For a twelve year old boy in 1984, could there have been a greater joy in the world then opening a birthday present to see the already-familiar rainbow logo that signified a Sinclair ZX Spectrum inside? I can’t imagine that there was. These were rapidly changing times, if one was a slightly nerdy child. Computing – and in particular home computing – was becoming a big deal, and the release of the ZX Spectrum in 1982 was a big step in the direction that led us, not much more than a year later, to the internet and, eventually, where we are today. The irony is that, even in this rapidly advancing halcyon era of computer gaming, one of the best games out there (and certainly, for at least two years, the definitive football game) was already two years old.
The original “Football Manager” was the brainchild of one man – Kevin Toms. Toms first wrote “Football Manager” for the now long-forgotten TRS-80, before converting it to the ZX81 and eventually the ZX Spectrum. The beauty of the game was in its mixture of simplicity and the illusion of complexity that it gave the game player. You took control of one of a 64 team Football League, in a sixteen-team Division Four. You played each other team in your league once, and started in the FA Cup First Round and, at the end of the season, you were either promoted or stayed where you were. Each “week” you would be given the opportunity to buy a player on the transfer market. Sometimes you could bid under the buying price and secure that players services. Sometimes a bid of just over the asking price wouldn’t be enough. There was no way of telling.
The match day experience was somewhat limited, with no substitutes, no tactics, and no pre-match talk to have to give. You just pick your eleven players and away you go. The match highlights themselves were basic, but effective. A vector graphic image of a football pitch with curiously yellow pitch markings and posts. The players shuffle across the pitch and into position before one of the attacking players unleashed an unlikely looking long-range shot at goal. Sometimes the ball would be cleared by a defender, sometimes it would ping around the penalty area before bouncing away to safety, and sometimes, the ball crash into the goal, bringing forth a random series of bleeps from the television.
Amongst all the randomness, it was very easy to suspend the disbelief that you weren’t actually having much effect on proceedings. There were seven skill levels (the only significant difference being that you started with a worse team, the higher level you started at), but team selection aside, there wasn’t a lot to do. The only other thing that you could do was borrow money from the bank to spend beyond your means, and the only way that you could get the sack was to put the club into debt. Simple, but fiendishly effective.
The game was an immiediate commercial success, selling tens of thousands of copies. Thanks in no small part to the fact that the advertisements for the game had his face plastered all over them, Kevin Toms became one of the earliest stars of computer gaming. “Football Manager 2” was released in 1988, and a World Cup edition was brought out in time for the 1990 tournament. In 1993, a final, critically slated version was released before the franchise was put to rest. In 2005, however, Sports Interactive, who had recently split from their publishers, Eidos, bought the rights to the name and reinvented the legendary “Championship Manager” (a game which, in itself, had a clear lineage back to the original “Football Manager”). The modern version of “Football Manager” has many, many acolytes. The online version, “Football Manager”, is due to be released soon and will take interactive management games to a new level.
One can’t help but feel that modern games take themselves too seriously. “Football Manager” is, in its modern form, an enormously complex game, but it still, to this day, it doesn’t feel like as much fun to play as its great-grandfather. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m just getting older – okay, it is because I’m getting older – but they just don’t make them like that any more. Should you wish to sample its delights, you can do so here.