them by leaving the Boleyn Ground with just a point. A bit harsh, taking satisfaction in relegating a team – isn’t it? Perhaps, but I feel no ill towards West Ham and wished them only well – this was purely business.
You may remember back in August that I had several bids turned down from West Ham for their midfield starlet Joe Cole. He’d be a fantastic acquisition for any side on the game but I wasn't prepared to meet their asking price. My final rejected offer was north of £10m – with £15m being the likely figure I’d need to pay to land him. No way would I part with that much cash when for the same price I could have purchased:
5 Frederik Risps,
21½ Kim Kallstroms,
35 Mark Kerrs
or 1,500 To Madeiras.
In CM 01/02, many players have release clauses at the start of the game – it makes it hard to sign them at your first season, but after 12-18 months you can pick up some right bargains. As it happened, Joe Cole was one of these coveted players with a common release clause that made him available for just £3.3m if West Ham were to be relegated from the Premier League. All of a sudden, this game meant something – sorry Hammers fans, but I was going to pull out all of the stops to make sure I landed my missing midfield man!
Squad vs West Ham (Away)
Starting 11: Given, Duff, Risp, Said, Crainey, Dyer, Kerr, Bakircioglu, Shearer ©, Kallstrom, Madeira.
Subs: Pinheiro, Solano (on 45), Selakovic, Barsom, Lee (on 27).
With Chiotis finally serving a suspension, I handed a rare start to Shay Given. Shearer and Madeira resumed their red-hot partnership up top and I recalled Robert Lee to the bench for what would be his final appearance in a Newcastle United shirt – I had opted not to renew the 36-year old’s contract. My plans to bring him on for a 10 minute run out at the end swiftly changed when Mike Duff went down with a calf injury and Rob was brought onto the field in the 27th Minute. I decided to be kind and play him in his preferred and natural DM role, while Kieron Dyer moved to right-back to plug the Duff-sized gap.
Fortunately, this came at a manageable time. We were already 1-0 up thanks to a trademark, bullet header from Alan Shearer.
At half time we had a slender advantage. All we needed to do was hold on for 45 minutes...
Unlike some of my earlier match-ups, there was to be no final day roller-coaster ride. What followed was a boring and event-less half, where Newcastle shut up shop and West Ham looked void of energy and idea - almost resigned to their impending fate. The game ended and Newcastle were victorious. I had finished my season (and play through) on a high and I now had my shot at securing a world class central midfielder for next to nothing. Brilliant.
As final whistles blew around the grounds, we had our final standings. Arsenal were Champions with Manchester United Runners-Up.
Newcastle and Liverpool took the remaining champions league places while Leeds and Chelsea would play in the UEFA Cup. There was a respectable and somewhat surprising 7th placed finish for Leicester City, who pipped Ipswich and Middlesbrough to the Intertoto Cup place on goal difference.
At the Bottom of the table, West Ham joined Derby and Southampton on the express train to Division One while Charlton narrowly avoided the drop – despite losing 1-2 to Fulham on the final day.
In reality, the league table from 2002 wasn’t too much different. Same Champions, same top 6 – albeit in a slightly different order. Derby, Everton and Bolton finished in the same positions as they did in my play-through too. It left me asking, is this game really that good, that it can almost perfectly predict the final outcome for every team?
I mean, there’s obviously a lot of additional factors with a game to take into consideration, but most teams finished very close to their real life position. The accuracy of this text based simulator was astounding and certainly a lot better than all other sports sims I'd played to date. I decided to prove my point and put CM to the test by starting a career on FIFA 18. It has all the bells and whistles you’d expect of an HD next gen game, but when I simulated a whole season the results were almost random. In my game Spurs won the league, Manchester City finished 8th and Sunderland were promoted back to the Premier League at the first time of asking - a far cry from real events.
The guys at Sports Interactive were clearly not just football fans, more football experts and that knowledge shone through in every element of their meticulously planned and perfectly executed game.
The scouting network was incredible and even back then, when it was a lot smaller than the 1,300 scouts SI employ in 51 countries around the globe, it was scarily accurate enough to get so much varied player, team and boardroom information pretty much bang on. The in-game scouting, combined with my Biff Tannen Sports Almanac, meant I'd fared quite well during the play-through. I’d managed 37 victories at a win rate of 68.5%. The third best in the division behind Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. Not too shabby…
I’d bought 18 players – the 7th most transfers in the world that season and my reputation had increased from “Unproven” to “Fair”. I was a long way to "World Class", but at least I was now ranked as the 111th best manager in world football. For those curious, Then Bayern manager Ottmar Hitzfeld was nummer eins.
So. Was the game as good as I had so nostalgically remembered? Yes. I'd loved it. Simple yet shrewd, plain yet pure and set in a time un-corrupted by the Broadcast TV money that enables modern football to be the ruthless business it is today. I'd adored not having to deal with complicated transfer systems and contract negotiations that had infuriated me during my playthrough of FM 2018.
Don't get me wrong, Football manager is a fantastic game. It’s smart, accurate and is as close to the real thing as you could ever get without putting on your suit and sitting in the dugout. However, it lacked that immersive element that CM 01/02 just oozed and while I happily swapped my £40 game for a free one, I can't say that CM didn't have moments where I'd longed for a press conference to deliver a spiteful, hate filled jab at my opponent who'd just beaten me. I'd missed being able to unsettle a player by verbally singing their praises and I'd missed sitting back and watching the replays of key goals it big matches.
While that is certainly a major selling point for the latest games, it wasn't enough to sway me back to the shiny lights of football simulations answer to the Las Vegas Strip. The mystery and intrigue of what would happen next was always more exhilarating that seeing the 2D or 3D build up play.
Had this old, 18 year old title delivered? Well, I’d spent 3 months playing this game and it had really taken over my life. I was going to bed late, getting up early and I’d made more coffee than Gunther from Friends in my bid to stay awake at my desk. I was spending my lunch breaks on forums and watching CM 01/02 streamed games on twitter as I couldn't wait to get home and resume my game. So yeah, delivered is certainly one way to put it.
It's repeat play-through value is indeed priceless and while I had achieved my goals as Newcastle gaffer, I still didn't want to walk away. The devil on my shoulder saying "Just one more season..." while the Angel was saying... "Go on... just one more season..."
I wanted to dip back in immediately, move clubs and maybe manage a country - I felt like I wanted to play this game forever and explore every experience available. With the World Cup approaching, I was itching to do an England play-though with the excitement of a kid at Christmas. I had to physically stop myself for fear I'd never play another game again and FBT would kick me firmly off the site for taking up all the blog space with football puns.
My advice to all football fans, it's just as good as you remember - and if you didn't play it get out there and give it a go. It's free, so what are you waiting for? Kiss goodbye to the partner, the children, your friends and your colleagues tell them you'll see them in a month. Crack open a beer, put your feet up and play. I promise, you won't regret it.