Where fantasy meets reality: Championship Manager

It is without a doubt one of the most addictive developments in the history of football, so much so that it has even been cited as the reason behind about 30 divorces in the UK since its inception in 1982. Football manager games have brought an entirely new dimension to football fandom, the ability to take control of a club and run it the way you want. The games have advanced to a such a stage that you find yourself entirely immersed in this fantasy world, accelerating into a make-believe future with your club, sometimes even losing track of who the club has signed in real life or in the game.

The sense of realism is clearly what sells the games to the fans, because stripped away as nothing more than a spreadsheet and a collection of intricate flow charts it is hardly the most interesting of concepts. But just how close to real life is it?

Scarily close. Let’s use new Bristol Rovers boss Paul Buckle as an example. Buckle joined Rovers on the first day of June, and since then has brought 14 players into the club, quite a haul in less than 2 months. He was recently asked how he managed to accomplish such a feat, to which he replied that he had, over the space of 4 years, created a database of players that he had scouted and assessed, and as a result was able to call upon his research as a source for new players. Whether this was experimented with as a result of playing Championship Manager or another similar title was not explained, but the comparisons between what Buckle has managed to do and what you or I could do with a laptop and a copy of Football Manager are clear.

Yet while Buckle created his own database, others have decided to jump on the back of the likes of Football Manager’s scouting resources for their own uses. In 2008 Everton signed a contract with Sports Interactive to be able to use the company’s network of 1000 scouts in 50 different countries before the game was released, supposedly allowing them the best opportunity to pick up talented players before on the cheap before anyone else can get involved. Whether or not that has worked depends on your view of the Everton transfer policy, although even a highly knowledgeable group of scouts can’t make much difference when the chairman employs a strategy of ‘let’s not buy anyone, ever.’

These games do have a proven track record of pointing-out rather than unearthing gems, particularly in youth squads. The likes of Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi and David Beckham were all destined for greatness according to previous versions and have successfully gone on to prove the developers and scouts right. There have also been some instances of players on the game out-performing their real-life selves, for example Ramon Calliste who helped this writer catapult his Southend team from Division 3 to the Premier League on Championship Manager 03/04, scoring more than a goal a game throughout his career. Back on planet Earth, Calliste is hunting for a club after being released by Scunthorpe.

But what could be more realistic than a failed foray into the transfer market? You only need to look at some of Alex Ferguson’s signings over the years to see that even great managers and scouts get it wrong sometimes. Liam Miller, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Massimo Taibi, Bébé… you just can’t win them all.

So you’ve led your team from the bowels of the Football League to the glory of the Premier League title, maybe with a few European and domestic trophies thrown in for good measure. Basically, you’re a legend. Could you cut it in the real world?

Some have tried. In 2006, one plucky football fan took his knowledge of management games, and his experience of managing an under-11s team, put it in a CV and sent it to Middlesbrough, manager-less following Steve McClaren’s ill-advised decision to become England coach. In his covering letter, John Boileau described himself as, “a young, ambitious football manager with vast experience (on Football Manager 2005)” whose greatest achievements included signing Raul, Fernando Torres and Thierry Henry as his strikeforce at Doncaster Rovers. Somehow Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson managed to overlook the talented Boileau, stating in his reply to the former Doncaster manager that, while he was clearly the outstanding candidate, Gibson feared he would be snapped-up immediately by a bigger club.

So right now it would appear that the transition from fantasy to reality is still a fair way off. But the rate these games advance, how long before we see a real-world rookie in the hotseat at a top club?

Are you a Championship or Football Manager fan? Favourite game in the series? Let me know on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/_tomclose

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