It was probably around the time I got my Junior Cert results that the penny dropped and it was acknowledged that my Championship Manager addiction had gone too far.
A quick 20-minute break from study would turn into a painstaking all-nighter of solid game playing. Instead of learning off quotes from Romeo and Juliet or trying to grasp Ohm’s Law, hours would be spent agonising about how to most effectively accommodate my mercurial midfielder Tonton Zola Moukoko, or whether a 4-3-3, 3-4-1-2 or Christmas Tree formation best suited my side.
Quite possibly the most angry I’ve ever been was when I realised I’d accidentally overlooked a transfer deal that activated a release clause agreed in the contract of a player I’d been diligently developing for years. Just as I felt he was finally ready for first-team action, a rival club swooped in with an offer that I literally couldn’t refuse. Several minutes of shouting at the computer ensued. My 15-year-old self had never had to deal with that level of heartbreak and rejection before. And even to this day, I refuse to refer to that remarkably disloyal and ungrateful player by name.
Brighton were my team of choice. I had modest ambitions at first. My first season with the club resulted in a devastating failure to make the play-offs by a few mere points. However, there was no stopping the team thereafter. Promotion from Divisions 3, 2 and 1 followed in consecutive seasons, before going on to become the second English side since United in 1999 to win an unlikely treble of the Champions League, FA Cup and Premier League.
How did I do it? Obviously, our growing success meant the club received increased funds to improve stadium facilities immeasurably, but the main asset I possessed was an ability to spot a player. Taribo West on a free transfer was a key acquisition, as was getting Derby youngster Tonton Zola Moukoko (on loan initially, before his consistently dazzling performances meant the bank was broken to secure his services). Some reliable and ever-improving strikers including Cherno Samba, Matthew Blinkhorn and Bobby Zamora also formed the core of my side.
Indeed, I can still remember my first XI at its peak — Landreau, Okoronkwo, Hill, N’Diaye, West, Sedgwick, Medina, Kerr, Moukoko, Blinkhorn, Samba. My masterpiece, as I often unironically called it. There were consequently many players I had spent endless hours nurturing and developing, all the while wading off lucrative offers from bigger clubs.
And of course, as our success increased, the squad acquired more depth, but player management was a particular forte of mine and thus, the array of increasingly inflated egos in the team rarely stepped out of line. Moreover, forget Gareth Bale, Samba was always the first €100million player in my eyes (I eventually sold him for that amount).
Furthermore, even after that historic treble, my dominance continued. One key ability was noticing that when a great player retired — say, for example, Zinedine Zidane — he would immediately come back as an obscure lower league footballer under a different name (yes, I spent a LOT of hours figuring out these patterns). He could be bought for virtually nothing and had the potential to become just as talented as his previous incarnation if nurtured correctly. It was like some sort of virtual Buddhism with a footballing twist.
Anyway, once those Junior Cert results came in, I reluctantly announced my retirement. Aside from the fact that I felt obliged to focus on real life a little more, what else could I achieve in the game? I had won everything there was to win with Brighton a dozen times over. My stunning managerial feats had made Alex Ferguson look like Paolo Di Canio by comparison. And yet, every now and then, I would get the urge to see if I really could do it all over again just one last time…
…So now, in conjunction with the release of Football Manager 2014 (what the kids are calling it these days), for one month only, I will make my long-awaited return as Brighton boss. The challenge is this — I have exactly 30 days to emulate my treble-winning feat before retiring for good this time.
I’ll write twice more about my exploits — during the halfway point of my journey (aka 15 November) and at its culmination. I may not have Samba or Moukoko to help me this time, and the game has changed a lot in the last 10 years, but with my eye for a transfer and astute tactical nous, there is no reason why the legendary feats of my teenage years can’t be repeated.
Football Manager 2014 is released today.