Shropshire is like pipe smoking tobacco, Last of the Summer Wine box sets and spleens: you’ll never need them, but it’s nice to know that they’re there. It’s the home of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and Ditherington flax mill, the first skyscraper in the world, which is probably about twenty foot high. I once visited Shropshire on a school trip to look at, I dunno, geology or something, and found a badge which was a take off of a Coke advert, and had something along the lines of ‘smooth running goal getting cup winning Liverpool FC’ on it. At around the same time, two brothers – Paul and Oliver Collyer – were fiddling about with Commodore 64’s in a bedroom not so far away. Less than a decade later, they would unleash Championship Manager on the world. That’s right. Spouse ignoring, divorce getting, custody losing Championship Manager.
PC gaming offers many life destroying games, of course – Civilisation, Sim City, the Total War franchise – and that’s not to mention the murky world of online gaming. But Championship Manager is almost hypnotic. Only Championship Manager can make you leap, yelping with joy, from your seat when Wayne Allison scores an 89th minute goal against Derby County for your Swindon Town side in the League Cup fourth round, only to find you gazing wistfully into the middle distance like a Chelsea pensioner on Remembrance Day when Marco Gabbiadini equalises in injury time, thirty real time seconds later. And in the older versions, the ones that redefined gaming addiction, all this was caused by a simple text block which relayed such maddeningly concise glimpses as ‘Ferdinand brings the ball forward for West Ham’ or ol’ heart stopper himself: ‘Ronaldo clean through! He must score!’ followed by a two second lapse before finding out whether a goal has actually been scored (‘He’s done it! Excellent finishing!’) or not (‘The keeper saves and holds the ball.’) Never had a game been such a tease. Incidentally, don’t panic if an opposing striker ‘tries a dip’. No one ever scores from it, to the point where it could in fact be a reference to some on-pitch finger buffet.
There are many incarnations of CM – or Champman, if you prefer – and while the franchise has evolved various bells and whistles since its release in 1992 it is still, at heart, the same text based game that it has always been. It’s not a tricky premise, either: you pick a team to manage, and manage them. Pick Manchester United or Chelsea (or in latter versions Barcelona or Bayern Munich) and you’ll have tons more cash to fling about than if you go for Dover Athletic, Albion Rovers or Stenhousemuir, but you’ll get fired if you don’t win something every season. Trundling along in lower league football will give you a much longer shelf life – your board of directors know you can’t polish a turd – but the highlight of your management career is likely to be a semi final appearance in the FA Trophy. The greatest achievement, of course, is to take charge of a no hope club and, over time, turn them into world beaters. This is possible – I took Berwick Rangers from average crowds of 755 to the Scottish Premier League title in eight game years (and four game months) – but you probably won’t have a marriage or career left afterwards. I was Liverpool manager for a quarter of a century and in one incredible season won all four major competitions, and also held the reins at England for six years, winning the World Cup in 2002 with a Robbie Fowler heading the only goal on 62 minutes in a tense final against Spain. It is all I can do to stop myself including this last gaming feat on my CV.
Like all the big franchise life wreckers, Championship Manager goes beyond being a game and becomes a passion. It’s a bona fide twenty first century hobby. In time it will be seen in the same light as gardening or stamp collecting, especially if deadheading the wrong hydrangea makes you want to burn your shed down or finding that elusive Peruvian stamp with Noberto Solano on sees you kissing postal workers in a joyous frenzy. And from a personal point of view, it’s a lot less stressful than supporting West Ham in real life.