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Left Brian: Notes from the Virtual Dugout

6 February 19 words: Gareth Watts (@tokyobeatbox)
illustrations: Adam Poole

It’s been the best part of two decades since I last played Championship Manager (or Football Manager as it’s now known) but recent events at Nottingham Forest have rekindled boyhood memories of the classic management simulation computer game.


Firstly, I was absolutely terrible at it. I didn’t have the patience to actually see it through. I enjoyed the purity of a new season: signing new players, choosing the squad numbers and setting up my formation. I even enjoyed pre-season friendlies against seemingly exotic European teams. No injuries, no bad blood, just the buzz of anticipation of a tilt for title glory. Yet, as a few results went against me, my foreign super-signings got tired or suspended and the novelty of setting training routines wore thin, I quickly lost interest. More often than not I quit. Occasionally I’d cheat by saving the game after every win and re-loading, but something inside me died each time I collected yet another undeserved Manager of the Month gong. And rarely in real life do we get to re-load.

Depending on who you talk to, the above description of impatience and petulance can either be applied to Forest’s erstwhile manager Aitor Karanka, or its owner Evangelos Marinakis.

Karanka was notorious for his fractious dealings with the bosses at Middlesbrough and, at one point, actually left the club before being persuaded back to Teeside; at that time on the brink of guiding the team to promotion to the top tier. It seems the story at Forest was similar: relations between the manager and the senior hierarchy had deteriorated to such an extent that he was less visible at the club and even absent from the training ground. According to The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor, Karanka’s first resignation attempt was initially declined before the club finally acquiesced and let him go. Like the 15-year-old me, it seemed, he was only interested if everything went his way.

Yet there’s more to this story than one man’s petulance and the club must surely shoulder some of the blame. As fans, we’ll never know if more could’ve been done to accommodate Karanka. And what we lost, as soon as the Spaniard sped out of West Bridgford, was the ‘purity’ of our 18/19 season; we knew his formation, we knew our best eleven, we knew we were an excellent away team who just needed a few tactical tweaks to turn on the style at home. Oh, and just before he left, we beat the league leaders Leeds United 4-2 at the City Ground ... so we may have even solved that too!

One place from the Holy Grail of playoffs, whatever Karanka’s demands, could they not have been indulged at least for another few months? Were we really changing managers again at the turn of the year?

In manager-less limbo away at Reading we suffered a humiliating 2-0 defeat and ended the game with nine men. Our supposed leader on the pitch, captain Danny Fox, was sent off for his part in a mass brawl. It felt like a perfect on-pitch metaphor for the turmoil behind the scenes. Could I turn off my computer now and watch TFI Friday instead?

My second main memory of the Championship Manager game was that whenever the managers of other teams resigned or got sacked, the computer-generated replacement was always a logical, yet uninspiring choice. Howard Wilkinson, for example, tended to land the England job. This always made me feel irrationally annoyed; yes he was a safe pair of hands but the talent of Gascoigne, Sheringham (or Le Tissier anyone?) would surely be wasted at his disposal? A 4-4-2 tracksuit-type surely had no place at the dawn of the new millennium?

Step forward Martin O’Neill. As someone who grew up in Leicestershire, I’m more aware than most of his qualities as a manager. He transformed a second division team into Premier League stalwarts and Wembley regulars. Annoyingly for me as a Forest fan, he restored pride to the city of Leicester and soon absorbed the East Midlands bragging rights: Forest were the yo-yo team, Leicester the local overachievers.

Long assumed to be the heir to Alex Ferguson, (who was winning too many trophies to retire, it turned out) he eventually graduated to Celtic, sweeping the board of Scottish silverware at a time when Rangers had been the dominant force and only narrowly missed out on European glory in extra time to a Porto team managed by (Karanka’s pal) José Mourinho. From Celtic he moved to Villa, who nowadays would kill for the Wembley finals and consecutive top flight sixth-place finishes he secured.

O’Neill’s management credentials aren’t really in doubt, so why did so many Forest fans feel uneasy about his appointment? Perhaps it has something to do with the move away from the technically complex style of the brooding Iberian, to something more straightforward and direct. For me, the worry is that in being managed by a double European Cup winning, playing legend, yes success could taste all the sweeter, but failure (and let’s face it, at Forest the shrewd heads would always bet on failure) would be even more bitter than usual. Just as with Stuart Pearce’s short tenure as manager, if O’Neill were to fail it would be a bit of our childhoods that would suffer, a blot on the legacy, a spoiling of the ‘I Believe in Miracles’ magic.

Three games into O’Neill’s reign and we’ve lost to Bristol City and Birmingham but won one joyful home affair against a hapless Wigan. It’s too early to judge the new manager on just these games and it’s also worth remembering that he’s not had the luxury of a pre-season; his January signings being pragmatic choices to cover injuries and suspensions rather than clues to his ideal team. He’s obviously trying to play positive, direct football but, it seems, at the expense of the intricate passing and discipline instilled by his predecessor.

Which all leaves us as fans feeling slightly bewildered. And as much as Notts County’s owner has tried to cheer us up with his struggle for a more priapic end to their season, there’s a nagging feeling of familiarity on this side of the Trent that mid-table obscurity beckons. I dearly hope I’m wrong.

Who knows, if we put together a winning run, come May, I could even be inspired to give the gift of Football Manager to my 7-year-old. I hope he’s not as moody and fickle in the virtual dugout as his Dad.


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