Championship Manager 3 – The game that got me through my first unrequited love

By Ed Acteson

 

It was Easter 1999, I was 14 and in love. Sort of.

My school team were fortunate enough to travel to Florida to compete against several high schools from across the state in a trans-Atlantic tournament.

During the Orlando leg of the trip, we were divided into groups of three and sent to stay with host families for several nights. The family that I ended up with had a daughter around the same age as me, Jessica.

Charmed by my suave British accent and devilish good looks, Jessica and I hit it off and, when it was time to return to the UK, we promised to stay in touch.

It was a time before smartphones and before social media. We didn’t even have MySpace. The only realistic means of communication was the ill-fated MSN Messenger, which required you to both be online at once. As such, being 14 and pathetic, I regularly stayed up until 3am hoping that she would appear online to talk.

Night after night I sat there waiting and, as it dawned on me that she wasn’t going to show up, I realised I needed something to fill the time. There was no Netflix or Spotify to keep me entertained, the best I could hope for was downloading a single song every 45 minutes from Limewire and even that provided a 50/50 risk of my computer contracting more viruses than a Geordie on a Butlins Weekender.

“More viruses than a Geordie on a Butlins Weekender”

I needed something else to fill the gaping void in my heart and that thing ended up being Championship Manager 3.

As a concept, it shouldn’t work. It was largely a text-based management simulation that featured minimal action and was impossible to complete.

You chose a club, overhauled the squad, allocated training routines and tried to fathom a formation that would allow you to take Scunthorpe to the summit of European football. It really was as simple as that, yet it was also so much more.

There was an undeniable satisfaction in getting a successful signing over the line. If you recruited some Brazilian hotshot with fantastic shooting stats, I seem to remember for me it was often Mario Jardel, who preceded to bang in twenty goals a season, you felt like the bastard lovechild of Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Alex Ferguson. A lovechild whose conception is, admittedly, too horrifying to consider.

For me the pre-seasons, trying to strip the dead wood from your squad and replace them with genuine talent, was largely the most exciting part. I would bid for absurd numbers of players, many of whom were quite literally out of my league. Most would laugh heartily at the offer and immediately rebuff my advances but, from time to time, you would land a coup and it was glorious.

Then came the season. In an era before Gegenpressing and Tiki-Taka football, a solid 4-4-2 with the full backs and wingers pushing on would normally do me fine. I later discovered that you could cheat by playing six defensive-midfielders, the most overpowered position in the game, but fortunately that didn’t ruin my fun.

If the system worked you would be unstoppable and could quickly take a club through the divisions and into contention for the Champions League. I remember once getting my local club, Gillingham, promoted three times and into the Premier League where we quickly found ourselves regularly mixing with the big boys at the top end of the division. However, success breeds expectation and after one particularly difficult season in which I failed to meet the board’s targets, they ruthlessly parted ways with me.

“I had to make do with the likes of Ibrahim Ba, Pablo Aimar, Jovan Stankovic and Simao Sabrosa”

Clearly money had corrupted Paul Scally, the Gillingham chairman, and he had lost sight of everything I had done for the club. Bastard.

Nevertheless, the game’s second great satisfaction lay in watching the matches unfold. You would read the commentary boxes as the described the, often grossly unfair, passages of play develop. Yet, when you got it right and the flashing goal notification came up, you were briefly a king. A squalid, pathetic king sitting in his pants at 3 in the morning.

Your saved games would end in one of two ways. Either you would be sacked by your club and promptly give up, or you would experience enduring success, realise that there was effectively no end in sight, and quit through boredom.

In those lonely midnight hours when I sat at that computer, craving the attention of an American girl who I would never see again, I had to make do with the likes of Ibrahim Ba, Pablo Aimar, Jovan Stankovic and Simao Sabrosa for company. It was a different kind of relationship but one that meant just as much to both myself and Robert Presinecki.

Jessica never did come online but years later I still occasionally sit through the night, trying to work out whether to play a counter-attacking formation or not. It wasn’t the love that I’d hoped for but ended up being one that was far more reliable. For that I will always be grateful to Champ Man and restful towards Jessica and Paul bloody Scally.

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