As the summer months have arrived, we’re going to take a brief look back at some of the football games that have graced your computer screen over the last few years or so, starting with “Football Manager”, the grandfather of them all and a game which still exists, albeit in an unrecognisable form to the original. The ZX Spectrum games featured on here will have links so that you can waste a couple of hours at work by playing an emulation version of the original, courtesy of the wonderful “World of Spectrum” website.
It seems only appropriate that we should this series with “Football Manager”. There had been football games for the primitive consoles that preceded the sudden growth of home computing in the early 1980s, including “Pele’s Soccer” for the Atari 2600 and the superior “Soccer” (or “NASL Soccer”) for the Intellivision. The superior processor power of the first home computers to hit the market in the United Kingdom, however, meant that (for now at least) the days of the games console were numbered. “Football Manager” was released by a company called Addictive Games in 1982. First written for the ZX81, it was ported to the ZX Spectrum and then to other systems, spawning a franchise which continues to this day.
“Football Manager” then, as now, was a strategy game. A mail order only company called Wintersoft had released a game called “Star Soccer”, which felt a little like a cross between bar billiards and football, but this as as unsatisfying as it sounds. “Football Manager” started you (no matter which of the game’s 64 teams you chose) in Division Four. Tactical decisions were limited to how many players you picked in defence, midfield or attack, and the most influence that you could have over the team was in the transfer market, where you replace your less skilful player with more expensive and better ones. There were seven difficulty levels, and you could choose whether you wanted your team to play in black or white, and that was more or less it.
In the days before licencing agreements, player names were used with an abandon which bordered on the flamboyant. The team that you are given in “Football Manager” is a time capsule of the early 1980s, with the obvious superstars of the era such as Kevin Keegan and Glen Hoddle being joined in your team by the likes of Alvin Martin and Eric Gates. Players had energy levels which means that a Ron Saunders style “fourteen players and fourteen players only” style of management has to go completely out of the window. Squad rotation is the order of the day. Also, in one feature of the game which very much echoes the modern game, if you need a couple of players you can apply to the bank for a loan, but your future income will be affected by the repayments, and if you slip into the red you’ll be sacked.
The star feature of the game, however, is the graphic highlights of matches, which were added to the ZX Spectrum version of the game after being left out of the ZX81 version because of the limitations of that game. Each shot that flies wide is met by an appropriately squelching noise, with goals being met by a random selection of bleeping noises which one supposes represents a cheering crowd. They look primitive now, of course, but they do retain the tension of watching a football match that you don’t know the outcome of and were vastly superior to anything else that had been seen in a football game at the time. They’re all the more impressive when one considers that the ZX Spectrum had a total memory of 48 kilobytes, is about the same as the memory used up by a single jpeg image.
“Football Manager” was a massive hit when it was released in 1982, and made the game’s writer, Kevin Toms, into the one of the first stars of the computer age. The question of whether a follow-up to the game would be released became one of the most hotly-discussed of the Spectrum era. By the time “Football Manager 2” was released in 1988, however, the limitations of the machine were starting to become more obvious. The game still sold well, though, and third game and final game in the series was released in 1991. In 2004, however, the name was revived by Sports Interactive after their split from the games developers Eidos, for whom they had been writing the “Championship Manager” series of games. They purchased the “Football Manager” name, and have continued to write the definitive series of football games for the latest generation of home computers. The original 1982 version of “Football Manager”, however, was one of the definitive strategy games of the early 1980s, and the first game to properly demonstrate that football could be used as the basis for a computer game. You can play it here.