The Ballad of Bobby Manager: My Autobiography (Part Two)
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 it has no basis or relevance in real life.
In our last episode, Bobby Manager took the reins at Upton Park when Avram Grant was forced to quit just days after joining the club. Following a difficult start, Manager turned the club around and secured a thoroughly respectable ninth place finish. Now the pressure is on to take the club to the next level.
I love the first day of pre-season training. Always have. The bright July sunshine, the smell of freshly cut grass, the muffled honking of young men throwing up in their training bibs. Magical times. It's a sanctuary for people like me. Football people. Family, friends, lovers, pets, none of them have any place at the training ground. It's just us. Just us and a big bag of footballs. That's why I'm never keen when the suits get involved.
"How's it goin', Mr Manager?" said a voice behind me. I turned and looked down.
"Very well, Mr Sullivan," I replied carefully. "What's that?"
"That," I said, pointing to the crumpled brown thing in his arms.
"It's a saddle, innit?"
"It's a bloody small saddle, Mr Sullivan. How big is the horse?"
"Who said anyfing about an 'orse? Fuck off."
And with that, he stormed away, dragging his little saddle behind him. I sighed and turned back to the pitch. Stewart Downing was settling in well. He loved a cross, that boy. All day long, he'd hammer up and down the touchline, swinging them in. The only problem was that no-one was there for the header.
"Carlton!" I bellowed. "Where are you?"
"Here, boss!" he shouted from the edge of his own penalty area. "Just getting a few things straight with Stavros here."
"His name's not Stavros, Carlton. It's Kyriakos. Kyriakos Papadopolous and he's a bloody good defender."
"Well," shrugged Carlton, "that's all well and good, but I knew you'd want me to warn him about the crockery."
"I don't want him smashing up the plates after every meal , boss."
I felt another headache coming on.
"Carlton, get down the other end and do what I pay you to do, will you? Christ on a bike, man."
Carlton gave Kyriakos an old-fashioned look, wagged his finger and then galumphed up the field.
"If they didn't smash all those plates," he shouted over his shoulder at me, "we wouldn't have to bail 'em all out, boss. They don't think, y'see."
Carlton was becoming a liability. Since we'd started knocking everything long to him, results had really turned around, but sometimes it was difficult to tell if he was actually winning the first ball or if it was just bouncing off the back of his head. He scored goals, but his attitude in the dressing room needed readjustment. He'd recently taken to hiding in cupboards, jumping out and shouting "Gotcha!" at our Argentinian midfielder Leonardo Ponzio. We couldn't let that continue. He had to be watched carefully.
But yes, I love pre-season. Sadly, when you're a football manager, it can often mean saying farewell to old friends. After so long on the sidelines, Kieron Dyer decided it was time for a dramatic lifestyle change and he left to pursue a career as a professional footballer. Two days later, we released Luis Boa Morte and he returned to Portugal. You know, I genuinely didn't realise how much the fans appreciated Luis. They actually had a whip-round and paid for his taxi to the airport, which I thought was a magnificent gesture. A couple of the supporters even stayed in the terminal just to make sure he got on the plane. I tell you what, you hear some bad things about football fans in this country, but there's nothing wrong with our lot. First class.
If only the same could be said about my boss. I wasn't looking forward to checking in with Karren Brady, but a good manager never shows fear. She had a strange way about her, but she worked so hard for the club. We clashed a lot over tactics, but I find that disputes at boardroom level can poison a dressing room, so I was always keen to stay on her good side, both in public and in private. It sounds silly, but I felt she'd know if I ever criticised her. Even if I did it in my own head.
I knocked once and stepped into her long, cold office. It was much as it had been the season before. Sterile and plain, frigid and clinical. The only sign of a personal touch was a large fur rug in front of her desk. That was a new addition.
"Ms Brady," I said, smiling politely. "How was your summer?"
"It was acceptable," she answered tonelessly as I approached. "I went to China."
"China?" I said incredulously. "I always had you down as a sun-worshipper, I thought you 'd be out in Magaluf or Corfu or something like that, catching some rays and sipping some cocktails."
"I like to hunt."
"Hunting, eh? Not my scene, I'm afraid. I can't even put traps down for mice, I feel so guilty. What is there to hunt in China anyway?"
"They have… things. We found what we were looking for. Eventually."
"Sounds very mysterious!" I laughed. "Nice rug, by the way. Black and white fur? People will think you're a Newcastle fan!"
Karren looked thoughtful.
"I think I would prefer that they thought that. Did you want something?"
"You sent a memo? You wanted to discuss this season's targets?"
Karren leaned forward over her desk and pressed the tips of her fingers together.
"Ah, yes. So… what do you think? What are our targets?"
"Well," I said carefully. "I think we can secure a respectable position."
"A respectable position." She scowled and her fingers turned white at the tips. "A respectable position. I see."
"Is that OK?"
"You tell me, Mr Manager. Is it OK to stand still? Is it OK to show no ambition? We finished respectably last season, didn't we? Do you intend for the same?
"Well, we are West Ham, Ms Brady. "
"What does that mean?"
"The Premier League is a brutal division. One false step, one wrong move and we could slip out of the big time altogether. That's why I've elected to spend the bulk of the budget on young up-and-coming players. We'll hold steady for a couple of years and then wait for them to step up."
Karren's face was a tableau of horror.
"Wait a couple of years? We have agents beating down our door with established international footballers desperate to play in this country now!"
"That's not the road I want to follow. I'd rather cultivate my own team. Who knows, in four or five years, we could be consistent top eight finishers, financially secure, playing attractive football and building the kind of structure that will keep the club safe for generations. I think being respectable is quite an achievement given the alternatives."
"Alternatives, Mr Manager?"
"Well, imagine a parallel universe where millions were squandered on painfully average, inconsistent or injury-prone players. Imagine if these new mercenaries failed to gel and the club went into a nosedive that the manager was unable to recover from. Imagine relegation, an exodus of talent and a gathering financial storm. Imagine if the only way you could recover was to hire a manager whose kick-and-rush, percentage-based football flew in the face of everything the club was supposed to represent."
"Impossible, Mr Manager. That could never happen."
I was just about to respond when there was a knock on the door and a young man walked in carrying a large tray, laden with crockery. He was tall, acne-plagued and gangly and his suit was struggling to contain his latest growth spurt. His ankles and the legs of his trousers appeared to have had an argument and were refusing to go anywhere near each other.
"Ah, Jason," said Karren. "Just set it down here, please. Have you met Bobby Manager?"
"Hello, Mr Manager," said Jason without turning his head. He was putting everything he had into keeping the tea-tray steady as he walked towards the desk. The faint tinkling from the cups betrayed his unease.
"Jason is from the local secondary school. They're running a work experience programme. What an interesting idea. State-sponsored indentured servitude. I rather like it."
Jason smiled sweatily and sat the tray down in front of Karren. He nodded to himself and started to edge away.
"Just a minute," said Karren. "What's this?"
"What's what, Ms Brady?"
"This. In this cup."
"It's milk, Ms Brady."
"Do you think I don't know that? Do you think I'm so stupid that I cannot recognise milk?"
"No, Ms Brady." Jason's eyes were wide and panicked; they skittered towards me looking for support. I couldn't have helped him even if I'd wanted to.
"What's it doing there, Jason?"
"That's how my mum makes it, Ms Brady," whimpered Jason. "She always puts the milk in first."
"I see. How unfortunate." Karren edged backwards in her seat and opened a small drawer in her desk. There was the slightest flash of light across her face, as if she'd caught the glare of a sunbeam off polished steel. "I'm sure you have things to do, Mr Manager," she said to me. "If respectability is all you can promise me, then respectability it shall have to be. I shall keep a careful eye on your progress."
"Yes, Ms Brady," I said quickly and I jumped out of my seat. She was right, I had a lot of things to do. I walked quickly to the door.
"Now tell me, Jason," I heard her say. "Do you know how they make sausages?"
I still can't figure out what she meant by that. Perhaps she was trying to talk him out of a career in football and encourage him to work in something more stable, like catering. He must have listened to her because I never saw him again.
We started so well that season. In our first eight games, we won six and I wondered for a while if I shouldn't have set my sights a little higher. Young Downing settled in immediately and gave us a new outlet on the left. Charlie Adam was growing into his role with every passing day, becoming stronger and more adept at finding Carlton whenever he clattered down his blind alleys. I was still struggling to get anything out of Pablo Berrera and with Junior Stanislas in such irresistible form, the poor Mexican lad seemed destined to fall short with us. Scott Parker and Mark Noble were a formidable pairing in the middle, Hérita Ilunga and Nedum Onuoha rampaged down the flanks and, at the back, the triangle of Rob Green, Matthew Upson and the Greek lad with the long name were working out lovely.
But then it started to go wrong again. It's funny how quickly your confidence can drop. It began with the League Cup and an annoying exit after extra-time to Brentford. We were better than that and I was furious. Then games started to slip away in the league; a slow haemorrhage of single-goal defeats. In the top four in October, we dropped to 16th by Christmas. As Carlton so unfortunately put it in an interview with the Sunday Times, we had less life in us than Pelé's willy. Something had to be done.
I hadn't seen much of David Sullivan that season, so it was with some trepidation that I wandered into the bowels of the stadium to try and find him. David preferred to keep himself to himself, allowing Karren to do the day-to-day management. Sure, he had the Wendy House as a crash-pad, but his permanent offices lay deep in the foundations of Upton Park. There was a strange smell when you went that far underground, a pungent damp that hung in the air like a bad joke. I trudged down a winding passageway as lightbulbs flickered and cast strange shadows upon the sweating walls. And then I heard it.
"Stop nippin' at my ankles, Karren! I ain't gonna tell you again!"
I ran as fast as I could, my footsteps echoing, my heart pounding.
"For God's sake, Karren, just settle down! How can I mount you when you won't settle down?"
"David!" I shouted as I reached the heavy door of his office. "David, are you OK in there?"
Everything went very quiet. I leaned against the door and tried to get my breath back.
There was a noise of frenzied activity, as if furniture was being rearranged in great haste. A muffled whimpering, whispered promises and then nothing. After a pause, the door opened.
"Mr Manager, what a lovely surprise."
David's suit was dishevelled, his tie was torn and he had scratchmarks over the right hand side of his face. His lower lip was trembling slightly and there was a sheen of perspiration across his face.
"David, what happened?"
"I heard a commotion."
"No, you didn't."
"I did, I heard a dog barking and I heard you shouting. What's been going on?"
"You ain't 'eard nuffink. Just echoes, that's all. This stadium was built over… erm… a subterranean river, yeah. And that's what you 'eard. You 'eard the river. Rivering.
"It's very common," he said nodding quickly and then glancing behind him.
"Erm… OK. Look, I need to talk about getting in a new striker."
David stared up at me. The skin beneath his left eye twitched gently.
"David," I said quietly. "What was that?"
"Wot was wot?"
"That noise. That 'Awoooowooowooowooo' noise."
"That was the river, Mr Manager. That's what rivering sounds like. You country folk have got no idea about our city ways, 'ave you?"
There was a loud scratching noise behind him.
"David, I really haven't got time for this. I need to talk to you about buying a new striker. Carlton's shot and we're getting a pounding in the league. I need someone fast and I need someone good, otherwise we're going to get sucked in again. There's a Spanish lad, Alberto Bueno, he looks perfect and I can get him for under £2m."
"Mr Manager," said David briskly, "I think that sounds like a great idea. Go to your office, I'll be there in 30 minutes. I'll call Nigel and get him to come along as well."
The scratching intensified.
"Who's Nigel?" I asked trying to peer over David's head into his office.
"Karren's new work experience boy," David said sharply, standing on tiptoe to block my view.
"What happened to Jason?"
"I don't know any Jason. I'll see you in half an hour."
And the door slammed shut.
I stood there for a while, trying to listen through the door. I couldn't hear much. Just a gentle snuffling and then David's voice, soft and reassuring.
"It's alright," I heard him say tenderly. "I don't think he suspects a thing."
The press suspected something. They suspected that we were going down. As January approached, we couldn't buy a win. Draws were the only thing keeping us out of the drop zone. Carlton's form had dropped off a cliff, he'd only scored three all season and I'm fairly sure two of those were by accident. And what was it that welcomed us into 2012? A trip to Anfield. Perfect.
Of course, Liverpool weren't the force they once were. Roy Hodgson had tried his best to turn things around on Merseyside, but it just wasn't happening for him. They finished in sixth in his first season and, as things stood, they looked like they might struggle to repeat it. Fortunately, Tom Hicks and George Gillett seemed to have no intention of making any hasty changes. Roy was fortunate to have such patient owners, men who really understood the game and knew exactly what Liverpool needed. And he deserved that. He was a lovely man.
"Bobby Manager!" He exclaimed when I popped up to his office to say hello. "As I live and bweathe!"
Good old Roy, he was running the kit through an old cast-iron mangle in his office.
"Roy, what are you doing? You know you could just get one of the apprentices to put those in the tumble dryer don't you?"
"Hey!" he barked at me, raising a finger in the air. "These methods have served me well for 30 years, I'm not about to change them at the first sign of cwiticism."
"Fair enough, Roy, fair enough," I smiled. "How are things?"
"Mustn't gwumble, Bobby. We're doing ok, but some of the lads are still having twubble adapting to my tactics. The boy Towwes keeps expecting the ball to be played to his feet and I need to get him out of that habit. I wish I could convince Zamowa to come up here. Cwikey, the things we could do with him. Say, how's Carlton playing at the moment?"
"He's not so good. I'm actually looking at getting someone new in. I've spotted a Spanish lad, quick and potent, and he might be able to change the dynamic of the team."
"You can have our Spanish lad if you want," Roy whispered, looking solicitous. "Swapsies."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Towwes for Cole. Stwaight swap?"
"Fernando Torres? Not some other Torres?"
Roy glanced around nervously.
"Carlton Cole? Not some other Cole?"
"Christ, Roy. Yes. Yes, let's do that."
Roy ground his mangle quickly, he looked tortured.
"Awwww, no I can't do it. I want to, but I can't."
"Why not?" I asked desperately.
"Aw, it's Stevie Gee. He'll be a living nightmare if I sell another one of his fwiends. You should have seen the tantwum after I sold Pepe Weina to Weal Madwid. He smashed my office to pieces, he went on a weal wampage."
"God, that's awful," I said.
"Well, in his defence, he did say that he thought the office was going to hit him first."
"Sounds like a perfectly reasonable argument."
"Yeah," sighed Roy. "I'll have to keep Fernando. But keep me posted on Carlton. He's a weally special player."
We beat Liverpool 2-0 that night, but I still sat on the coach and brooded all the way home thinking of what could have been if only Gerrard hadn't been so selfish. I had to have that new striker. If it couldn't be Torres, then it would have to be Bueno.
The next day, I spotted Karren in the canteen and I made my move.
"Karren, have you spoken to Nigel yet?"
"I don't recall a Nigel."
"You know, your work experience boy. Nigel. Chubby lad. Curly hair. I had him my office last week with David."
She stared at me.
"I told him to talk you through my latest transfer target."
"I had him make a Powerpoint presentation and everything."
"I'm afraid I have no recollection of him. Spare rib?"
"Ermm… yes, please. Are you sure?"
"Very. I think it's exactly what you're looking for."
"Well, I am a bit peckish." I reached out and cracked one of the larger ones off. They were very large, actually. It must have been quite a pig.
"Nice?" asked Karren, watching me intently.
"God, yes," I mumbled through my mouthful. "Tastes like good pork."
"Yes, everyone says that."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing, don't worry. Now, you wanted to talk to me about a player. Alberto Bueno?"
"How did you know that?"
"Nigel told me."
"I thought you didn't recall a Nigel."
There was a long pause.
"How are the ribs?"
"Lovely, thank you, but let's stick to the point. I need the money to buy Alberto Bueno. He's quick, he's got a lovely finish on him and I think with the right training, he could be our own version of Fernando Torres."
"I see. And how much will this Torres-shandy cost us?"
"I can get him for £1.5m."
"Well, that's very reasonable. I shall make the necessary arrangements for your last throw of the dice."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Your last throw of the dice, Mr Manager. You have had 18 months with a side tipped to hover above the relegation zone and we are still hovering above the relegation zone."
"We came ninth last season!"
"That was last season, this is now."
"Fine, whatever it takes. But I need that player."
God, I was low after that. When you discover that you might lose your job, when you realise that your future in the game is entirely dependent upon the actions of others, it can make you feel pretty vulnerable. I was so stressed, I had problems sleeping. If I ever could get off, I'd find myself waking up a couple of hours later, twitching and moaning. One morning, I just gave up, put my clothes on and drove to the training ground. It's lovely being up at 5am sometimes. The only cars on the road are milkfloats and empty cabs and it's just so quiet and tranquil. I didn't even go to my office, I just parked up outside and wandered across the pitches, the dew from the grass creeping over the tops of my shoes and soaking my socks. The dark of night was turning to a sulky grey and a fine mist hung over everything. All you could hear were the birds, grudgingly waking up in the trees. But there was something else. It started quietly at first, but gradually grew louder, a clanking and a steady, rhythmic galloping sound.
Suddenly the mist broke and it came crashing through, pounding the turf like a race horse, roaring past me and away into the gloom.
"Ho, Karren! Ho! Onwards to bloody victory! Ho!"
I'd never seen a Labrador in armour before. Nor had I ever seen David with a lance. In its own way, it was all very impressive and rather beautiful, but it was at that point that I knew his usefulness as a political ally had come to an end. David's mind was clearly on other things and I would fight this coming battle on my own. I turned away and trudged back to my office, feeling more isolated than ever before. And it got worse when the players turned up.
Carlton was furious at the arrival of Alberto and, when he discovered that the young Spaniard would take his place up front, he went off the deep end. Later that day, he gave a spectacularly ill-advised interview to Talksport, hammering me for allowing 'these people to come over here and take our jobs,' before going on to compare poor Alberto to Manuel from Towers. But Alberto was from Madrid, not Barcelona. And he was no Spanish waiter. He was a goal machine.
With Carlton glowering on the bench behind me, the team was transformed. Suddenly, all those clever balls from midfield, all those sneaky slide-rule passes were finding their mark. Alberto was so quick that we could direct everything a few yards in front of him and know that he'd make up the ground. Where Carlton would just stand, shrug and scratch his bottom, Alberto would hare after everything as if it were the last minute of the Champions League final. Time and time again, he split the backline and tore in on goal. And more often than not, he'd score.
I've never been on a run of form like it. Not as a player and not as a manager. We won eleven Premier League games on the bounce. Eleven. Thirty-three points that transformed our season beyond recognition. By March, the prospect of relegation had faded away like a bad dream. By Easter, we could be fairly sure that we'd match last season's respectable finish. By the time the final week rolled around, we were in with an outside chance of Champions League football. But that, of course, was not to be. Holding your destiny in your own hands with two games to go is one thing. Realising that those two games are away at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, is another thing entirely. Even Alberto couldn't help us there and we ended the season with two spankings and a fifth place finish. But we had qualified for the Europa League.
Everyone at the club was over the moon. Well, almost everyone. Carlton told me that he was ideologically opposed to entering Europe under any circumstances. But everyone else was happy. Even after Chelsea had pulled our pants down, the confirmation that we'd secured fifth place was enough to put a party atmosphere in the dressing-room. As I always do, I left the lads to it, shutting the door on their celebrations. They deserved some time without the boss hanging around. I dealt with the press and meandered up to the Chelsea boardroom. As soon as I walked in, David came over and asked for a quiet word.
"Bobby," he said softly as he ushered me into a corner. "I know that you know."
"What do I know?"
"You know. About… the thing. We've been tryin' to ignore it, tryin' to forget about it, but we know you saw us that mornin'."
"David," I said, giving him a meaningful look. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"Thanks, Bobby," smiled David. "I don't mind anyone knowing, really. I just don't think I want anyone to know that I called her Karren."
"Called who Karren?" asked Karren, suddenly appearing above David's shoulder.
David squealed and dropped his drink on the floor.
"No-one!" he wailed. "I ain't called no-one Karren!"
He looked at me helplessly and a dark patch spread slowly across the front of his trousers.
"Oh dear," said Karren, peering round. "That's unfortunate."
Tiny tears appeared in David's eyes and his bottom lip quivered.
"It was never meant to be like this!" he wailed and ran from the room.
"What an odd man," said Karren watching him go. "I think perhaps a no-pets policy might need to be introduced."
"I think if he's happy, he should be allowed to remain happy," I said, rather foolishly.
"Really?" Karren exclaimed. "And do you think I'm happy?"
"I think you should be happy, Ms Brady," I said. "We've had a quite a season."
"Quite a season," she said, mulling the words over. "Quite a season. Yes, I suppose it has been if 'quite a season' means a good start, a rotten middle and a fortunate run at the end."
"Fortunate?" I yelled, causing the entire boardroom to stop what they were doing. "Fortunate? There's nothing fortunate about hard work and good tactics paying off."
"Good tactics for the second half of the season, perhaps. But the first half? Only your continued ineptitude was enough to make you change your game-plan. Only the fear of the sack was enough to make you open your eyes and revitalise the team. Imagine where we could have finished if you had come to your senses sooner!"
"Ms Brady, what do you want from me? Last season you asked for top half and I gave you top half. This season you wanted something more than respectability and I've given you Europe. What do I have to do to get a pat on the back here?"
"Given me Europe?" scowled Karren. "You've given me the Europa League."
"And where do they play that? South-East Asia?"
A member of the Chelsea board opened his mouth to try and correct me, but I glared at him and he closed it again.
"The Europa League is a bauble at best," Karren sneered. "It's an unnecessary and reckless diversion of resources. If you had any brains, you'd either pull us out of it or register eleven East London alley cats and field them in the first round."
"That's a ridiculous idea. How on earth would I get them in their shirts?"
"Staples," said Karren nastily, narrowing her eyes. A gasp ran around the boardroom. Even Roman Abramovich looked a little offended.
"She doesn't mean it," I reassured them. "You don't, do you?"
Karren raised an eyebrow thoughtfully. I decided not to pursue that line of enquiry.
"How can you say it's a bauble?" I asked her. "It's a shot at glory!"
"Glory?" she laughed. "An interminable series of preliminary games followed by a drawn-out group stage that's rendered pointless by the sudden introduction of Champions League losers? And then another nine games after that to win it? And what if we do win it? What then? Will fathers tell their sons about the time Bobby Manager brought home a trophy awarded to teams who aren't good enough for the Champions League? Glory? Oh yeah, I'm sure they'll write poems about you."
"I'll bloody well make sure they do," I roared. "Not only will we be entering a full-strength side into the Europa League, Ms Brady, but we'll bloody well be bringing it home!"
A cheer went up around the boardroom, but this time it was Karren's turn to glare. The cheer faded away as quickly as it had appeared.
"You'll win it, will you?" Karren smiled. "Well, I shall update my expectations accordingly,"
My blood ran a little cold. Sometimes, I'm amazed I lasted three seasons at Upton Park. Any normal human being would have walked out after three hours.
To Be Continued...