The Ballad Of Crawley Town: An American Idiot In English Soccer
Since the last time I played Worldwide Soccer Manager 2007 (Football Manager to those of you in the rest of the world), my knowledge has increased considerably. While I can't make heads or tails of the offside rule yet, I know a lot more about the sport than I did previously, and I felt comfortable upgrading to the full version of Sega/SI's soccer management sim, whereupon I promptly left it to sit for some time, because games should be aged like fine wine.
My downfall did not come in the form of man or beast. Like in The Stand, I fell to a microscopic bug. During a recent bout with the flu, I was stuck in a philosophical dilemma. Namely, what does one sick, half-delusional idiot trapped indoors on a cold, rainy day do when Bob Barker has finished the Showcase Showdowns and daytime TV has turned to soap operas and Wilford Brimley warning senior citizens about the horrors of "diabeetus"? Under the influence of the Red Nyquil, I studied my PC's desktop and contemplated my problem. Starting an incredibly complicated game based entirely around a sport I just barely understood was not just a good idea, no, it was quite possibly the greatest idea in the history of ideas, according to the cough medicine.
A quick update later, I was ready to go, molding my in-game persona to the sports manager I am in my head (namely, Ian from This Is Spinal Tap, down to the cricket bat, shouting and corruption) and setting up the game itself. Worldwide Soccer Manager contains most of the major, many of the minor and several completely obscure leagues from around the globe. It's possible to build an entire managerial career out of, say, the lower leagues of Scotland, where men are men, and they play for $100 a week. It's an almost overwhelming level of detail, so I trimmed it down to the major European leagues with teams I'd at least vaguely heard of, though that still left me about 12 countries with four to six leagues, each containing anywhere from 8-25 teams, to consider. It's a big soccer world.
With the game in motion, I began the most irritating part of any working professional's life: looking for a job. While WSM will allow you to pick any particular team and take the reins, it also allows for the far more interesting option of hitting the bricks, submitting your resume and hoping to catch on with a desperate team. Who would take the chance on an American manager whose only real soccer experience was a single year on a team as an 8-year-old? Would it be EPL leaders Manchester United? Spain's famous Real Madrid? Some crazy Italian team with fans who'd shoot me for losing a game? I did what any hot prospect would do: Told the computer to apply for jobs for me, to not wake me up until I got a job offer, and promptly took off on holiday for several minutes.
Finally, the infernal machine stirred with word of a position open, and they'd made me an offer. What championship team lacked only me to complete their roster? Why the Crawley Town Football Club, perched soundly in 24th place (out of 24), in the English Conference National - according to Wikipedia, this means they were in last place somewhere in the tremendous complicated middle of the English soccer league system. Imagine if your company softball team could, through years of hard work, make it into Major League Baseball, and you'll begin to get an idea of the sheer size of both English soccer leagues and Worldwide Soccer Manager itself.
Getting the job offer was flattering, of course, but I couldn't even say, "Well, there's nowhere to go but up," because if my employers continued their trend of mediocrity, they would get relegated to an even lower league should they (and now, me) continue screwing things up. For our American readers, imagine if a league's terrible teams (here I'm thinking of the Royals) got relegated down to a lower league (AAA), while a promising team from the lower league (Durham's own Bulls!) was promoted into the majors. This was the ignominy I faced, though in the case of the Conference National, I was looking at getting demoted from a league where our team played in front of 1,000 people to a league where our team played in front of 200, per the stats I could glean from WSM's interface. This was far from the fame I was looking for.
I had to weigh the pros and cons. "They're offering me $825 per week, with no transfer budget and a miniscule payroll," I said, to nobody in particular. "It's the last-place club in the league, and we may get relegated. Also, nobody on the team is in match shape, and we're pretty much doomed. However, Wikipedia says The Cure was formed in Crawley, and that's pretty cool." I looked over at the copy of Disintegration on my desk, and the choice was only too clear. Crawley Town would have their new manager, and I would have my team.
They Call Me Coach
I dug into my club, rummaging through our ankle-deep talent pool and hitting the Transfer wires for cheap prospects. While I'd played WSM before, I'd never played for an obscure team and soon discovered it was very hard to sign good players when all I had to offer was a fistful of dollars and a shot at obscurity on a team perched solidly in the relegation zone. It's one thing to recruit for a Premiership team, quite another to recruit for a team nobody wants to play for. I turned to my roster, hoping for some signs of life in my current squad, and I found that one of my starting strikers was a 16-year-old kid. Suddenly, the previous season's low finish began to make sense.
Regardless, I did what I could and readied us for our first game, a friendly with Bristol Rovers, and I was quite nervous. What would happen? Would we be laughed off the field? Miraculously, my band of has-beens and never-weres pulled together and took the lead in the first half, though they later gave up a goal and the game finished 1-1, as they wore down. I was indescribably pleased, especially with my three yellow-carded players. They're rough, they're profane and they're unwanted. These are men I could work with. Or so I thought...
After a few more friendlies, the team started to come together, though my board was forcing me to cut players, as we were oozing money from every orifice. Our once-promising youth program was cut down to five prospects, our reserves were slashed away, and my hunting for good transfer prospects was just barely plugging the holes I created when I slashed away players for a bigger budget. After all, this wasn't just about my over-inflated ego or my underachieving players. This was about the financial solvency of the club itself.
One thing that was modeled exquisitely was the difficulty of being a coach on a poor/failing/desperate team. While I've played many a Manager Mode-type game before, I've never quite stared at the card of a 42-year-old player who still has a little, teeny bit of talent, but could also fill in as my assistant coach, and wondered what to do. I'm used to superstar budgets, not dealing with the delicate art of compromise because a good defenseman wants $1,000 a week and I can offer him $100.
A Season On The Brink
Finally, the games that counted were upon us. I'd signed a handful of players who wouldn't be out of place in a plucky montage, I'd set my starting roster, and I was hoping for the best. We'd done reasonably well in the friendly games, and the team seemed to be just about to gel as the season kicked off.
We promptly lost our opener to Weymouth 1-4, followed by a 0-3 loss to Tamworth. Hope blossomed in a 0-0 draw with Burton, but we promptly crushed that delicate bud with a 0-3 loss to Woking that saw my best striker red-carded and replaced with the 40-year-old Assistant Coach/Emergency Striker.
I felt a brief surge of pride as the lads pushed their way into a 2-0 lead against Northwich, and then promptly gave up 4 goals in the last 10 minutes to lose 4-2. This game was highlighted by four yellow cards for Northwich and three yellow and two red cards for my own team, plus several suspensions. What is this, the Bad News Bears?
The drought ended against Kidderminster, even though my attacking pair was a soccer senior citizen and a reserve defenseman, but I must admit to dancing in delight when the final score lit up: Crawley 2, Kidderminster 1. We promptly lost 2-1 versus Morecambe on a game that saw my last striker injured when he broke his hip (or something), and I am now completely out of forwards of any sort after several more cards. If any of the Bears come off suspension, I might just win another game.
Finally, my best striker, Jake Edwards (who I called John and insisted on picturing as presidential candidate John Edwards, largely because I'd love to see John Edwards try a nasty slide tackle in the debates) returned from injury and suspension for our game against Southport. We scored at 1:41, they scored at 4:40, and I poured myself a drink. It was one of those games, especially when Southport went ahead 3-1 on an own goal. We lost, of course. We continued our Jack Sparrow-style staggering in a 1-0 loss to Stafford, a 4-0 loss in a game against Stevenage and a 5-0 loss against Dag and Red.
We were granted mercy, as a rabble-roused Crawley pounced on a stunned Oxford, crushing them 2-1. Sadly, it was the last time we'd win all season, as Rushden won 1-0, and a 6-0 drubbing by Grays clobbered the last hope of life from the team.
The Long Season
What followed was more of the same. The team would occasionally manage to pull together and, say, draw, then promptly fall apart over the course of several more games. The team was busy falling into bankruptcy, and I was trying to keep my assistant coach from strangling my continually red-carded striker/presidential candidate while shopping around my none-too-distinguished resume to other teams before the wheels finally came off, all the while trying to keep the team alive while being a huge, snarky jerk, like a TV doctor.
In the meantime, my players were dying in droves. Well, they weren't actually dead, but about half the roster was injured, playing hurt, suspended or just about to be suspended at any time. My pep talks (I always chose the conversation option equivalent of "I'm going to hit you with a cricket bat if you don't win some %@# games!") didn't seem to be inspiring hope in my rowdy players, and the Board was busily reporting that we were going under. We eventually did, right around when we were doomed for relegation into an even-lower league.
It was about this point that Italy called, and there was a team in Serie B that wanted to talk. I hurried out of Crawley Town as fast as my fleeing car could carry me, undoubtedly pursued by a band of hooligans (or maybe just a few, considering our decimated fan base). I'm sorry, Robert Smith, but I've failed you.
A Fan's Notes
You'd think a game in which I managed to collapse a team completely would somehow make me feel bad, or at least angry about it. You would be quite wrong. Worldwide Soccer Manager 2007 was a game that delivered exactly what it promised. I was the manager of a soccer team, a cog in a huge worldwide soccer machine, dealing with far more than what button to press. I got to experience the frustration and anger, the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," to quote the old Wide World of Sports intro with the guy pinwheeling off that ski-jump. I got to be that guy, in a metaphorical, soccer manager sense. It was a unique experience, one I don't think any other game could've given me.
If there's one thing I will applaud WSM for, it's for feeling like a truly modern game. Rather than sinking its claws into my system and demanding my completely undivided attention, it works fine in windowed mode and uses a desktop browser-style interface that feels familiar, even when you've never messed with it before. Player databases are searchable and filterable, things can be reorganized to suit your whims; it's even skinnable if you don't like anything they've done. This is one of the few games I played that wasn't hard to learn. Difficult to master, certainly, but figuring out how things worked took no time at all, because they worked precisely like everything else does on my PC. Updates arrived via a faux e-mail box that saved all my old messages, so I could go back and rummage around. Going back to a previous screen usually involves clicking the back button. The game is usually content to sit in the background while it processes something, and you, most importantly, do something else. It's one of the few games I've played that didn't adamantly try to take over my computer, changing resolutions and using arcane control schemes. It lets you play, rather than trying to control how you play, perhaps because the game is quite deep and complicated in its own right.
Given my management experience, I don't know if I'm qualified to tell you if this is an accurate simulation of the managerial life. After all, I hurried out of town in the dead of night - though managers have done that before - rather than face the wrath of my team. I can say if you're a geek that lives in manager mode and have more fun debating the merits of a player's statistics than trying to play him on the field, Worldwide Soccer Manager 2007 is the game you pine for, deep in your heart of hearts.