Football: Is the romance dead? by Henri Brownlow

Summer used to be a time where football would take a backseat and die out for a few months, with the exception of international tournaments, with pundits and regular football shows hibernating with the lack of games to excite fans. The summer of 2017, however, has had more action than most games of football – it’s been quite the spectacle.

Premier League clubs continue to spend exorbitant amounts of TV money while PSG made a mockery of Financial Fair Play (FFP) by more than doubling the previous global transfer record by spending £198m on Neymar.

With the game becoming increasingly elitist and money-orientated it feels to me at least as if the once beautiful game is losing its charm. Every now and again, I hear a story of how a supporter of one of the big Premier League teams has become disillusioned with the sport and team they once loved, and resorted to supporting their local team to get a fix of “proper football”. But does it have to come to that?

Using Football Manager 2017, I will play a save with a set of rigid rules to abide by, to see if it is still possible to run a football team in a way that isn’t encouraging money-hungry footballing mercenaries to suck the soul out of the club.

The rules I set will be set so that they oppose the status quo of multi-billionaire club owners who pour hundreds of millions into the club and make it their plaything. I intend to create a sustainable business model as well as a humble, heartfelt club that expects more than just mercenaries-for-hire for players. The rules I will initially aim to achieve this with are as follows:

  1. Always have a transfer deficit at the end of the footballing season (sell-to-buy transfer policy)
  2. Don’t spend over £20m on a single player
  3. Don’t sign players on a wage of more than £60k per week

With the rules set and my game loaded all that remains is to decide what club will be the proud recipient of my transformation. I toy with the idea of going to Southampton but decide the infrastructure and quality of the first team make the challenge not nearly hard enough.

Ultimately, after contemplating Hull City and Burnley, I settle with Newcastle United. The timing I must say is perfect. Mike Ashley (Newcastle United owner) gave an interview on the day I started this challenge with Sky Sports where he addressed concerns from fans about the club’s lack of spending, having returned to the Premier League. Ashley goes into detail about how he can’t compete with what he describes as owners with “the wealth of entire clubs behind them”. Worry not Mike, I’m on my way!

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I get a warm greeting from Mike Ashley upon taking over the reins of the club – he can clearly smell my intent to make him some money. But I’m here for more than the money. I’m here to create a legacy and reinvent modern football. I have bigger things to deal with than loosening Mike Ashley’s purse strings. However, I can see why Rafa Benitez would be so frustrated in real life. I’m not even given a single penny for my transfer budget (not that this matters to me) but according to the club finance screen, the club has just over £97m in the bank, apparently waiting for a rainy day. Or some well-earned asset stripping at the hands of owner, Big Mike.

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Discovering the dirty secrets of Newcastle United’s finances aside, I look at my squad and immediately recognise the strong spine. Jonjo Shelvey, Dwight Gayle, Jamaal Lascelles and Chancel MBemba are all of Premier League quality. The board expects me to win the league and I’d find it difficult to argue with that assessment given the strength of the squad. It is however a bit thin in some areas and bloated with dead wood in others, but there may not be a lot I can do about that.

This is because I am trying not to fall victim to ‘new manager syndrome’, where a manager comes into a squad and overhauls it completely. My aim here should be just aiming to keep the squad together and see how it goes. I’ll revisit the amputation of dead wood in January when the dead wood has had chance to prove itself (I’m looking at you, Yoan Gouffran).

The first thing I do when presented with the opportunity is to change the team captain. Lascelles (the current captain) is accepting when I tell him that I think there are better options available, I suspect because he knows full well it’s true. I make Grant Hanley captain with his 15 leadership and make Shelvey vice-captain. I’m fully aware of how stupid thrusting responsibility onto the mercurial shoulders of Jonjo Shelvey will sound, but he has 14 leadership and hopefully the added responsibility will curb his temperament (SPOILER – it does not, but there’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking).

Halfway through pre-season, Ayoze Perez drops the bombshell that he wants to leave to join Villarreal, I can only presume it’s because he finds the Championship beneath him. They offered £10m overall. I would accept it, but as I’ve already stated I want to keep the squad together for now, and Perez has the potential to be a useful player for me since I have plans to retrain him as an inside forward.

The season begins with a 1-0 win away at Fulham with Mo Diame making the difference with his goal. He is however injured only 10 minutes later and this directly affects the results of my next three games in August, drawing 3-3 to Huddersfield and then losing to Reading and Bristol.

Diame is out for the next three months and judging by my results so far, four points from as many games will see me entering a relegation battle, not winning the league. Therefore, despite the fact I earlier took the moral high ground in deciding not to make any panic signings, I decide it best to panic and make a signing, and there is a difference. I’m just not sure what the difference is.

Since I rejected the offer from Villarreal for Perez, I have literally £0 transfer budget, which means I have to go for a loan, which is low risk so I like it. I settle on Abdelhak Nouri. In real life he’s had to retire having experienced a traumatic heart-related defect in a pre-season friendly. However, I hope to help him fulfil the potential he was so cruelly denied in real life in this virtual reality. And he starts well scoring twice against Peterborough in the EFL Cup 2nd round on his debut. We then justify my decision to loan him by winning the final game in August and the window shuts with no further drama.

Our form continues to improve in September after the international break, winning three out of five league games, drawing one and losing the other. We also beat Burnley in the EFL Cup 3rd round thanks to a Matt Ritchie winner, who is quickly becoming the shining light in the team. However, the good form doesn’t stretch throughout the whole team as up until this point not one of my three strikers have scored a single goal. Gayle, Mitrovic and Murphy have all been given chances but none have stepped up so far.

This particular disappointment doesn’t take long to rectify itself in October though as Gayle scores twice against Rotherham to deliver a win at home and I jump out of my seat in relief as he finally breaks his duck. My joy was clearly shared by Gayle who went on to win the Player of the Month award thanks to his six goals in five games in October, a spectacular turn around. The positives don’t stop there though. Having already beaten one Premier League opposition in the EFL Cup, we claim another scalp as we march into the quarter final of the EFL Cup by beating Middlesbrough 2-0. Unfortunately, Middlesbrough did leave their mark on my team – they injured Matt Ritchie, Ayoze Perez and Rolando Aarons during the game. Bloody savages.

So far though, things are looking rosy, however, November is where my fortunes would take a turn for the worse. From 13th September to the 19th November we were unbeaten but what would follow would be a crippling downturn in form. The like of which had been completely unprecedented until now. We suffered three consecutive 1-0 defeats at the hands of Leeds, Blackburn and finally Stoke in the EFL Cup quarter finals, ending that particular dream. This meant that the team won one of four games in total in November, simply not good enough heading into a season-defining Christmas period.

We had an entirely mixed December, we won three, lost two and drew once. It wasn’t as stable as I would have liked but some clear deficiencies are starting to rear their ugly head in this team and it’s just in time for the January transfer window. As the in-game clock rolls over to 1st January, 2017, and my real life clock rolls over to 2am, I take note of our league position at this halfway point of the season.

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The table doesn’t make good reading. With our title ambitions all but gone, I search around desperately for any sign of good news. Losing Haidara to the African Cup of Nations is not what I had in mind. But there is a silver lining. I get a message through about how upset Diame is about not making the Senegal squad. I pump my arm into the air in celebration in my now pitch dark room as I pretend to console him. Perhaps late-night Football Manager sessions have become a little too all-consuming for me now that I’m openly finding solace in my players not being picked for international duty…

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Worrying transgressions aside I must continue to blur the lines between reality and this virtual world because my problems there have presented themselves to me in a violently rude awakening. As it happens, I’m not doing nearly as well as I thought. The players are tired and the board are beginning to look like they might be losing confidence. Something has to change.

One innocent tap of the space bar is all it took for all of my resolve to be tested. As January 1st rolls around to mid-day the Newcastle fax machine blows up with offers for my players. Burnley have bid for Lazaar, Leicester have bid for Lascelles (who has submitted a transfer request), Watford have bid for Anita and West Ham bid for Mbemba. I exit the game incandescent with rage. Why are the vultures swooping and circling me now? Don’t they know I’m still alive?

When I revisit the save the next day I put on a brave face and steel myself. I negotiate and ultimately reject every club’s offer for every one of my players. I know I can’t hold them off forever though and so does Lascelles. He is so distraught that I blocked his move I eventually cave and tell him that I’ll let him leave if someone puts in a £15m bid for him. He appears to be as livid as I was when I received the flurry of bids the previous night and he too storms out. He reacts by giving away a penalty in our next game. I tell myself it was an accident but I curse under my breath anyway.

Eventually I do sanction some sales and Lazaar eventually leaves for Middlesbrough for £3.3m but he hadn’t even made a start for me yet so I doubt I’ll even notice he’s gone. On a more positive note, I go on to sign two players before deadline day. One being centre back Rob Holding on loan with the option to buy him at the end of the season for £8m. This is in anticipation of me losing one or two more centre backs before the window is finished. I also sign Sabin from Athletic Bilbao for £1.4m, an absolute steal in my books considering I didn’t even use half of the Lazaar money to sign him up. He’s also on a lower salary than Lazaar and adds considerably more quality.

It’s not all rainbows and butterflies though, because blood was bound to be shed eventually and after spending the whole month in player meetings, trying to persuade players to stay, I eventually buckle on deadline day and allow Ciaran Clark to move to Lazio for £3m, Ayoze Perez moves to Everton for £6m and most cripplingly, Chancel Mbemba moves to Celta Vigo for £19m. Only Mbemba needs a replacement and after considering purchasing someone, I decide to keep to the principles of this save and promote youth player Stuart Findlay to the first team as the fourth-choice centre back instead.

To cap off the month, we’re knocked out of the FA Cup in the 4th round to Sunderland. Despite the Dunkirk-style deadline day I endured, I exit it in reasonably high spirits. I finally won’t have to have a monthly catch up with Perez about how he wants to leave because he thinks he’s better than us, and Mbemba – although a great player – was hardly worth rejecting £19m for considering Grant Hanley and Lascelles are two leading Championship centre backs by themselves anyway. Ultimately, across the summer and winter transfer window, I made a profit of £30.1m which is a pretty warm, embracing silver lining if you ask me.

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The team appears to be having trouble readjusting following the departures of a considerable number of players halfway through the season given the team’s form right up until the start of March. By this point I sit in fourth place after a flurry of inconsistent results. My misery is compounded by a 3-0 hammering on the 3rd March by league leaders Huddersfield. By this point Mitrovic hasn’t scored a goal in open play and hasn’t scored in his last eight appearances and Gayle has only just done better, only scoring one in his last eight. I hold a team meeting telling the team that they shouldn’t let their heads drop and immediately the improvement in morale leads to an upturn in results. This game may as well be called ‘Morale Manager 2017’.

During March, our youth intake yielded one particularly promising player. As you can see below, McGlinchey has some good stats considering his age and my assistant seems to think he has the potential to reach if not exceed Dwight Gayle’s current ability which I consider to be wholly appealing, I’ll be doing my best to make sure he gets all the help he needs to excel in his development. Since other clubs also got their intakes I scout around looking for players with some potential and ultimately sign 5 regen players on pre-contracts, spending £3.4m of the money I raised in January combined to bring them in. Every one of them has at least a 4 star potential, giving my youth teams some much need new blood. More good news pours in as Lascelles finally withdraws his transfer request 6 months on and signs a new 3 year contract (which for some reason is the max amount of years I can put on a contract. I presume Mr Ashley has something to do with that).

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With 10 games of the season to go the table looks like this:

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Despite our inconsistent form we’ve halved the 14 point gap with Huddersfield to just 7. Unfortunately given mine and Huddersfields capacity for inconsistency Norwich have steamed ahead and nipped ahead of me into 2nd place, leaving me still outside the automatic promotion places. Needless to say, by this point I’m sure the owner Mr Ashley won’t be to impressed with much of my management that extends past the way I’ve been lining his pockets with my transfer dealings.

In my next 2 games I win 1 and lose 1, exemplifying my inconsistency as if I was trying to make a point of it. So in a last ditch effort to salvage the season I change from my consistently deployed 4-3-3 to a more risky narrow 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation. It’s hoped that going with a strike partnership up front will help take a bit of the burden for goal scoring off of just Gayle’s shoulders. Instead of pairing Gayle with Mitrovic or Murphy, however, given how poor both have been all season I play new signing Sabin up front as a complete forward, he’s 6ft 1” and has excellent stats for it, I’m hoping for the best at this make or break juncture in the season. This is definitely a tactical mastermind and not one desperate last throw of the dice. It proves true as well as we win 3 of our next 5.

With 3 games to go, Norwich (1st place), Huddersfield (2nd place) and ourselves are only separated by a single point. As my form has picked up the others appears to be collapsing, but with so little time left in the season it looks to be a nail biting finish. The only blemish on proceedings however is that Marco Silva, the Hull City manager, has been attending my last 5 games, supposedly scouting Dwight Gayle and Mo Diame, provoking all kinds of probing questions from the press to distract the players just when I could do without it.

Newcastle, Norwich and Huddersfield all win our first of the remaining 3 games and with 2 left it dawns on me for the first time that my destiny is out of my control. If this happens just twice more than I could well have to end this challenge before it’s ever really begun!

I’m lucky enough that Huddersfield lose their next game away at Birmingham 3-1 and Norwich draw away at Leeds 0-0. This means that the onus is on me, I’m back in control of my own destiny, if I lose or draw I stay in 3rd, but, if I beat Cardiff away then I go first, clear by 2 points and a game away from a miraculous turn around for our season. I stick with the 4-1-2-1-2 that has given me so much success of late and it immediately pays off, going 1-0 up thanks to Dwight Gayle, but our defence chokes under the weight of the occasion and Rickie Lambert of all people scores. Watch Grant Hanley and Rickie Lambert in a running race towards my own goal was horrific, like watching your Great Aunt Muriel race a tortoise to a cookie that she dropped on the floor. However, after my own virtual version of ‘the hair dryer treatment’ the lads go out again for the second and Gayle puts us ahead again and I can taste promotion! Rather anti-climatically whilst I’m still celebrating Junior Hoilett wipes the smile off of my face with a 30 yard screamer. I replace Mitrovic (who was not enjoying a rare start) with Sabin and immediately he sets up Shelvey to put us 3-2 infront, and then Sabin –signed for just £1.4m- puts us 4-2 up in the most important game of the season so far. And that is how it finished.

Going into the last game of the season we are in 1st place with Huddersfield 2 points behind in 3rd and Norwich 1 point behind in 2nd. The gravity of the occasion is immense, a loss could send us down into the lottery of the playoffs, meanwhile a win will mean I have somehow met the boards expectations. I make only one change, taking out the perpetually disappointing Mitrovic and replacing him with the Spanish revelation, Sabin. At St. James Park 51,430 virtual people turned up to watch our final game of the season, to watch the team lift the trophy at the end of the game, or alternatively, watch me crying into my desk at full-time after a total collapse.

I needn’t have worried though, nor should I have prepared for disappointment so much as to keep a box of tissues for the impending tears close by. At half-time we went in 3-1 up thanks to 2 goals from Gayle and the opener from Haidara, we were dominating the possession and the chances. The culmination of a seasons work looked in sight. I made sure we shut down the second half, and clearly spiting my half time instructions to sit back, collect the ball and be frugal Jack Colback put his case forward for why he shouldn’t be sold in the summer with a fantastic 30 yard screamer 2 minutes after half time. I imagined parties breaking out in pubs and bars across Newcastle at the sight of the pint-sized ginger man scoring such a screamer on such an occasion, but in reality it was just me screaming violently, alone in my room with nothing but my infatuation for the game I was playing for companionship. But, nonetheless, I felt I had put on quite the show for the 51,430 fans who had filled St James’ Park as the game finished 4-2 to us. The celebrations went on as I saw that although Huddersfield won their final game with 10 men to finish 2nd, Norwich had completely capitulated and lost at home to QPR 1-0 and find themselves resigned to the play-offs. Sweet, sweet victory.

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How do you like me now, Mike Ashley? I’ve delivered you the title and £30m in transfer profit. He responds by graciously offering me a new two-year contract. I accept it as if it was my birthright and request a series of improvements to the club’s infrastructure. The board accepts improvements to the junior coaching budget, the youth recruitment budget and the training and youth facilities.

To conclude, I’ve met expectations in my first season and even had a bit of a run in the EFL Cup. Dwight Gayle was the only striker in my team to score from open play but thankfully he scored 28 times in 50 appearances. Matt Ritchie was my second top scorer with 14 goals in 43 games, Shelvey was close behind with nearly as many goals as yellow cards, which considering he got 15 yellow cards in 41 appearances is quite remarkable. Surprisingly, Paul Dummett got the most assists in the team with nine. I’m still torn on him though because, although he started the season strongly, and my assistant likes him, the team seems to play better with Haidara. Moving on to the highest average ratings and Haidara is top with 7.41, shortly followed by Dummett with 7.23 and then Gayle with 7.18. Highlighting perhaps what strong options we had at left back during the season, disappointing that the right backs didn’t have similar success. Nonetheless, the ground work has been laid for next year with what has been a remarkably dramatic debut season. Long may the rise continue!

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