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A newbie dives into Football Manager 2015

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Football Manager can be all-consuming. What happens when someone playing for the first time goes all-in?

A few weeks ago, I was given an assignment nearly every football fan dreams of: use the Football Manager '15 beta code to have your first crack at the updated version of the game. Play it. Write about it. And, hey, we're paying you for it.

Trouble is -- and this could well be considered a blockable offense to many, if not outright treason -- I don't like Football Manager. I played it once, back when I was first starting law school. It was FM 12, I believe, and I'd been led to believe it would consume my life, which sounded like a better option than having the will to live sucked out of me by Intro to Civil Procedure.

But I couldn't get into the game. To me, there was nothing interesting about watching a bunch of animated players running around a field, attempting to score a meaningless goal. Nothing about the interface was intuitive, and when I did manage to figure out how things like transfers worked, I didn't understand why staring at a screen filled with words was meant to be fun. That was my day-to-day life, after all.

Now my day-to-day life is watching people run around a field, attempting to score a possibly-non-meaningless goal, and writing about it. So when I'm told to write about a game created to simulate such an occurrence, I do it.

And go a little off the deep end in the process.

It begins

It's Sunday, and I have two hours before I need to post the lineups for the Manchester Derby. I've been putting off this Football Manager thing long enough. It's time to get started.

An hour later and I've finally got all the necessary components downloaded, registered, opened and ready to go. First I must put little tick marks next to a bunch of national flags. Right off, I'm confused -- I thought I got to choose a team and get going on bringing in exciting new players. Despite me playing the "beginner's version", there's no real explanation as to why I'm favoring countries. The game must suspect me of being a U.S. citizen, because it's put a tick next to the stars and stripes. I focus on Europe instead, sticking with the pre-selected leagues while also adding Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia.

While my game loads, I see tips and hints flashing across the top of the screen. I wonder briefly if I should write them down, then decide to peruse Twitter on my phone instead. I appeal to the Twitterverse for help choosing a team to manage, then start filling in my personal info. I answer honestly, but can't help wondering just how true-to-life this game is. Will I be held back from management positions because I chose "female" as my gender? Will players try to belittle me with misogynist comments?

Twitter has recommended that I begin with a team in the lower leagues, as apparently big clubs will turn on you quickly if you come in with no managerial experience. The game itself suggests a team from Brazil's second division. I figure choosing this team would no way help me in my real-life job paying attention to European soccer, so instead I select FC Nürnberg, for no other reason than I like German football and I've been to the town.

This experiment lasts all of 30 minutes. I blindly agree when the rather condescending owner suggests he deliver a history of the club to my inbox (isn't that what wikipedia is for?) and subscribe to their vision for targets and a budget. Hell, what do I know? This is my first managerial position, after all. I'm blindly agreeing with everything the assistant manager says, because I'm afraid the team will hate me if I don't.

But then Nürnberg's captain refuses to speak to me. The game reveals my best player is my 35-year-old goalkeeper. And they've told me the philosophy for the year is to "make the most of set pieces." Thanks, but no thanks. I'm an Aston Villa fan. I already have enough pain and suffering in my life.

I close down the game and go watch the Manchester Derby, which pretty much proves that I hadn't, in fact, experienced enough pain and suffering yet (Tottenham's come-from-behind victory at Villa Park later in the day cemented that fact).

A new dawn

I defy Twitter's advice and choose Napoli as my team. This time, right from the start, I'm going to ask for help with everything. I feel no shame. I click on the little yellow information bubbles so thoughtfully provided in each area of the screen. I still have no idea what, exactly, I'm meant to be doing, but I'm comforted knowing this AI overlord is prepared to help me anyway.

Seconds later and I'm already regretting choosing Napoli. I've been encouraged to give a welcome speech to my team, and I let them know we should be aiming for one of Italy's three Champions League places. They seem annoyed. I speak to captain Marek Hamšík and he tells me I need to show ambition, to tell the team we're making a push for the title.

I've just been reprimanded by my favorite player. I'd be lying if I said it didn't sting a bit. Suddenly I know I need to do well with this Napoli side, if only to prevent another scolding from Marekiaro.

It took two hours, but I've finally reached Day 2 in the game. In comes my first email from an agent, offering up a player. Of course I've never heard of him. There's a long list of attributes listed alongside his photo. Things like "flair", "balance", and "aggression", alongside notes such as "11-17". In isolation, of course, I know what these words mean, and am aware that I'd prefer a more aggressive centerback and a playmaker with higher flair. But I have no idea what the scale is, here. If it goes to 100, I'm guessing 11 isn't all that great.

When I ask for a scouting report, it's concluded with the note that the player is "worth keeping a close eye on." But said player is given only half a star -- not just for current performance, but for future potential. Wondering if perhaps my scouts are deliberately sabotaging my squad. Also, there's no way to "keep a close eye on." I can add this kid to a "transfer shortlist", but I don't know if that means someone's going to start offering to pay the half-starred wonder some real money.

Continuing on, hitting continue to cycle through days, barely glancing at my emails describing the goings-on in the Croatian first division. The hints continue to pop up, and I get more and more nervous. There's no way I'm going to remember one of these complicated instructions, much less the entire list.

I stumble upon the "scouting" screen, where it says a mere two out of six scouts are on assignment. One is permanently assigned to scout the next opponent -- since I don't even have preseason friendlies lined up, I'm fairly sure he's holidaying at Lake Como -- and the other is watching the Italian U21s. Suddenly I'm seized with a sudden terror. What if I've waited too long to start bringing in potential players? I could well end up like the real Napoli in 2014, unable to woo more than a few players, and none after failing to qualify for the Champions League.

Dread sets in. I've got players needing contract extensions, but their agents are extremely demanding. In the real world, no one is going to pay Miguel Britos €1.85m in wages, along with a €4,800 unused substitute fee. Napoli would be bankrupt. The agents are having hissy fits and I'm realizing I'm never going to manage a football club. Damn it.

Fueled by panic, I start poking my nose around possible transfer targets. I flip through the messages in my inbox, pausing on a left back. With the aforementioned Britos the only alternative if Faouzi Ghoulam is out, my squad is in desperate need of another who can play that position. I notice he's available on loan so I mark him a target. Then I decide to stop for the day, as there's a friendly coming up and I'm pretty sure I won't be able to sleep if the fans and players criticize my first outing.

Crisis mode

Monday morning. Most people would be glad to be playing FM right now. I'm annoyed. Turns out that last night I spent €5.5m on a player that I thought I was requesting on loan. I've no idea how it happened. The fans are mocking me, exclaiming about how they can't believe I'd splash that much cash on an unknown.

I wish I could reveal to you the name of this unknown player but...crisis struck. After facing Lens in my first-ever friendly, the game stopped. I'd hit the "continue" button, and all that would happen is I'd get a glimpse of the next screen, before it would go back to a still of the match.* Randomly pressing buttons had no effect. I'd last saved the game two weeks prior.

I cried a little. I had to do this again?

After spending a little time in a darkened room with a cup of chamomile tea, I felt able to again face up to my managerial duties. This time I handed off some of them from the start. No way would I deal with agents; I'd only approve final offers to the players. The training would be in the hands of my assistant manager. My director of football would be the one finding new players -- though I kept control of scouting assignments, as if it were up to him, only Italy would be in play.

Yet somehow, someway, I end up buying Gonzalo Rodríguez from Fiorentina. Again, I thought I was putting him on a target list, and again, suddenly I'm being asked to look at an offer. But I need a center back (you'd understand if you'd watched Napoli play last season) and so I give in and finalize the deal. Plus, what sort of bastard pulls out after it's all been agreed? It's slowly dawning on me...I'm not heartless enough to do this job.

That's probably why, during games, I only ever select the "encourage" or "calm down" individual team talks to give. But at least I have those under control. Pick an emotion, pick a response, send it out to the universe. In the pre-, post-, and halftime talks, I can see an immediate reaction. If my players are down, I can give them a private little speech. It's interacting! I can get behind this!

On the flip side, I get really sad when my terminal ineptitude causes me to accidentally mark 39-year-old veteran goalkeeper Roberto Colombo as unwanted. I'd meant to just let his contract quietly run out, but instead, I've managed to cause offense. Fortunately FM 15 has an option that allows you to grovel, saying you regret the decision and didn't know what came over you. Alas, Colombo doesn't buy this answer (which admittedly sounds like bullshit, but I suppose the developers can't add "sorry, I pushed the wrong button" as a manager's response) and he storms off.

Sigh.

*note: this appeared to be a bug in the beta version, and never again occurred after I updated the game.

Settling in

It's now Tuesday. People are still telling me this game is addictive. I don't believe them. Thus far, it's an exercise in frustration. I've been confused as to how budget adjustments work (turns out there's a little sliding bar). I don't understand why scouts tell me they've got 68 players to recommend, but only three names show up on their emails (where are the rest of these hidden gems?) And finally, I have no idea why my "autofill CHECK NAME" slots Henrique in at central defense (Kalidou Koulibaly may have never played a match for his new club, but c'mon, FM).

The one thing I've got down is actual play. Which, in case you're a fellow FM virgin, is actually quite a small part of the game. At first, it was a bit difficult to figure out how to substitute players -- the screen is different based on whether you're in the 'tactics' screen or choosing to 'make a quick sub'. I first encountered the latter screen when a player needed to be subbed off injured, and I had absolutely zero clue as to how to shift a player from the bench to the pitch. In fact, I very nearly had Mariano Andújar ready to go in as an attacking midfielder.

I also learned very quickly that it's necessary to pause the game in order to make substitutions. Otherwise, you're trying to get a player in at the 70th minute, but suddenly the game speeds up due to having no highlights to show, and by the time you've finally got your new man in, it's the 89th minute and you've used just one sub. And everyone on Twitter will mock you.

I may have the actual game process "down", but I wouldn't say I'm "good" at it. For the most part, I wait for my assistant to leave a comment, then I press the "make changes" button. Unless he's telling me that the team needs to be sending more long balls up the pitch. I've got standards, you know. Anyway, I let him order me around, and in turn I yell some encouraging words at my players. If they refuse to adapt after I've told them to show some passion, I'll pull 'em out. Even if their name is Gonzalo Higuaín and it's only the 18th minute.

Granted, that game was a friendly. To my surprise, I actually started feeling nerves when a match that counted for something rolled around. It was FM's equivalent of the Champions League playoff round, and just like in real life, Napoli had been drawn against Athletic Bilbao, the worst opponents for a seeded team. I wasn't hiding in a pillow fort, clutching a bottle of whiskey, but I confess to being rather apprehensive about the possibility of getting sacked from my fake job.

So I went to bed, having learned long ago that it solves everything.

No joy in the morning

It's Wednesday morning, and Napoli are at Athletic. In real life, this wasn't to end well. Napoli lost 4-2 on aggregate, dropping down to Europa League before the Champions League group stages began. Not to spoil the ending or anything, but I wasn't to fare much better.

However, I did manage to unlock my second achievement (my first was tricking Parma into buying Britos) when Higuaín scored a goal. My accomplishments stopped there, however. Napoli failed to win at San Mamés, then fell behind fairly early at the San Paolo. I like to think I played it better than Rafa Benítez, however. For the final 20 minutes, I set my tactics to "overload", and my Napoli did manage to get within a goal of qualification.

Where I messed up, however, was in the dressing room. My assistants warned me to tell the players that they hadn't done enough. But I'd run them ragged at the end of the match. Raúl Albiol was out injured, and Jorginho got hurt during the match. Worst of all, we were without Hamšík. So I told them they'd done well but were unlucky. They gazed back, bewildered and confused.

Since losing out on Champions League, I've only progressed through two more days. I'm afraid to check in with the board and I am unsure as to how my squad feels about me now. My Napoli side plays Chievo on Sunday. All hell could break loose.

So in the end, Football Manager 15 certainly managed to emulate real life -- and all its frustrations. I'd be more inclined to return to it if it allowed an escape from reality, however.