Back To Basics: the pioneering football management games

From issue 24 of Backpass.

I thought Steve Coppell was destined for great things from the first moment I saw him.

I’d just been appointed as manager of Luton Town. My defensive options were predictably limited: a few limited journeymen, a tired veteran on his last legs and a handful of youngsters that hadn’t yet seriously competed for a regular place. The teenage Coppell had never played for the first-team but had all the attributes to succeed. Thrown in at the deep end, Coppell excelled and soon established himself as one of the best right-backs in the lower divisions. A few seasons later, our promotion push to the top-flight had fallen at the last hurdle but Sunderland offered me a crack at the big time. And who would be my first signing? Of course: Coppell. He earned a place in the starting line-up and even starred in our UEFA Cup triumph.

As you’ve probably guessed, this Steve Coppell wasn’t the fleet-footed former Manchester United winger. He was an imaginary player (as they all were at the time) in the original Championship Manager football management game which was released in 1992 for the Amiga and the Atari ST. The game was light years beyond those that had preceded it and would eventually morph into the behemoth we know as Football Manager. In the contemporary game, every facet of management is under your control. Want to send your scouts to Peru to sign a nippy teenage winger? Go ahead. Ah, he needs a work permit. No problem, send him on loan to your Belgian feeder club for a few seasons until he qualifies. Want to teach your youth team to embrace the English football tradition by learning to lump it up to the big man? That can be done.

What wasn’t immediately obvious was that Championship Manager heralded the end of the gloriously amateur early days of the genre.

The first football management game, unimaginatively titled Football Manager (which is unrelated to the current series), was released in 1982 and showed little sign of the complexity that would later emerge: the goalkeeper wasn’t even recognised as an in-game position (you merely had to pick another defender), goal scorers weren’t named and the entire game consisted of just twenty-four endlessly recycled players. You could, for example, sell a rubbish Kevin Keegan only to find a superstar version of him available to sign just a few matches later. Nonetheless, a generation were soon hooked – even Arsenal’s Charlie Nicholas described it as “completely fantastic.” Football Manager’s success saw creator Kevin Toms became a celebrity of the gaming scene, partly because he plastered his hirsute features on the game’s packaging and advertisements.

An early notable contender for the genre’s crown came from United which took a much different approach. While Football Manager featured jerky but often nail-bitingly tense match highlights, all United showed was a ball pinging around a spookily desolate pitch. What made it standout was a depth of new features. It boasted specialist ‘keepers; the option to deploy a sweeper if you were feeling suitably continental; a simplistic training programme; named scorers and five different ages of players. It demanded more of the bedroom manager too. You needed to select a balanced team (so no splashing all of your money on three Van Persies upfront if that meant you could only afford four Jenkinsons at the back) and could choose to play a cynical, aggressive game to boost your chances of winning. It countered Football Manager’s lack of players by allowing you to name the players yourself (and anyone with even a token knowledge of BASIC programming could hack into the game code to give your team a Manchester City-sized budget).

What followed was a golden age in which enterprising programmers competed to become the next Kevin Toms. With so much competition, clubs and players alike were sought for endorsements to give new titles a competitive advantage. This was especially true of arcade-style games, such as the crazily titled Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona, and the dreaded arcade/management crossover games in which the management section was often deemed pointless as the result depended entirely on your skills with a joystick.

This resulted in all kinds of names being lent to the ponderous joy of the management game. Kenny Dalglish Soccer Manager was perhaps the most accomplished example. It tracked stats for all your squad, you could interact with other key personnel at the club such as the scout, the physio and the chairman, and above all, the game looked fantastic – even if the player on the loading screen looked more like Emlyn Hughes. Gary Lineker put his name on a variety of games but Superstar Soccer was the only one that featured a management aspect. While you could play the match itself, it worked so much better as just a coaching game. A more esoteric release was Brian Clough’s Football Fortunes, an awkward blend of computer and board game. Although both individual elements were somewhat lacking, it was great fun as a multi-player game. Or at least it was until you found out that two of your best players had been killed in a car crash. Budgets being what they are, not all companies could afford to splash their cash on a Clough, Dalglish or Lineker, which is probably how Dundee’s European Challenge came to life. This offered the less than appealing challenge of being Archie Knox’s player / assistant manager in the team’s battle for a European spot. When Knox left The Dark Blues, the game was reworked with the new manager, Jocky Scott, in his place.

It comes as little surprise to see that games without celebrity endorsements often featured much more creativity than their big budget counterparts. Again featuring on the covers of his games looking like the Pete Best of Chas ‘n’ Dave, Kevin Toms was still in business, delivering the excellent Football Manager 2 and Football Manager: World Cup Edition. Released with an Italia ’90 wall-chart, the World Cup Edition didn’t match its predecessors but foresaw the genre’s future trends by introducing team talks and media interaction. Also notable was the Football Director series. The concept was rather unusual as it blended the managerial role with various boardroom duties, such as dealing with shares, mortgages, crowd violence and the hiring of a youth coach to bring new talent through. While possessing much more depth, it looked every bit as basic as United did. What makes the game memorable is its sheer difficulty. Dealing with the retirement of star players in the middle of the season is problematic and balancing the books is even tougher. But the greatest challenge of all is the fluctuating difficulty levels – you might find yourself challenging for the title only for the difficulty level to step up a gear, which would see your championship contenders collapse in the season’s final weeks.

Arguably the two best games from the era shared a unique trait: players which were described rather than evaluated by a numerical score. In the tactically complex Tracksuit Manager, the player possessed a huge pool of real players to choose from in an attempt to lead England to international glory. Your scouts could give you detailed feedback on your opposition, such as the observation that Wales prioritised the long ball while employing an offside trap. With a defence described as “disappointing”, they were one opponent that didn’t require much analysis. In The Double, you started your career by taking a job at a random Division Three team. If you were lucky, you were given the job at perpetual promotion chasers Fulham or Gillingham. And if you weren’t, you’d be stuck with a no-hoper such as Mansfield. Tactically this was a much simpler game but its strength was in a transfer system that isn’t too far away from that used in contemporary games. You could scout any of the game’s 1000 real players (Gordon Strachan’s passing is “pure magic”) and then embark upon a bidding war to sign your fabled transfer target.

No matter how sophisticated the games of this era became, they’re naïve by the levels of today’s Football Manager offerings. The game will surely continue to evolve with a stripped down version for mobile devices proving to be a hit, while the main game becomes ever more intricate with extra layers of detail and more playable leagues added every season. However the genre develops, huge numbers of people will doubtless remain addicted enough to lose hundreds of hours to the challenge of taking Dover to Champions League glory.

 

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