Barry Dransfield was never meant to be a footballer. He didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps—dragging himself through the lower leagues of the world’s most popular sport, making a living but never making a name. Where his father had pursued everything soccer-shaped, Barry concentrated on other things: his education, his adolescent loves—even guitar, for a short while.
But the tragedy of inevitability struck, and Barry did indeed become a professional player in the English Premier League. Some claimed nepotism, others wondered what those throwing the claims around expected—the kid was raised in the city his dad, me, was now a coach of. Either way, Barry Dransfield signed for Everton at the age of 18.
By the time my son Barry was 20, I had exchanged his services for a slight boost to my club’s coffers. For £4 million—a pathetic amount in the world’s richest footballing league—I was persuaded to tell my son he wasn’t wanted at his own father’s club, and to pack his bags. I sold my own son, without his prior knowledge and without him even wanting to go. And I felt bad about it.
I still do feel bad about it, which is very strange considering this sale occurred back in 2014, and that it all took place inside a PC game called Football Manager, after I took advantage of a feature that allows you to introduce your own son—based on the manager character you’ve created—into the game. But such is the power of the series, 23 years old at the start of September, that I—and countless others like me—have these stories to tell.
Football Manager has never had the looks, even though in recent years its developer, the aptly named Sports Interactive, has tried to flash things up with 3D representations of matches. To be honest, it’s always just looked like a glorified spreadsheet, and that’s OK with the series’ fans.
With that knowledge, it’s little surprise it’s often an uphill struggle to make people believe that, actually, Football Manager is the greatest role-playing game series ever made. In the purest sense, you play a role within the game—you are a manager, with a career that can go well, badly or sort of just exist in a vague middle ground. The role you play is up to you—you can be an angry manager, storming out of press conferences and berating players for their poor performances; or you can be benevolent and kind, nurturing and helping even the most difficult of professionals.
But the role you play throughout is never entirely up to you. Football Manager is a series with insane depth, a series that makes stories you will happily sit and regale other, real, human people with. It’s a game the entire world should get into.
I’m a little biased, I have to admit—I’ve been playing it since before it was even called Football Manager. When the series started in 1992 as Championship Manager I was but a nine-year-old kid who barely understood what was going on in the blocky, archaic mess (even then it wasn’t considered a looker).
But the years went on, and the desire to play never actually disappeared. If anything, it got stronger. As each iteration arrived, its complexity increase: players had more reasons to be angry or upset; other managers began having feelings—positive or otherwise—towards you; the fans even started getting their say, telling me what they thought of my player signings and performances on the pitch.
It went from a functional, but unspectacular attempt to con you into thinking you were a manager, to a functionally spectacular, all-encompassing illusion that genuinely made you believe. And I was there every step of the way. Even World of Warcraft obsessives would worry about how much time I’ve put into this series over the years.
But it’s all been for a reason: I truly care about what happens in Football Manager. My players become my men, trustworthy, reliable, world-conquerors. My career begins to matter, as I take my trade to any club and country that provides an interesting challenge (Vancouver Whitecaps MLS Cup winners in my first season there). When a long-serving member of staff retires, I get a genuine pang, accompanied by a strange desire to throw them a retirement party.
But this drive to play, play and play some more isn’t all for a benevolent, hope-riddled, Coach Carter-esque career. Sometimes it’s fun to be a bastard. I’ve signed players with the sole intention of ruining their careers, letting them rot on the substitute bench—or in my club’s reserve team—for having the temerity to play well against me. And sometimes I’ve just experienced crushing failures, from relegations and sackings, to uncooperative squads and unrealistic chairmen.
And god, don’t get me on to all those players who—despite my care and undivided attention—never developed into what they were supposed to become. That’s a long-term heart breaker. In the game it might be simulated years, but in real life it’s dozens of actual hours—more than enough for it to be a genuine, tangible disappointment when you realise they’re never going to make it.
No other game does this for me. No other game does this for a lot of people. If you were to give it a chance, no other game would do it for you.
Football Manager is the greatest role-playing game the world has ever seen. It’s near unlimited in depth, littered with storytelling opportunity, and captivating to the point of ridiculousness. Even non-soccer fans can find something to love—this much I’ve tested on real life people.
So this year, when Football Manager 2016 releases on Nov. 13, I’d recommend having a look. Give it a shot, give it a chance, let it take over your every waking thought (and more than enough dreams to boot). Once you’ve plucked a 15-year-old Peruvian kid from obscurity and spent 10 years making him into the world’s greatest player, you’ll thank me.
Barry Dransfield’s career recovered after I, his father, sold him without his knowledge. He moved through Europe, helping Koln win the Bundesliga in Germany, before ending up as a respected—even loved—utility midfielder at Spanish giants Barcelona. A couple of years into his career there, his father joined him, and they were able to delight in their various league and cup victories over the following few years.
And when Barry retired from playing, he knew his father had reserved a space for him on the coaching staff. While it might have been called nepotism at the beginning of his career, some 17 years later Barry’s spot as the assistant to his father was never in doubt.
Then I sacked him, because a better assistant suddenly became available. I play to win, not to be nice.
Ian Dransfield is a mercenary writer-for-hire who focuses mainly on gaming. His credits include the Guardian, Kotaku, PC Gamer and many more, while his achievements include getting a Platinum trophy on Bloodborne. Admittedly his parents aren’t so proud of that one.
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