The Ballad of Bobby Manager: My Autobiography
When somebody takes their game of Football Manager just a little too seriously...
What follows is a fictionalised account of one man's game of Football Manager 2011. None of what follows is true, or even nearly true. It happened on a laptop and in the addled brain of a slightly odd man. It has no basis or relevance in real life.
Success in life, I've always believed, is like success in football. It's all about timing. If the striker moves too quickly, he's offside. If he jumps too soon, he'll miss the cross. You need to be in the right place at the right time. Fortunately for me, when the news about Avram Grant broke back in 2010, I was in the perfect place. I was with David Sullivan.
Of course, I hadn't exactly made the best of first impressions.
"Hello, little boy," I said when I met him in reception. "Is your Daddy in? I'm here to talk to him about undersoil heating."
"Are you 'avin a bubble?" he growled from somewhere underneath that big furry hat. "I'm David Sullivan. I'm the bleedin' Daddy."
I apologised as best I could, but he wasn't having any of it. Oh, how he howled and swore at me! I thought I'd ruined everything. Fortunately, I had a Chupa Chups lollypop in my pocket and that seemed to placate him. He tore off the wrapper, suckled greedily and then stopped to look me up and down. Well, mostly up.
"Good lolly," he acknowledged. "Now let's talk turf."
I'm sure it will surprise you to know that I used to be an undersoil heating sales representative, but for a midfielder of my modest talents, it wasn't easy to break into football management. When my playing days ended, the only offer that came my way was from a small team in the German third division and for some reason I always felt uneasy about that job. Undersoil heating gave me a stable living, financial security and a bright red Ford Mondeo. And you can't say fairer than that.
But I'll never forget the moment when Sullivan's phone rang and my life changed forever.
"He's been caught where? Dressed as what? Are you yankin' my chain? You wot? Do I wanna comment? I dunno. Do you wanna be able to chew solid food?"
Poor Avram. Just two weeks after taking the West Ham job, he was forced to resign and walk away from football forever. Still, I'm told he was allowed to keep the outfit.
"Stone the crows," sighed Sullivan. "How did we not see this comin'? He's been one of our best customers for years! Now what we gonna do? Where we gonna get a manager from at this short notice?"
"I'll do it," I said quickly.
Sullivan stared at me.
"You got badges?"
"You want much money?"
"Only what you think is fair."
"It ain't gonna be easy," Sullivan warned me. "Rob's shot to pieces after South Africa, his nerves are all over the place. Carlton's been acting weird and I ain't even seen Benni since the end of last season."
"I can cope," I told him.
"I dunno, I dunno," said Sullivan pacing up and down, his little feet echoing off the polished floors. "I need to check it with Karren, I gotta run it past her, but… erm… I don't wanna."
"Mr Sullivan," I said, standing up. "I'll talk to her. You've lost a manager today, but you don't have to lose faith. If you give me the job right now, I promise you that I'll have this West Ham side playing gorgeous football again. I promise you that I'll lead this team away from the gaping maw of relegation and carry them upon my back to the promised land of mid-table mediocrity, with the occasional run in the Cup. At the very least, Mr Sullivan, unlike your last man, I pledge never, ever to be caught… you know… there. Wearing, well… you know… that. Make the right choice, Mr Sullivan. Make it now. Pick me."
Sullivan stroked his little chin and smiled.
"You got any more of those lollypops?"
The job was mine.
Of course, I had to sign it all off with Karren first. There's been a lot written about Ms Brady over the years and most of it is rubbish. She's an intelligent, independent woman working hard and getting results. But she can be a little intimidating. She had this long thin office right at the top of Upton Park, more like an indoor cricket strip than a normal room. It meant that when you knocked on the door and she told you to come in, you had to travel 20 yards with her watching you all the way. It was a bit off-putting, it made you over-think your walk. Some days I'd stride in normally and by the time I got to her desk, I was tripping over my own heels. I think that was the plan. To unsettle me. That's probably why she had the mug as well. I don't even know where you'd get a mug like that. Who sells drinking skulls?
"Bit parky up here, isn't it?" I said as I took the first of many long journeys into her office. "You want me to have a fiddle with the thermostat?"
"I like it this way," she purred from behind her desk. "Stuffy rooms lead to drowsy employees. Drowsy employees make mistakes. I do not tolerate… mistakes."
"Right," I said, finally reaching her end of the room. "I'll remember that. Mind if I sit down?"
"Yes, you mind or yes, I can sit down?"
"Yes, I mind. You're the one that David chose, are you?"
"Yes, I am."
"I see," she stood up and walked around the desk, moving silently to a long window that looked out over the pitch. She ran her finger along the sill and examined it carefully. "Not a trace of dust."
"Very good," I said. "Cleanliness is next to godliness, my mother always said that."
She smiled and I shivered slightly.
"I dust it myself, every morning when I arrive. Before my first cup of coffee, before I check my voicemail, before I so much as glance at my column in the Sun, before any of that, I dust my window sills. Do you know why I do that?"
"Can't get good staff?"
"I dust my window sill to remind me that every day, every surface, every wall, every table, every 'thing' in this football club acquires a new layer of dust. And do you know what dust is? It's dead skin. Dirt. The corpses of tiny insects. A perpetual stratum of scum that, left untended, will grow and consume everything we hold dear. It can only be managed if we stay on top of it every single day. Watching it, studying it, pushing it, eradicating it. Dusting it. Tell me, new manager. Are you a stratum of scum?"
"I don't think so."
"Erm. I've got my contract here from Mr Sullivan, he told me to bring it up for your signature. Funny, I always thought that he was in charge and that you worked for him."
Karren stared at me.
"Yes," she said tonelessly. "Funny. David has these whims, these flights of fancy. I indulge him, of course. You never know. If a room full of monkeys can, given enough time, accidentally write a readable version of a Dan Brown novel, perhaps David can accidentally find a manager who isn't incompetent."
I didn't know what to say to that, so I stepped forward and put the contract in front of her.
"What would you like to discuss today?" she said without looking at it.
"Erm… I don't know. I've pretty much just walked in the door. I should call my old boss really and let him know I'm working here now. He'll probably want the Mondeo back."
Karren continued to stare.
"Networking!" I said, panicking a little. "I would like to improve the youth facilities at the club to enable me to focus on developing our own players."
Karren sighed deeply and picked up the contract. She skimmed over the first page with a pencil, her face remaining impassive. Then she looked up again.
"We would rather you rely on signing players ready to play for the first team rather than hoping someone comes through the youth team."
"I really can't stress how important I believe this to be!" I exclaimed foolishly. There was a long silence and the room seemed to darken, as if a monstrous cloud had passed in front of the sun. I know it sounds stupid, but for a moment I could have sworn I saw a tongue of flame flickering at the tip of Karren's pencil.
"You can ask as much you like," she said quietly. "It's not going to do any good." She cocked her head to one side, grimaced for a moment and then jerked it back up with a crack that reverberated around the room. "Is there anything else you wish to discuss?"
"If we can't improve the facilities, we can at least improve the recruitment to improve the quality of youngsters entering our team."
Karren's eyes flashed for a moment with white heat and I instinctively took a step backwards. Suddenly the door felt an awfully long way away. Well, actually, it was an awfully long way away, but you know what I mean.
"We believe the club's youth recruitment is already adequate for a club of this size," she growled, "and therefore your request is rejected."
I'm sure I said something after that, I'm sure I made some kind of point about investment in people being the best investment of all, but I don't recall what happened next. It's just a blur. Maybe it was the excitement of the day, the thrill of being back in the game, but the next thing I remember is being in my office, feeling dazed with euphoria and wondering why my bum hurt. Probably nerves, though that doesn't explain why my pants were on back to front.
That wasn't the only thing that was confusing. You should have seen the first team! I couldn't figure out how they expected to survive!
Sullivan was right. Rob Green was having an awful time after the World Cup. He was really traumatised by what had happened to him out in South Africa. The poor sod had had to share a room with John Terry. I had to get rid of Benni McCarthy before the season even started. It transpired that he hadn't bothered finding a flat in London, he'd just taken up residence in the burger bar at the back of the Bobby Moore Stand. The catering staff found him there before a pre-season friendly, covered in ketchup and gobbling up sausages. Kieron Dyer sprained his wrist opening his wallet, Jonathan Spector had to be sold because, well, he just had to be sold, and Carlton Cole managed to turn the entire dressing room against him by insisting that the pumping pre-match music was replaced by a Jim Davidson Live CD. We had to put a stop to that right away.
I did my best to lift spirits, but it wasn't always easy. We started the season away at Aston Villa and I had high hopes, but some of the lads were having problems putting the summer behind them.
"Just go out there and enjoy yourselves," I told them, but before I could get any further I was interrupted by a gentle sobbing.
"Rob? What's the matter, son?"
"I keep seeing his face, boss," whimpered my goalkeeper. "He said I looked like a young Suzi Quatro." He looked up, eyes wide with despair. "I don't even know who Suzi Quatro is, boss."
"She's a singer, Rob. She's a singer from the 70s."
"His fingers were... boss... and those cheeks..."
"I know, son. I know. Come on. Shake it out."
Poor lad, he was all over the place. And he wasn't the only one. Matty Upson couldn't keep hold of the man he was marking, Junior Stanislas only touched the ball twice all afternoon and, as Carlton so unfortunately put it on Twitter later that night, we had all the backbone and courage under fire of the Italian armed forces. I had to fine him a week's wages for that one, the silly sod. I brought in Leonardo Ponzio, a vicious little Argentine midfielder from Zaragoza and that seemed to sort things out. Had to warn Carlton about Falklands War jokes first, though!
We were consistently inconsistent that year, picking up wins over Liverpool and Chelsea, but getting rogered senseless by both Wolves and Stoke within the space of seven days. It was in the run-up to Christmas that I finally put my finger on it.
"We're crap, Mr Sullivan," I told my chairman on the bus back from Goodison Park one night.
David didn't look up, he just carried on staring at his Nintendo DS.
"I know that, you egg," he growled. "I gotta watch your team every week."
"We work hard," I continued apace, "we defend well and that rejig of set-pieces has really paid off, but we just don't have anyone who can play those special balls."
"What about Scott Parker?"
"I see him as more of a dynamo, a box-to-box midfielder."
"What about Mark Noble?"
"He's decent, but I like him as deep-lying playmaker."
"What do you want then?"
"I want Charlie Adam, Mr Sullivan. You remember the damage he did against us last month? He's the kind of player who can unlock doors. Let's get him."
"Hmmm," said David, pressing pause on Mario Kart. "Maybe."
"No 'maybe', Mr Sullivan. We can get him. His contract is running down, Blackpool have either got to sell him to us now or lose him on a free. He's hardly going to cost us more a week than Kieron, is he?"
We both looked back down the bus. Kieron was showing off to the lads, doing his party trick of throwing large gemstones in the air and swallowing them whole.
"There ain't many people out there who could cost us more a week than Kieron," grumbled my chairman. "Before you come along, he was even worse. Got in a right barney with the local council when he tried to build a cottage in the grounds outside his mansion."
"What's wrong with that?"
"He was tryin' to build it outta pound coins."
"Ah. I see. Well, this kid's not going to be like that. He's at Blackpool, he's probably not making much more than minimum wage."
"I dunno," said David, shaking his head. "Wot's Karren gonna say, eh? You know what she's like on spending."
But I knew I had his attention. I knew because he folded up his DS and stared thoughtfully out of the window. After a while, his little fingers started marking out columns of numbers in the condensation.
"Alright." he said eventually.
"Yeah. I'll saddle up the Labrador tomorrow, ride over to the bank and get the finances sorted. Blackpool won't be able to resist a £3m bid. You'll have your player alright. And then we'll stop being crap."
"Exactly, Mr Sullivan," I beamed. "Hang on… saddle up the what?"
"I've ain't done that, I'd never do that. I don't know what you're talking about. Prick."
And with that, he went back to Mario Kart.
Of course, we all know how that worked out. Adam became one of the most important players in the recent history of the club. He took us up a level, lifted us to a point where we could pass the ball in the knowledge that it might actually reach its destination. Mind you, if that destination was 'the feet of Luís Boa Morte' it still wasn't going to help us secure a result, but at least it was a start. From that moment on, it felt like we were on our way. We were winning games. We were out of the Carling Cup by then, turfed out by Chelsea in the third round, but five wins in December and January set us up rather nicely in mid-table. A run to the sixth round of the FA Cup was nice until Tottenham ended it, but overall, it wasn't bad for a side who were supposed to be relegated.
I think that's why what happened next caught me unawares. I was sat in my office one evening, playing Ker-Plunk with David when the lights suddenly started to flicker.
"She's on the move!" he whispered fearfully. "She's coming!"
"Who is? Who's coming?"
"Her eyes! They are terrible!" And with that, he flew off his chair and vanished into a gap between the bookshelves.
I sat in silence, watching the door carefully. The air grew noticeably colder, the hairs on the back of the neck stood up as if I was listening to the last verse of Don't Fear The Reaper. But still, the door remained closed.
"What are you staring at?" said a feline voice behind me.
Well, I won't lie to you, I did a bit of wee.
"Jesus Christ!" I exclaimed, leaping out of my seat, sending marbles everywhere. "Where did you come from?"
Perched comfortably on the side of my drinks cabinet, Karren smiled like a shark in the learner pool.
"You've been spending a lot of money, not-so-new-manager. First Charlie Adam from Blackpool. Then Ritchie De Laet from Manchester United. Now Khouma Babacar from Fiorentina. All these arrivals. They were… unauthorised."
"In fairness, Khouma is only on loan."
"At the cost of £425,000."
"Well, yes," I said. "It's a lengthy loan."
"For a young man who isn't very good at football."
"He's been at the club for three days! How on earth could you know whether he's any good or not?"
"Khoumar Babacar. Born 17 March 1993. 191cm tall. Runs like a Thomson Gazelle, shoots like a fairground popgun. He's raw, raw like steak tartare. He likes Jennifer Lopez movies, seafood and the music of Fairground Attraction."
"He was a C+ average at school in Thiés, Senegal, rarely focusing on his studies, preferring instead to play football and run track and he has a birthmark on the back of his right thigh shaped like Bagpuss."
"You've disappointed me."
Well, I wasn't having that. This was my football club and I wasn't about to be told what to do by some suit. She might scare David, but she didn't scare me.
"Ms Brady. You may know numbers, but you don't know footballers. I can assure you that all three of my new signings are more than worthy of a place in this team. They'll help us grow, help us strengthen and they'll help us secure a place in the top half of the Premier League."
Karren raised her eyebrow pointedly.
"Will they indeed?"
"Yes." I said defiantly. "I expect us to secure a top-half finish."
"Well, then," she said, soundlessly slipping off my drinks cabinet and striding for the door. "I shall update my expectations accordingly. It will no longer be enough for you to battle bravely against relegation. You will finish in the top ten."
And with that, she was gone. I have to hand it to her. She was clever.
After that, well, you know what happened, don't you? We fell off a cliff. We lost to Birmingham. We lost to Wolves. Again. We drew with Arsenal, we lost to Liverpool, we lost to Tottenham. From the start of February to the end of April, we won just six points. We were, as Carlton put it before we shut down that bloody Twitter account, sinking faster than a raft full of Cubans. David wouldn't even talk to me after the Spurs game. In fact, he very rarely came out of his Wendy House. It was a tough time for all of us. The fans were on my back, the papers had turned against me. I tried to keep out of Karren's way, but every now and then our paths would cross and she'd remind me.
"Fifteenth now, not-new-at-all manager," she'd call down the corridor. "That's not top half, is it?"
I did my best to ignore her. The worst thing was, she was right about Khouma Babacar. He really was gash.
At the end of April, the spectre of relegation wasn't just rearing its head, it was sitting in my armchair, reading my paper and smoking my cigars. And where did we have to go? Old Trafford. It was the most daunting challenge of my career so far. To stand shoulder to shoulder with Sir Alex Ferguson, to pit my wits against the finest manager in British history.
I was lucky enough to share a moment with the great man before the game. He's such a perfectionist. An hour before kick-off, I found him and Mike Phelan in the tunnel, chatting with young midfielder Anderson. Fergie was always years ahead of his time with his motivational techniques. I turned the corner and he had the little Brazilian by the shirt, pushing him up against the wall, as if to say, "I can carry you. I can lift you. I can make you a better footballer." It was really quite inspiring. Mike, who would succeed him three years later, was watching intently, holding a hammer and some nails. I think that it must have been some kind of metaphor for building a team, but I'm not sure. They obviously didn't want me copying their methods because as soon they noticed me, they quickly dropped Anderson to the floor.
"Och, it's you," said Fergie. "Dinnae mind this. Ye've no' seen nothing."
"Ha!" I laughed. "Don't worry, I won't give away any of your secrets." I winked at Anderson, but he didn't respond. He was so far 'into the zone' that he'd gone a bit catatonic. Brilliant. What a manager. "I brought some wine, Sir Alex. A good drop of Rioja, I think you'll like it."
"Aye," he nodded, always the professional, still staring hard at Anderson. "Leave it with my receptionist."
"Will do, will do. Looking forward to sharing a glass with you."
"Havnae got the time, son," he said, taking the hammer from Mike and gently, rhythmically slapping it into the palm of his hand. "Gottae put something up on the wall."
Anderson must have wanted to help, because he squealed loudly at this and was so excited he couldn't get his words out. What it must be to inspire such loyalty from your players that they'd help with the decorating. I couldn't even get Herita Ilunga to make me a cup of tea.
Getting him to defend properly was even harder. Nani had him on toast in that first half. Cross after cross was flung into our box, but Matty Upson and James Tomkins were equal to everything. Strangely, Anderson wasn't in either the starting line-up or on the bench. Was this another case of those famous mind games? With a genius like Fergie, you never knew. Either way, I was just happy to get the boys in at half-time without conceding.
"Lads," I said to them at the break. "I expect much better from you in the second half."
"You're kidding, ain't you boss?" shouted Carlton. "There's five-year-old Vietnamese girls stitching footballs that ain't worked as hard as us today."
"Work? Work, Carlton?!" I shouted. "You've barely broken a sweat, you useless great lummox. You're sat there scratching your gigantic bottom, never chasing, never running. It's no bloody wonder we're getting sucked into a relegation battle!"
Carlton jumped to his feet and came for me, so I threw a bottle of water at his head. It bounced off the top of his bonce with a crack and spiralled through the air, landing at the feet of substitute Khouma Babacar. Well, I've never seen anything like it. Khouma caught it on his instep, span around and lashed it across the dressing room into a toilet cubicle where it landed in the bowl with a splash. Me and Carlton just stopped and stared.
"Charlie," I barked at my midfield schemer. "Flick a bottle of water at Carlton."
Charlie just stared at me.
"Do it!" I bellowed.
"Even Holloway wasn't this mental," he said shaking his head. He dropped the bottle, flicked it up and smashed it at Carlton's face. Crack! It deflected away, fell to Khoumar and thwack! Splash! He punted it straight in the same loo.
"And again! And again!"
We'd cracked it. I hauled Mark Noble off and put Khoumar on, pushing him up with Carlton. For the first time all season, we were going with two up front, we were knocking it long and we were going to use Carlton's unique physicality to help us for once. We took old Fergie completely by surprise. Granted, Khoumar still wasn't very good, but he was a wonderful decoy. He dragged markers all over the place, leaving room for Carlton and Scottie to push up and plunder. I still pinch myself when I think about it now, but we won 3-0, stunning Old Trafford into silence. What a day!
And Fergie? He was dignity personified. Rather than getting angry, and he'd have had every right to be annoyed, he told me to make the most of the day, to savour every moment. At least, I think that's what he meant when he told me to, "sleep with my eyes open tonight."
Confidence restored, we went on a season-saving run. Victories over Wigan, Blackpool and Birmingham followed and we shot up to 7th in the table before defeats away to Everton and Tottenham dropped us back down to ninth on the last day of the season. Ninth. Ten places higher than we were expected to finish.
I thanked the lads for their service, told them to bugger off to a beach somewhere and then left them to it. They had a party lined up that night at Kieron's and the word was that he'd hired the surviving cast members of Star Wars to perform the movie on a stage in his back garden.
Well, that wasn't for me. For starters, I didn't have a clue how they'd pull off the space battles, but mostly because I just wanted some peace. I shut the door of the dressing room, listened for a moment to the excited chitter-chatter I'd left behind, and then walked happily to my office. David was waiting for me, sat on the side of my desk with a bottle of Tizer and a Sherbet Dip Dab.
"Well done," he grinned. "I took a massive risk, a massive, massive risk givin' you the job, but you've proved me right. Good football, good signings, and good God almighty, we've come ninth. Congratulations."
"Thanks David," I smiled. "I couldn't have done it without you."
"We're a team, ain't we? With your coaching and my head for busine-"
The lights flickered and David went white. A dark patch appeared at the front of his suit.
"She has risen!" he wailed. "Evil stalks us!" And he bounded off the desk and away, leaving nothing but a streak of cloudy liquid in his wake.
Baffled, I shook my head and slumped down in my chair, letting my eyes close for a moment.
"Sleeping on the job?" said a familiar voice behind me.
"Ms Brady," I said without turning around. "Before I leave this club, I'm going to figure out how you do that."
"I think I would prefer it if you just concentrated on managing my football team. Why aren't you going to Kieron Dyer's party?"
"Not really my scene."
"Indeed. I'm not entirely sure whose scene it would be. How do you think he's going to recreate the assault on the Death Star?"
"I really don't know! It's been bugging me all afternoon."
"Did you know that he's still trying to get Sir Alec Guinness to perform?"
"Isn't Sir Alec Guinness dead?"
"That's precisely what I said, but Kieron insists that he's been funding a cure."
"A cure for death?"
"That's what he says."
"Christ," I said. "Maybe I should get down there. He knows that we're letting him go this summer, doesn't he?"
"He does. He seems entirely unconcerned. What a confident young man he is."
"I could do with some funds to replace him," I said hopefully.
"We feel you have adequate resources with which to achieve your aims," she said, staring at me harshly.
"Do you, old-manager? Because I wonder sometimes what you do see. This football club is perched precariously on an enormous pile of IOU notes. The supporters' expectations rise disproportionately to any glimmer of success we enjoy, the players are paid small fortunes to offer up mediocrity, the owners lack the resources to enable us to compete with our rivals and my manager, a man I did not choose to employ, sits in his office with his eyes closed telling me that he can see. Is there anything else you can tell me, perchance?"
"I told you we'd get a top half finish."
"Yes. Well done," she said flatly. "You came in 30 points behind the champions. If you'd won 10 more games, you might have won the title. This season you won 17 matches from 38, so at that rate, you'd need another 23.25 games to put up a challenge or, to put it another way, it's May now. If you continued to play until November, you might, might get to a level where you could, with clear conscience, walk into this room, slouch in that chair and close your eyes. I expect better next season, old-manager. And better the season after that."
"And how am I supposed to do that?"
"Use your initiative. Stay on top of your players, teach them new skills, search for the stars of the future, look for bargains who are out of contract, pull your head out of your bottom and do your job better or I will go out and find better. Do you 'see' that, old-manager?"
There was a long silence.
"Is this how you motivate your staff, Ms Brady?"
"No," she said, striding to the door purposefully. "This is how I dust."
To be Continued...