The Ballad of Bobby Manager: My Autobiography (Part Four)
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 happens is true, or even nearly true. It happened on a laptop and it has no basis or relevance in real life.
There is no sight in this world more beautiful than Anfield at dawn. As the sun rises and the sky turns from grey to pink, the creeping fingers of light reach down from between the clouds and fondle that historic stadium like a horny sixth former. They rub off the red seats, they make the bulbs in the floodlights tingle and that beautiful green pitch seems to rise up, every stalk stretching and clamouring for a bit of action. As for me, I just sat quietly on the bench, took it all in and smiled. I'd been there all night, quietly drawing my plans together. Poor Roy Hodgson had given this job everything he had, but after three seasons he had left empty-handed. Now, having taken West Ham from the brink of relegation to the cusp of continental success, albeit in the Europa League, it was my turn to try and rouse this sleeping giant.
A series of loud unintelligible squeaks brought me out of my daydream with a start.
"What the hell!" I blustered. I whipped my head around and saw Jamie Carragher, my new assistant manager, beaming back at me from the mouth of the tunnel.
"Oh!" I gasped. "It's you, Jamie. I'm afraid you've caught me in a bit of a daydream."
Jamie smiled and emitted a short burst of white noise.
"Ha! Yes, I suppose so," I replied, chuckling.
He shrieked and whistled at me, shrugging his shoulders emphatically.
"Well," I said. "That's easy for you to say. It's me who has to put up with the hand of history upon his shoulder. It's me who has to drag this team back into the big time. Still, it could be worse. At least Roy was able to secure Champions League qualification last year."
A shadow passed across Jamie's face at the mention of his former manager.
"I'm sorry, Jamie." I said gently. "It's still too soon, isn't it? Speaking of which, has Fernando recovered yet?"
Fernando Torres hadn't enjoyed the best of times under my predecessor. In fact, when I was at West Ham, Roy had once tried to strike a swap deal with me in exchange for Carlton Cole. When news of Roy's sacking hit the papers, Fernando went on a celebratory drinking binge that lasted three weeks and ended when he fell asleep aboard a fishing ship and woke up in Newfoundland. The hangover was really quite extraordinary.
"Bobby," he had whispered quietly from his sofa, when I popped round to see how he was doing. "You save me?"
"That's right, Fernando," I smiled softly. "I'm here to save you."
He grimaced as another wave of nausea swept over him and he glugged urgently at a bottle of Irn-Bru.
"Always the ball in the air," he mumbled. "Always so high, I break my neck looking for it. Why, Bobby? Why did he not let us pass?"
"It's ok, son," I said, mopping his brow with a cloth and passing him another bag of ready salted crisps. "That's all going to change now. This season, we play it on the deck, we use you as a lone striker, but we put Stevie behind you, so he can grab the game by the scruff of the neck. I'm going to buy actual wide men to help supply you, I'm going to find someone who can pass to feed you and I'm going to seal Christian Poulsen into a barrel and push him into the Mersey."
Fernando's eyes bulged and he tried to lift himself from the sofa.
"Konchesky!" he wailed urgently. "Konchesky!"
"It's ok," I said, pushing him back down onto the cushions. "It's ok. He's already gone. I had Jamie drive him and his mum out into the Lake District. He let them out in a small clearing and then drove off as quickly as he could. I don't think we'll see them again."
He smiled and began to relax.
"I love you, Bobby," he said softly.
"I know you do, Fernando," I said, using the tips of my fingers to lower his eyelids. "Now get some rest, eh?"
I got busy in the transfer market as soon as possible. With the generous transfer kitty that Tom Hicks and George Gillett had promised me, we went on a spending spree. First came the pint-size German speedster Marko Marin from Borussia Mönchengladbach for £25m. Then, for the other flank, Eljero Elia for £17.5m. The Dutchman had a troubled start to life at Anfield. I invited him for a tour of the stadium, but lost him within five minutes. We searched everywhere, but it was sundown before one of the stewards found him running up and down a blind alley behind the stadium. Strange lad.
Sami Khedira joined from Real Madrid to help oil the wheels of midfield. He was £10m and then we spent another £20m on a kid from Ajax by the name of Luis Suárez. He was a lovely lad, happy to help out anywhere across the front line, a real people person. There was a brief flashpoint early on when he sent a birthday card to Glen Johnson addressing him as "my favourite negro", but we took him aside and had a quiet word. We gently warned him that "negro", while not being offensive in a certain context in his homeland, could be construed as offensive in England if, say, he used it in the middle of a ferocious war of words with a black opponent. I know, I know, it seems like political correctness gone mad, but you can't be too careful. Imagine if we didn't pick up on something like that immediately and it was taken the wrong way!
With all the signing-on fees and the increased burden on the wage bill, that was the limit of my spending, but I felt that I'd done more than enough to liven up the squad and give us a chance of silverware. It was certainly a lively dressing-room when I walked in for the first pre-season friendly against Celtic.
For a moment, I just stood in the doorway and watched them chattering among themselves. So much talent, so much ability. I couldn't help but smile at the memory of kicking water bottles at Carlton Cole's skull in an effort to demonstrate the advantages of the long-ball game. I wouldn't have to do that here. One thing I would have to do, however, was turn that bloody music off.
"Daniel," I said, tapping my tattooed Danish defender on the shoulder. "What the hell is this on the stereo?"
"It's Phil Collins," he said with a look of weary resignation. "It's Stevie's choice."
"Come on, let's get rid of it. We've got work to do."
Daniel's face turned white and he threw out an arm to block my progress.
"No!" he hissed. "You cannot! He is quick to anger. You must let the song finish!"
I looked over to the other side of the dressing-room. My captain was sat quietly in the corner doing air drums. Whatever else you could say about him, he could certainly feel it coming in the air tonight. I waited patiently for the song to end.
"Gaffer!" beamed Gerrard as the song faded out. "Welcome to the dressing-room! Lads! This is Bobby Manager, he's the new gaffer!"
"All right, gaffer!" shouted the dressing-room as one.
"All right, gaffer!" bellowed a group of American tourists behind me.
"All ri… hang on, who are you?" I asked, turning around.
"Say howdy to our new friends, Bobby!" grinned Tom Hicks. "These guys are touring the stadium, I said that they could come in and see how a real team talk goes down!"
"Get them out of here, Tom, I'm working!"
"Bobby," smiled Tom, striding forward and putting his arm around me. "I get you, I understand you, this is your territory and I'm stepping all over it." He lowered his voice to a whisper that only I could hear. "But if you dismiss me in front of people like that again, Bobby, I'll sack you in a heartbeat and replace you with Avram Grant, you hear me?"
"I hear you."
"These people are paying £10,000 a head for the full tour and that's money we need right now, capice?"
"I thought we were fine for money, Tom," I whispered back at him. "I thought you'd sorted it all out with the bank?"
Tom smiled again, a little too hard, I thought.
"Of course, we're fine, Bobby. Who said we weren't fine? It's all going to be fine. It's all going to be fine."
He let go of me and turned back to the tour group.
"So there you go, guys. That's the dressing-room, now how's about we take a trip to the trophy room to look at those four European Cups, huh?"
"Five European Cups, Tom." I said quietly.
"There's only four in there, Bobby."
"Well, there were five there last night when I was looking at them."
"How many do you think Avram would see if he was looking at them, Bobby?"
"Fine," I said, sadly. "Enjoy the game, Tom."
"You too, Bobby," he said with a wink.
I did enjoy the game, as it happened. Fernando scored, Suárez scored and Stevie drove one home from 30 yards. It was great fun, but I enjoyed the first league game of the season even more.
"Weeep!" said Jamie Carragher beside me on the bench as the full time whistle went. And he was right. It was more than we could have hoped for.
Everton at home and we crushed them, restricting them to just a single shot and piling in four goals of our own, the last of which Stevie drove home from 30 yards. We were on our way. Unfortunately, we weren't on our way quite as quickly as Manchester City. After three seasons of just missing out on the title, they had paid £75m for Cristiano Ronaldo and it was working out rather nicely for them. They won their first eight league games without conceding a single goal and it wasn't until December that they lost their first match. Meanwhile, under the stewardship of Mike Phelan, Manchester United were struggling to keep up and Arsenal, who had confusingly replaced Arsène Wenger with Hugo Sánchez, were in the bottom three in October. It was a very odd season.
Even odder was the behaviour of Tom. I hardly ever saw George. On the few occasions I passed him in the corridors, he just put his head down and skittered past me. Tom, on the other hand, was a constant presence.
"Bobby!" he shouted as he burst into my office one evening. "I just wanted to pop in and see if you wanted some pizza? You want some pizza, Bobby?"
"No, I'm fine, thanks Tom," I said. "Just working on some stats here. Did you know that Arsenal are scoring just a single goal for every 15 chances they make?"
"I couldn't give a rat's ass, Bobby."
"That's a nice watch you got there though, what is that? Is that a Rolex?!" He reached out for my arm and tugged it towards him.
"Erm, yes, it is. It's a 1979 'Paul Newman' Rolex Oyster. This is actually a prototype and there's only a handful of them in the world. Kieron Dyer gave it to me when he left West Ham. He was using it as a paperweight."
"Aw, gee, Bobby, it's broken."
"Yeah, you see the hands and the way they're moving around?"
I stared at the watch intently. I wasn't very good with these sorts of things.
"What am I looking for?" I asked.
"You see the way the hands glide around smoothly, Bobby, without any discernible tick? That means it's broken. Your central chrono-piston must have burst a filament."
"Really?" I exclaimed. "God, that's terrible. Is it difficult to fix?"
"Lucky for you, I know a guy." With a flash of his fingers, he unclicked the strap and whipped it off my wrist. "I'll take it to him first thing tomorrow, Bobby. Don't worry about the fee, I'll take care of it for you."
I never saw it again.
Compensation arrived in the form of, well, our form. We couldn't close the gap on City, but we could certainly leave some breathing space between ourselves and the rest of the chasing pack. Marin and Elia tore people apart in a way that Stewart Downing and Junior Stanislas rarely did. Suárez was a Godsend, not simply because he could cover for both wingers, but because he could slot in for Stevie or Fernando as well.
Insulated against injury or suspension, we roared through our Champions League group, beat Marseille in the first knock-out round and put 10 points between us and Chelsea in third.
To all intents and purposes, however, our league challenge ended in early March when we went to the Etihad Stadium and were beaten 1-0 after a 40-yard Ronaldo free-kick almost severed our goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev's hands at the wrist. We weren't really in the right mood for the game, having been put off our stride by a late visit from, yes, you've guessed it, Tom Hicks.
"Bobby!" he shouted as he strode in with a huge pile of documents in his arms. "I'm sorry to barge in like this, but I just need to update the insurance on the players."
"Does it have to be done now? We kick off in 10 minutes."
"You're right, you're right. Maybe it could wait for a better time. Say? Do you have Avram Grant's number on your cell, I could really use that."
"Come on then, but can we get this done as soon as possible?"
"Sure, Bobby! You heard him, boys! I need a signature from each of you on the bottom of page 22, let's get these passed around. Where are the pens? George? GEORGE? What are you doing hiding out in the corridor, George, goddammit, I need you in here."
George slipped into the dressing-room with a pot of biros. He looked ashen-faced and rarely lifted his eyes off the floor as he handed out the pens.
"Are you ok, George?" I asked as the players passed the documents around the dressing-room.
"He's fine, Bobby. He's just a little ill, aren't you, George?"
George looked at me sadly, his eyes wide and damp like a naughty puppy.
"Yes," he mumbled. "I am just a little ill."
Daniel Agger raised his arm.
"Boss, what is this?"
"I'll field this one, Bobby," said Tom. "Danny, it's an insurance document. We… er… discovered that your existing policies didn't take into account a lot of things that could happen to you, a lot of things that could go wrong. Don't worry about reading it, it's all for your benefit."
"Why does it say 'economic rights' in big letters on the first page?" asked Glen Johnson.
"Don't worry about, that's just some nonsense legalese. Just sign the papers and you can get on with the game. Good luck with that, by the way. Go Reds, huh? Hey, Bobby, I need you to sign one too, just in case you get hit by a bus."
I shrugged and signed quickly without even looking at it.
Some of the players looked unsure, but as always, Stevie took control.
"Look lads, if the gaffer says it's ok and the owners says it's ok, I say it's ok. Let's sign the forms, so's I can get out there and grab the game by the scruff of the neck, eh?"
"All right, Stevie!" chorused the squad, and they signed the forms.
"Great!" beamed Tom with more enthusiasm than I expected for a man who was just updating insurance policies. He ran around the dressing-room snatching forms from hands and then dashed out of the door. George followed silently behind.
"George?" I asked quietly. "Are you sure you're ok?"
He turned and looked at me for a while.
"Yeah, I'm ok, Bobby."
"Ok. Well, enjoy the game."
"I'm not gonna watch it, Bobby." He said "I've got my book. I'll just sit in the boardroom and read."
"Oh. Fair enough. What are you reading?"
"Harry Potter," sniffled George. "He's so noble. He always knows to do the right thing. I wish I could be more like him."
I didn't really know what to do with that.
With the title looking more and more out of our reach, we focused our attention on Europe. To our great delight, City were knocked out by Barcelona in the quarter-finals, while we slid past PSV on away goals. We drew Bayern Munich in the semi-finals, while the Catalans landed Olympiakos and what seemed like a straight-forward path to the final, a final that would be held in their own stadium. But it didn't quite turn out like that.
In Germany, Stevie drove one home from 30 yards and, thanks largely to Akinfeev, we managed to cling on to our lead until full-time. But there was drama at Anfield the following week when our defensive linchpin, Lucas, went missing on the night of the big game.
I rapped on Tom's office door urgently.
"Bobby!" he laughed when I walked in. "I was just thinking about you. Listen, where do you want to take the lads in the summer? Whatever happens from here on in, I think they deserve a reward, don't you?"
"Well, yes, that's very good of you, Tom."
"You like the Middle East, Bobby? I love it; you been out there since they rebuilt it? Gee, it's awesome. Clean beaches, beautiful hotels, those Emirates sure are beautiful."
"That sounds great."
"You wouldn't mind spending a bit of time out there, huh? Well, I don't blame you. Leave it with me, I'll get it fixed up."
"Tom, that's really good of you, but I've got a problem. Have you seen Lucas?"
Tom leaned back in his chair and stroked his chins thoughtfully.
"Lucas? Which one is he again? Is he the one with all the tattoos?"
"No, that's Danny Agger."
"Is he the soft-faced Spanish one who looks like a nine year old girl?"
"No, Tom, that's Fernando Torres."
"Well, gee Bobby, which one's Lucas?"
"He's the little one who does all the tackles."
Tom looked blank.
"Why do you think I'd know where Lucas is, Bobby?"
"Well, some of the lads say that they saw you leading him off the training pitch this morning and pointing him towards a large black limousine."
"I don't recall that, Bobby."
"They say you were talking about Arsenal and how they needed a destroyer in the middle."
"Ah, I see, Bobby. I see what's happened. No, no, what we've got here is a serious case of crossed wires. I remember now, Lucas is the guy who likes to read up on current affairs, right?"
"Yeah, we were talking about the possible build-up of the nuclear arsenal in Iran and how we should send a US destroyer to the middle of Gulf, just to send them a warning. Easy mistake to make, huh?"
"Oh. Well, do you know where the limousine went?"
"Sure I do, I thought he'd been working hard all season, so I had the driver give him a lift home. A reward. An incentive. Gee, I hope you don't mind, Bobby?"
"No, not at all. Ok. Well, I'll have to try and locate him elsewhere."
I never did find him.
Still, it didn't matter in the end, though it looked like it might for a while. Lucas's replacement Jay Spearing struggled to contain the Germans and, two goals down at the break, we had it all to do in the second half. I got the players back into the dressing-room as quickly as I could and slammed the door.
"Where's the passion, lads?" I shouted.
Jamie weighed in as well, warbling non-words loudly and punching his fist into his hand.
"Jamie's right," I said. "And I couldn't have put it better myself. You're thinking about yourselves, but you're not thinking about the club, the legacy, the soul of this football team.
"Meeep!" Jamie squawked disconsolately.
"Exactly, Jamie, exactly," I shouted, patting him on the back. "What would Shanks make of this?"
Jamie opened his mouth, threw back his head and one of the windows in the shower exploded.
"Yes, Jamie! He'd be mortified! Now get out there and pull this back. They're holding a final in Barcelona in May and as God is my witness, I want Liverpool to be one of the teams out there contesting it."
Stevie roared and punched the air and the rest of the lads joined in, whopping and hollering. I felt more alive then than I did in three years at Upton Park and I tell you the truth, I felt sorry for Bayern Munich. Stevie drove one home from 30 yards just two minutes after the restart, Marin poked a free-kick inside the near-post three minutes later and with just moments left on the clock, Fernando slipped through the defence, rounded the goalkeeper and sent us to the final. But it got even better than that.
"What's that Jamie?" I asked my assistant as we bounced up on down on the touchline in celebration.
He shouted into my ear, a noise like a fax machine falling down a well.
"Barcelona are out?! They lost to Olympiakos?!"
Jamie laughed wickedly and planted a kiss on my cheek. We'd never considered that there might be an upset. The only thing that stood in our way now was Olympiakos. We were the runaway favourites.
The title race was over in April. After decades in the wilderness, Manchester City finally sat at the top of the pile, having won 30 games and only lost two. We would eventually trail in 11 points behind them, but another eight ahead of Chelsea. Manchester United recovered to finish fourth, while Arsenal plodded home in eighth having sacked Sánchez and replaced him with Steve Bould.
Our thoughts turned to the Camp Nou and our date with destiny. It's funny how local rivalries are ignored when an English team comes to challenge the continental powers. I was humbled to receive a text message from retired Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson on the morning of the game.
"Even u cant fuck this up! ROFL!" it read. I can't tell you how good it felt to have a legend of the game fill me with that self-belief, to take the time out of his day to tell me that I couldn't fail. No wonder he always coaxed such spellbinding performances out of his players. Who wouldn't want to win for that man? And to add the ROFL (Rooting Openly For Liverpool) just goes to show that rivalry is nothing compared to mutual respect.
But I wonder if even Fergie would have been able to cope with the discovery that, once again, we were a man down before the game had even begun. I diligently counted a party of 38 players and officials onto the plane, but only 37 got off at Barcelona. Glen Johnson had vanished.
"Tom?" I shouted across the terminal. "Tom? Where's Glen?"
"Which one's Glen?" he shouted back as he barged holiday-makers out of the way to get to me.
"The right-back, Tom. With the braided hair."
"Why would I know where Glen is, Bobby?"
"The lads say that you took him to the back of the plane and handed him a freshly-packed parachute when we were flying over Monaco."
"Ah, that Glen! Gee, Bobby, why would I give him a parachute? I mean, it's not like I'm going to encourage him to sneak him through the access hatch into the cargo hold, release the rear door emergency catch and shove him out when we're over a rich French football club with an urgent need for a new full-back, is it?"
"Well, that's true, I suppose," I conceded. "So what happened?"
"That was a cushion. An elaborately designed… erm… designer cushion. With straps and buckles. It's a Pierre… erm… Cheesemonkey. He's very good, my wife loves his shoes. I wanted to reward Glen for his work this season, but I wanted to take him to the back of the plane so that the other players didn't get jealous. After all, I can't afford Pierre Cheesemonkeys for everyone, huh? Huh?!"
"Fair enough," I said. "But what are we going to do for a right-back? I think we'll have to play Martin Kelly, but I don't even know—"
"Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!" said Tom kindly. "These are your problems. I got my own problems!"
"You're right," I said. "Jamie! Where are you Jamie? We've got a problem."
I heard a frantic squeaking from passport control, so I grabbed my bag and broke into a run.
Of course, you're probably laughing when you read this, wondering why I ever worried about young Martin. It was he who rose like Italian interest rates at the back post for that corner, meeting Khedira's floated cross and powering it into the back of the net. It was he who kept the right flank closed to all visitors for 90 breathless minutes. For all our concerns, for all our fears, we didn't miss Glen at all in the end. Olympiakos were plucky, they fought to the end, but when Stevie — who else? — drove one home from 30 yards with just 10 minutes left, I knew that nothing could stop us.
"We've done it!" I cried and leapt up from the bench.
"Meep meep!" yelled Jamie as he jumped onto my shoulders. After what seemed like forever, the full-time whistle blew and the stadium erupted. I shook off Jamie and strode to the centre of the Camp Nou, master of my own magical night in Barcelona, my arms raised to the sky, soaking up the adulation, drinking in the moment.
"We've won it six times! We've won it six ti-iiii-imes!" sang the fans.
From a struggling turf salesman in a red Ford Mondeo to a Champions League-winning manager in just four years. This was my dream, this was my impossible dream.
"In Barcelona… we won it six times!"
I looked around for Stevie, but he was being led into the tunnel by some men in grey suits. One of them was measuring him with a long tape, another was marking something down on a clipboard. I looked for Jamie on the bench, but where he had stood there was only a six foot high brown paper parcel that seemed to squirm uncomfortably of its own accord.
"One Bobby Manager!"
I craned my neck around, looking for my players, any of them. I started to turn on the spot, faster and faster, growing ever more frantic, grinding the turf underneath me to mud. Where was everyone?
"There's only one Bobby Manager!"
I ran, heart pounding, palms sweating, off the pitch and down the tunnel, leaving the noise and the glory and the love behind me. I skidded around the corner of the corridor and made for the dressing-room, barging the door open and sliding across the tiles. It was empty. The floor was clean, with thin streaks of water and detergent still drying under the lights. The kit was gone, the players were gone, the bags were gone. It was as if the dressing-room had never been used.
"Bobby?" asked a small voice from inside the showers.
"George?" I said. "What's going on? Where is everyone?"
George poked his head around the corner. His eyes were red.
"They've gone," he sniffled. "They've all gone."
"What are you talking about? Where have they gone? We're supposed to be collecting the trophy!"
"That's gone as well. Tom sold it." He shuffled out from the showers, clutching his Harry Potter book close to his chest. "Sometimes I wish I were a wizard," he whimpered. "Then I could have shouted, 'Expelliarmus' at him when he ran away and at least we would have the cup."
"What the hell are you talking about, George!" I bellowed. "What the hell is going on?!"
"He lied!" screamed George, throwing his book to the floor with a resounding slap. "He lied to you, he lied to the players, he lied to the bank and he lied to me! He never had any money, he borrowed everything in the name of the club at crippling interest rates and now it's all gone wrong! He's been selling the economic rights of the players for the last month to anyone who will take them, signing them over with contracts that kicked in either immediately or the moment this game ended. All the stars, all the legends, every decent or halfway decent footballer has been sold, Bobby! There's no-one left who can even kick a ball in a straight line!"
There was a tentative knock at the door.
"Yes?" I snapped.
The door opened and the unused substitute David Ngog stepped into the room, looking around in confusion.
"David?" I said. "You're still here?"
"No-one tried to take you away?"
"No one at all?"
"Well, that at least makes sense!" I laughed. Yes, I laughed. In spite of it all, I laughed, long and hard, my voice ringing off the walls of the empty dressing-room. "George?"
"I quit! This is your problem and I'm leaving you to it. I'm going to go out there and tell the press exactly what's happened and then I'm going on holiday. You can deal with it from here. God knows, with this victory and my record at West Ham, it won't be long before someone comes along with a decent job offer."
"That's just it, Bobby," cried George. "You can't quit! Tom sold you as well. You're the new manager of Qatar!"
So that's where you find me today. Sat in an air-conditioned room in an air-conditioned hotel in Doha, poring over the career details of Sebastian Soria and Khalfan Ibrahim. It's not what I wanted, it's not what I needed, but thanks to George and Tom, it's what I am contractually obliged to do for another three years and 112 days. Still, it's not all bad. I can finally pick my own music in the dressing-room, no-one sells any of my players behind my back, no-one has tried to Tazer my testicles and my boss isn't pursuing an unhealthy relationship with a golden Labrador. And you know what? Somehow, some day, I'll be back.