A woman comes home from work one day to find her husband sitting at their kitchen table, head in hands, disconsolate. She's pregnant with their first child and is alarmed by the sight of her husband, staring at his laptop, in a state of distress.
"Darling, what is it?" she asks. "I can't believe it, they've sacked me," he replies. "But what are we going to do? We're expecting a baby and if you're not working then . . . " her voice trails off, unable to finish the sentence. The man finally looks up from his computer. "What? Ach no, the job's fine, don't worry. It's Liverpool. They've just sacked me. I'm second in the league and still in Europe but we got beat 4-0 off Everton. It's not fair."
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A story that will seem faintly ridiculous to normal people will elicit nods of empathy from anyone who has ever played Football Manager (or Championship Manager as it was originally), a strategy-based computer game that should come with a health warning. It is so addictive that it will surely only be a matter of time before Charlie Sheen adds it to his ever-growing list of vices.
The premise may seem fairly basic – choose a team you want to manage then see if you can lead them to glory by dealing wisely in the transfer market, picking the right players, sorting out your tactics etc – but it does not take long before it becomes all-consuming as you put in hour after hour trying to prove you can do it better than those useless losers managing clubs in the real world.
The price on the box may be around £35 but you pay with your social life, too. True disciples of the game, now in its 20th year, will admit, perhaps under duress, that there have been times when invitations to go out, to mix with actual human beings, have been turned down in favour of sitting in front of a computer in a darkened room, trying to find a way of managing East Stirlingshire to the third division title.
For particularly heavy users, it is not long before fact and fiction become virtually indistinguishable. I remember turning up to report on a St Mirren game for the paper one Saturday, after a particularly late Champ Man session the night before, wondering why none of the new signings were playing. There hadn't been any new signings.
I wasted my student years. While I was drinking warm lager, playing quiz machines, and memorising every line from Only An Excuse, I could have been playing Champ Man instead. I came late to the game, not discovering it until I had moved into journalism.
Afternoon sessions in the office would thereafter be explained away as research. After all, you never knew when a Scottish club would be in the market for a talented 17-year-old striker from the Swiss third division. I've kicked the habit for the time being – the iPhone version just isn't the same – but there are some who have got it real bad. Like some sort of group confessional, the tales of those who caught the Champ Man bug and couldn't get rid of it are grouped together in a new book Football Manager Stole My Life – 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession. Most of the stories are endearing enough.
There are tales of guys who stuck their cvs in for managerial vacancies in the real world because they had taken Leyton Orient to Champions League glory without ever leaving their bedroom, or those who would put on a suit to play the game because it was cup final day.
One dedicated/tortured soul (delete depending on personal viewpoint) would shake the door handle before each session as if greeting the opposing manager. All that seems harmless enough. Then there are those who maybe took things a bit too far. Football Manager has been cited in at least 35 divorce cases – or free transfers as the gamers would say – while one obsessive persuaded his wife to honeymoon in Bulgaria so he could visit the team he was managing in the second division. Perhaps he was fortunate not to become divorce case No.36.
Players (real ones) love it, too, mostly for the opportunity to sign themselves for Barcelona or Real Madrid, while some have used it to learn a bit more about their team-mates. Robbie Fowler, the former Liverpool ace and occasional touchline sniffer, admitted he turned to Champ Man in 1999 to keep track of all Gerard Houllier's new signings during a summer of upheaval at the club.
All that and more are in the new book that will surely thrill and disgust the game's many users at the same time. After all, is all this time reading not cutting into valuable gaming hours?
Football Manager Stole My Life – 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession, by Iain Macintosh, Kenny Millar and Neil White. Back Page Press. £12.99