Football Manager 2012 has been released, and like every year, the same questions are being asked: Why does a game that looks like Microsoft Excel sell so well? Why would you want to manage footballers when they could be playing them? Why do so many people play it for hours on end?
Well I've played a lot of Football Manager over the years, so I'm going to try and explain why. It's because despite all the stats and number crunching, Football Manager is a game about stories. It's about the little narratives that emerge from every game. Like this one. The story of Shane Paul.
This tale comes from way back in Football Manager 2006. I was doing the same thing I do every year; trying to win the Champion's League with my beloved Aston Villa. In my way were Italian giants Inter Milan, who had more money, a better squad and a long tradition of winning things. The first leg of the game had not gone well. Inter had come to Villa Park and made us look like schoolboys playing against adults. They sauntered down the pitch like we weren't even there and scored twice, then did what Italian teams do best: shut us down and sat on their lead. Worse than that, they also inflicted a series of niggling injuries on my team. Not enough to put people out for long, but just enough to ensure that I'd have to fill my bench with inexperienced youth players, and pray that I'd never need to use them.
Enter Shane Paul.
Shane was one of my youth team, he was only eighteen at the time, but already my coaches were telling me he wasn't going to make it at this level. There were better prospects in the squad, but I was incredibly short of left sided players and. despite being so incredibly right footed he probably walked with a limp, Shane could play on the left wing a little, so he made the cut.
Sixty minutes into the Inter game, things were still not going well. The Italians knew they had a good lead and a home advantage, so they played a strong defensive game. No matter how often we attacked they held us off confidently. I tried everything; I tried to hold back and keep the ball, I pushed forward recklessly, I changed formation, I upped the aggression, I did every tactical tweak I could think of, but nothing worked. Clearly it was time to make some changes. The problem was that, because of the injuries, I didn't have much in the way of substitutes. Most of my bench was statistically worse than the players on the pitch, but sometimes freshness counts, so young Shane was sent out for an under performing left winger.
That's the thing about Football Manager, once in a while all the sensible tactics fall flat, and that's when you start trying the crazy ones. Playing an inexperienced youngster out of position in a major match? This was a desperation move, and I knew it.
For another half hour, little changed. We pushed them hard, but they would not be moved. They were determined to shut us out, and we couldn't stop them. Shane popped up once or twice but he wasn't distinguishing himself, my fairytale story was over, this was where it would end.
Most of the time, this is what happens. In Football Manager, like real football, for every cherished tale of triumph against adversity there are dozen of ignominious defeats, but once in a while...
Again we gallop forwards, again we hopelessly toss the ball into the box. There's no art any more, we're too tired for that, there's only five minutes left in the game after all. The cross is vague and messy, easily fielded by the solid Inter defenders, who go to boot it clear... but wait! The Inter captain has mis-kicked the ball horribly, it bounced awkwardly to one of my midfielders who cannons it into the box, it bounces off a defender, into another, a striker goes for it and slips on the muddy ground, everyone scrambles for desperately for the ball, but only ones reaches it. Stretching, sliding, the left foot of Shane Paul gets the slightest of touches, and deflects the ball into the opposing net.
The crowd explode, they haven't had anything to cheer for two whole games, but suddenly the previously impregnable Inter defence has fallen to a flailing teenager's boot. Shane grabs the ball and runs back up the field, plonking it straight into the centre circle. The message is clear, your move Inter, you have five minutes to stop us from scoring again.
This should be easy, Inter are experts at keeping the ball, so long as they don't panic, so long as they aren't rattled by the last minute goal and accidentally send an awkward pass right into the path of my striker, they'll be fine. Only they do panic, they are rattled, and that's exactly what they do. Suddenly we're bursting forward again, and the Italian defenders are no longer confident and aloof, they're jittery and unsure. The ball is flicked forward and it's Shane Paul, the unknown teenager who has it at his feet. He has no support, there are three men between him and the goalmouth, but these men are uncertain, scared of losing, while the boy is riding high on the confidence of scoring his first Champion's League goal. He jinks, he swivels, the first man man can't keep up with him, the second slides in early, missing his chance, but the last is cleverer, he stays on his feet, jockeying the young boy for the ball. Shane Paul has a strength of eight out of twenty, and the defender has more than twice that. It should be easy for him to push the teenager off the ball, but the young lad just won't give it up, he wants that second goal, and he won't be denied.
This is the thing that makes Football Manager special. The fact that, despite all the precise stats and complex tactics, there's an element of randomness inherent in the match engine. I don't know what sorcery makes it possible, but nothing is quite certain in a Football Manager game. Sometimes a goalkeeper plays a blinder and stops your team short, sometimes that world class striker develops an attitude problem and just doesn't work out and sometimes, just sometimes, an unknown teenager leaves three veteran defenders trailing in his wake, before slotting the ball away like he's been doing it all his life.
This time it wasn't just the crowd that went insane, I leapt out of my chair and cheered, I was ecstatic, I think I may have even done a little dance there, in my room, by myself. The game wasn't over of course, we may have taken away the lead Inter had held for nearly three hours, but we still had to finish them off. Extra time came and went, both sides were too exhausted to conjure much, this one was going to penalties. Goal. Miss. Miss. Goal. I don't remember the order, but I do remember that by the time it got to the final penalty I needed to score to win, but I hadn't changed my penalty order to adjust for the injuries. The computer would pick for me, anyone could be stepping up. Of course you can guess who did. That's right. Shane Paul. He hit that ball so hard I'm pretty sure there was a sonic boom. It flew straight down the middle, the keeper dove away from it like a pillock. We'd done it.
Like football, fairytales don't happen that often in Football Manager, but they do happen, and they happen just slightly more often than they do in real life. Just enough to keep things interesting, but not so much that it lessens the impact when they do.
The tale sort of tapers off at that point. I started Shane in the final, against Real Madrid, but it was uneventful. Real inexplicably decided to play a pair of midgets in defence, so I trotted out the massive Peter Crouch and cheerfully headed home three goals without reply. Shane did little to distinguish himself. I signed him up for another year, despite my coaches misgivings I was convinced he was secretly amazing and his stats were a lie. This turned out to be optimistic. Despite my attempts to play him, he never really inspired again and I sold him on. Years later, when I finally stopped playing that game, I looked him up again. He was in his mid twenties, plying his trade for a small league one team and looking well off the pace.
Shane's career might not have gone anywhere, but I like to think that every now and again he thinks back to that one day, the time he took apart some of the best players in the world, and thinks 'Yeah, it was worth it'. Of course I know that Shane Paul is just a collection of statistics, just a little dot on the match engine. I also know there's a real Shane Paul whose career is nothing like the tale I've described. None of that matters. To me, Shane Paul will always be that one story. The kid who came from nowhere and went back there, but had a hell of a time in between.
This is why people play Football Manager, because every one of them has a story like that, of something incredible that happened out of nowhere. I'm sure you all have them too, so why not share them in the comments? The best ones will be bundled together and put into a post for everyone to see.
If you haven't played Football Manager before, give it a try. You might just find your own Shane Paul.