Football Manager: the game that steals lives?

Gavin Cooney interviews Iain Macintosh, co-author of Football Manager stole my life, at the recent Dublin launch of the 2015 game

sport1Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano writes lyrically in Soccer in Sun and Shadow that “I’m attracted to soccer’s capacity for beauty. When well played, the game is a dance with a ball.” Football; the poetry of motion. The trademarked beautiful game has its legions of devotees across the world, a following large enough to spawn numerous subcultures. One of these subcultures has a following just as obsessive as fans of regular football. That subculture is a computer game entitled Football Manager.

For those unfamiliar with the game, it allows players to simulate an experience of the titular occupation by recruiting players, giving press conferences and choosing tactics. The game is a phenomenal success. It has led to a book, Football Manager Stole My Life, and a documentary that opened in 47 cinemas in Britain, and has since been subtitled in nine different languages. The company manufacturing the game, Sports Interactive, employs 60 full-time staff, devoted to developing the game, along with over 1,200 researches worldwide who volunteer their time to scout players in order to add them to an incredibly deep database of more than 600,000 players. The game’s scouting network is at least 10 times larger than the network of any professional club in the world.


Football Manager has transcended mere hobby to become an addiction. Anecdotes abound of players suiting up for cup finals and shaking hands with doorknobs, imagining their brass was British royalty. It has dispossessed players of days of their lives, and has been cited as a reason for 35 different cases of divorce.  Unlike other computer games, however, Football Manager users are not invested with the power of physically controlling its players and playing the game of football. The game is essentially a game about administration, micromanagement and human resources. Where is the poetry in that?

It created a universe for you and you were not necessarily allowed to stay there without proving yourself. If you got sacked it wouldn’t just invite you back, you would have to start again at the bottom. The constant incentive to prove yourself was part of the addiction process.

To probe the addiction, I spoke to Iain Macintosh, football writer and co-author of Football Manager Stole My Life, along with Kenny Millar and Neil White, at a launch event for the 2015 edition of the game in Dublin. Macintosh is a self-confessed Football Manager addict, and I asked him how exactly the game had stolen his life. “I first came into contact with the game when I was 15. I played all the Football Manager games preceding it, like the original with tiny stickmen, Tracksuit Manager. I was always addicted to these things anyway, but when I played the first Championship Manager (the original title for Football Manager) it came along and blew everything else out of the water because the first time you played it you could see it was not a world created for you and you played one game at a time. It was a world created and you were only just invited into it; you weren’t allowed to stay without proving yourself.” It becomes evident that the sheer depth of Football Manager has spawned an alternate universe, one in which players would have to consistently prove themselves in order to stay in the game. “The Football Manager game, it was obvious from the start, was completely different. It created a universe for you to go in and you were not necessarily allowed to stay there without proving yourself; if you got sacked it wouldn’t just invite you back, you would have to start again at the bottom. The constant incentive to prove yourself was part of the addiction process.”

Within the Football Manager realm, those who did prove themselves had no issue celebrating the fact. Comedian Tony Jameson bought a ticket for an open top bus tour of Newcastle to celebrate winning the cup with Blyth Spartans. In lieu of actual silverware, Jameson brought his laptop. Jameson has subsequently toured Britain with a stand up show about the game, in which he revealed he has also stood outside his bedroom for a match-day as a result of incurring a touchline ban.  Other players have become similarly entranced by the game. The book contains myriad anecdotes of other players whose lives bear the imprint of the game. One player had his wife come across him in the middle of the night, dressed in a suit and staring blankly at a computer screen. When asked what was wrong, he told his wife that he had just been sacked. He took a few agonising minutes to clarify to his pregnant wife, that, having recently taken out a mortgage, he had merely lost a virtual job rather than his actual one. Another player broke up with his girlfriend by virtue of her taking his laptop and Football Manager disc in order to play Farmville. Macintosh explains that one of the reasons for writing the book was to “make people feel that weren’t alone”.

For the book, Macintosh visited a psychiatrist to help explore the nature of the game’s addiction.  “He pointed out the nature of the addiction,” he told me. “If you are an alcoholic, you drink because it feels good. There is a certain personality type clearly, that gets their feel-good factor, for want of a better word, from winning a game on Football Manager.” Macintosh believes, however, that it is an addiction that can prove helpful in his job as a football journalist. “The two things are quite different, but I do think that there is so much the game teaches you that goes on to help you, from micromanagement to balancing different requirements. As a football journalist, I found that it is the awareness of players. If you were covering a game involving Dnipro, and you know nothing about them – because you are a normal human being with normal interests – the first thing I would do would be to boot up FM and play a pre-season as them before doing the research in the old-fashioned way. Suddenly the players’ names wouldn’t look so unfamiliar. Obviously I wouldn’t say that ‘oh, that bloke scored six goals for me so he must be good’, but I would know that he is a goalkeeper, and he is the young talent with great promise.”

Depth of research

The game’s greatest strength is the depth of its database of players. There are assistant researchers across the world scouting players and filing their attributes into the system. “The guys who do the database and research are absolutely incredible. A lot of them are actual scouts in their own right. Every time you play and see certain names makes you aware of the people to keep an eye out for real life.”  The game began in humble surroundings in 1985, in the bedrooms of brothers Paul and Ov Collyer. The first incarnation of the game allowed players manage any of the clubs across the top four English divisions and compete with 150 in-game managers. The database was originally developed by sending letters to the editors of club fanzines, asking those editors to rate their club’s players under a number of headings and mailing their results back to the game’s developers.

In the past, the game has predicted the rise of a vast range of superstars. Former Glasgow Rangers manager Alex McLeish recalls in the documentary Football Manager: An Alternative Reality how he discovered Lionel Messi as a 13 year old. McLeish was advised to sign Lionel Messi by his son, on the basis that Messi thrived in an early version of Football Manager. Barcelona rejected McLeish’s subsequent attempts to sign the Argentine. Real-life managers have also utilised the game’s database. In 2008, David Moyes licenced the game as Everton manager in order to explore the database before anyone else could. Former Chelsea and Tottenham manager Andre Villas Boas would start a game, immediately resign and simulate a number of subsequent seasons in order to discover which players became most prominent in the future. Ex-Republic of Ireland manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, while manager of Italy, asked his player Demetrio Albertini for information on opposition players as a result of Albertini’s playing of the game. The database is not infallible, however. Some of the players whom they tip for stardom lose their way in real life. Mentions of names like Mark Kerr, Cherno Samba and Freddy Adu at the launch event draw wistful nods from most of the audience; players who attained legendary status for managers in the game, only to fade into obscurity in reality.

Blurring reality

Macintosh has worked hard to ensure the lines between his real and virtual work do not blur. There are however, the odd such incident. “On one occasion I heard that Davide Santon had signed for Newcastle, I found myself saying to my mates that is a brilliant signing! Halfway through talking about him, I came to the realisation that I don’t know what he looks like, I have never seen him play football.  I had no idea outside of the fact that he was very good when I signed him for Newcastle in Football Manager in 2009. Such moments are few and far between, however”. Others have endured similar incidents. A Sky Sports touchline reporter gave Portsmouth Captain Tal Ben Haim a cold stare in the tunnel pre-match, asking him what he was doing playing for Portsmouth. Ben Haim was the reporter’s captain for Burnley on Football Manager. Comedian and Manchester City supporter Jason Manford retrospectively realised he was rude to Micah Richards once as the defender had been late for training on Football Manager on a number of occasions.

Football Manager is a 20th century phenomenon that has succeeded exponentially in the 21st century. Football subculture in England spread following Italia 90 and the foundation of the Premier League two years later. Football entered the mainstream with all-seater stadia and wider television coverage through BskyB. The sport’s success led to the development of subculture as supporters wished to attach cult status to something. Along with the rise of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s Fantasy Football League came the Football Manager computer game. Perhaps the poetry in Football Manager is in its simultaneous inclusivity and exclusivity. While it opens the world of management to anyone willing to buy the game; successful players must learn a large amount about football tactics and the identity of swathes of obscure footballers across the world in order to compete. The perseverance required to win imbues its players with pride. Jameson said in an interview to The Guardian last year that “I’m a comedian, but like most lads I dreamt of being a footballer, or being involved in football, and Football Manager gives you that hope of making it. There is a genuine sense of achievement when, for instance, you complete your first giant-killing in the FA Cup despite the fact that essentially all you’ve done is defeated a load of pixels on a giant spreadsheet.”

Iain Macintosh also treasures his greatest achievement in the game. “When I was at university, I wasn’t the best student. I went out a bit too much, I stayed up a bit too much and I played CM97/98 a bit too much. And I didn’t get my degree. I didn’t get it and I have no-one to blame but myself. I paid a heavy price for that. I didn’t have the options I wanted when I came out into the real world. I had to make some tough decisions, take some tough jobs. I’ll never forget those cold mornings on the building sites. Nor will the memories of selling black bin bags in North London leave me easily. But you know what? It wasn’t a complete loss. Because I won the UEFA Cup with Southend United. They’ll never take that away from me.” Eduardo Galeano has said that “history never really says goodbye, history says see you later.” Thousands of people across the world have a similar relationship with Football Manager.