In these (relatively) football free months, there are many ways to enjoy your weekends. If you live in certain parts of London, for example, you might enjoy prancing around a farmer’s market with your trousers rolled up to your ankles. Alternatively, if you live in the actual countryside, you might spend the day boozing in the village pub in the company of said farmer, laughing at the people who paid three times market value for some old carrots. However, if the mere thought of going outside makes you shudder, be warned the perils of prolonged isolation, especially if you’re sat in front of a computer screen.
I abandoned computer games a long time ago. I used to enjoy them, but over time I just became more interested in other stuff, like relationships with real people. I couldn’t, hand on heart, say I completely outgrew them; I’d gladly get involved with ISS Pro-Evolution 2 again, but I’d be much more nervous about re-immersing myself into the virtual world of football management. The reason I can’t go back to that is simple: Championship Manager 3. Without question, this ‘game’ is the most ruthless thief of time man has ever been created, and like many other unfortunate souls, I became addicted.
For me, the worst stages occurred at university, when time is cheap and everything else is prohibitively expensive. Friends would find me in my room with the curtains closed, puffing on Cutters Choice and staring intensely at a screen of statistics. They received no welcome and no conversation, just a cold, emotionless gaze from a man in desperate need of sleep and nutrition. I think the only thing keeping me alive was the water in my ‘Watford till I’m dry’ drinks bottle, and the occasional Kit Kat Chunky when I could muster the will power to make the 15 metre walk downstairs to Avtar’s store.
To any rational person it’s almost impossible to explain why it was so addictive. Watching your team play involved gazing at a static image in anticipation of the occasional flashes of text that described key moments of action. The main reward, however, was found in unearthing bargain talents; scouring the lower leagues to find the next Dean Keates. That’s right, Dean Keates. At the time of this game (circa 2000) Keates was a defensive midfielder playing for Walsall, but under my astute management he was transformed into a Pirlo-esque world beater.
Around this time I actually saw Keates playing for Walsall at Vicarage Road, and I was genuinely disappointed at his mediocre display. My grasp on reality was slipping. Other Championship Manager 3 stars that were unfortunately rubbish in real life include Congolese forward Tonton Zola Moukokou. In Champoland he would emerge from Derby’s reserves to become one of the greats of the modern era, in reality he’s plying his trade for third tier Finnish outfit Atlantis FC. Or, how about George O’Callaghan – Port Vale’s attacking midfielder of Zidane-like quality, last seen turning out for Cork City.
How I would delight at stealing the likes of Keates and O’Callaghan for derisory fees and seeing their values soar, but the game could also drive you to the point of insanity when things didn’t go to plan. A friend once described to me how he was woken at 5.00am by his flat mate, who was shouting, “THAT’S JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH AT THIS LEVEL!” The sight he described was one of a man under pressure – an overflowing ashtray, eight empty cans of Stella, and his mate hunched over the keyboard with a clenched fist.
Sadly, I can relate to the futility of shouting at the computer. Despite the fact that my players were nothing more than a spreadsheet filled with statistics, at times I felt they were ‘aware’, so giving the computer screen the occasional hairdryer treatment, or going a bit ‘John Sitton’ would seem logical. A lot of things seem logical after eight cans though.
Just like other addictions, I kind of knew it was wrong. There was a guilty feeling when I’d be sat my PC, knowing I needed to get some sleep, and trying not to notice the sky getting lighter through my curtains. The hours melted into one. It was not healthy, but it provided a welcome distraction from the sometimes tedious student existence of daytime TV and poverty.
You only have to look at the amount this series of games sold to appreciate its appeal among football fans. As a product, it was a work of absolute genius, harnessing the best of aspects of a football fan’s armchair manager desires, but – to use some football parlance – if anything, the producers achieved it almost too well.