Whether you know it as Championship Manager or Football Manager, Champ or Footy Manager, CM or FM, this is a game that has played a huge part in all of our lives – for better or for worse. In sickness or in health. In my case, for 22 years and counting. How did we get here?

Starting the obsession

It’s Christmas 1996 and 8 year old me is tearing through presents like there’s no tomorrow. Christmas has always been a big deal in our house, something you don’t really appreciate until you are older ironically as you start to realise the meticulous planning your parents put in to juggle finances and everything else that goes into a family Christmas. I honestly don’t remember if I asked for CM2 or whether it was just a good guess from Mother Black but by 9.30am she was installing it on our AST Windows 95 machine. It was our first computer, having been purchased in April 96 – the 14th to be exact. I only know because Newcastle played Aston Villa that day and I noticed Villa were sponsored by AST. I’ll admit I just had to check the precise date. Getting this game turned out to be an incredibly welcome bonus.

Anyway, after it was established the game worked (there was a lot of scepticism in those days about most PC games we purchased, installing them seemed to require rocket scientist level abilities) it was back to the front room as more relatives arrived. I’d get to re-visit it after lunch. I can’t sit here and tell you blow for blow about my first games in charge, though I do remember being utterly terrible. I played as Newcastle, who should have been quite handy in the 96/97 season, but I seem to remember losing a lot. That didn’t seem to matter though, I’ve always been patient even from a young age and the obsession soon grew. Many a night I was told to go to bed. One more game. I only remember two other saves I had. One was with Celtic, which got about 7 seasons in, I must have had some success to get that far into a save but I also remember releasing all of Rangers’ players on a free transfer, possibly in a fit of rage. I also recall me and my friend Mark started a game as Man Utd just to try and sign Ronaldo. We never managed. Still, I played the hell out of that game so by the time October 1997 came around, I was ready for a change…

The Foundations

“So it’s the same as the last one but with updated squads?”

My Dad didn’t understand. That hasn’t changed. He was probably right to quiz why his 9-year-old son wanted to spend about 10 weeks worth of pocket money on a computer game where “the text just flashes” but he relented and off we went. The minimum spec for the game was basically the spec of our computer, but whatever. I can wait. CM9798 was in my life.

Loading the first game took ages. This was the first game with multiple leagues, and as I was well into Football Italia on Channel 4 that was an extra bonus selling point. Once again I took over at Newcastle and I remember being sacked towards the end of the first season. It’s a tough gig without Shearer, who starts the game injured, ok? What was great about CM9798 was that it wasn’t CD locked, so once it was installed on a PC it could be played without the CD. It was on just about everybody’s PC in our neighbourhood which meant everybody was talking about it. For me, the popularity of the game skyrocketed around this time.

Look at what you could have won

With the CM obsession well underway, the announcement of CM3 had me in a frenzy. We had the internet by this point, again that sounds off to say now but in 1998 we were the anomaly to have it in our social circle. Anyway, the screenshots being released of CM3 were mind blowing – up to 50 players in a squad, reserves, squad numbers, a proper inbox for news. The concept was amazing, and I wanted in. But our computer was old. CM9798 was slow, CM3 would be at a snail’s pace. There was basically a crisis meeting in our kitchen as my Mam broke the news to me that it wouldn’t be happening. Uh oh.

Not to worry, CM9798 had an editor. I set about updating that damn game as best I could. I even made my entire class at school into a team. Fun fact for you – CM3 is the only CM game I haven’t owned since getting into the series. I downloaded the demo some time after release but it was so slow it wasn’t very fun to play.

Everybody in

Once the ‘light nights’ came back round in March, that opened up another world. To give you a very brief background, where we lived there were about 10 kids who would play football every night on the field behind my house. Once the clocks went back in October that was basically the last you saw of some kids until next March. Unless you went to school with them or you were afforded a dry Saturday afternoon (a rarity in winter time Newcastle) it was like closing a book that you wouldn’t open again for several months. When it did open though, we started talking about Champ. It was always shortened to “Champ” quite understandably.

Amazingly, two of the lads hadn’t played it. Me and one other had. Our friend Ross suggested four of us could go into his house to play it, which became a regular occurrence. As it was my game I was a regular fixture, with regular arguments between the others for who would get to come in. We’d basically play football for a few hours then spend a couple of hours in Ross’ every day through the summer, only now when the clocks went back we would go to play Champ rather than be hermits for 6 months. We played so many saves I started to get good – with so many players between us, you could soon get a feel for who was good, what formations worked and some hidden gems. This continued for several years, even well into our teenage years after some of the older kids outgrew “playing out” it became more common for us to just pile into Ross’ to play what was by now a 6 or 7-year-old video game.

New PC

During 1999 we upgraded our computer but such was my 97/98 fix it wasn’t even that big of a deal. Just after Christmas though I must have seen CM99/00 in the shops and decided to buy it.

Having missed out on CM3 (which covered the 98/99 season) I was immediately taken by the huge number of leagues I could now play as plus I was experiencing a lot of the CM3 gameplay for the first time, bar my brief attempt at the CM3 demo. But what really changed things for me was the addition of a Network game. This allowed multiplayer action but from your own homes. A game changer.

I was big into Wrestling at the time – blame the Attitude Era – and I got into talking to like-minded fans on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). I struck up a reasonable friendship with a chap called Rob, who was a Norwich fan from Southend. Chatting about football one day the subject of CM came up and I asked his advice – after all, he’d won everything with Norwich and I was doing garbage with Newcastle. The idea of a network game was born and, as luck would have it, the summer holidays were here. For the next 6 weeks, my schedule basically involved playing online with Rob until about 12pm, having lunch and heading out to play football or CM9798, back home for tea, more football and then back to network action until the early hours. This was around CM00/01 and carried on into the launch of CM01/02.

A contender

Whenever the topic of “Best CM” is raised there are two games that always seem to rise to the top. Obviously, CM9798 (usually my doing) but CM01/02 is widely recognised as being the best ever.

Like it’s 1997 counterpart, it is the final version of the mini-series and therefore the most polished. CM01/02 rounds off the CM3 series in perfect fashion and in my opinion is the tipping point before the series turned into a series management simulation. That’s not a bad thing by the way, but it has serious replay value. I should know…

My friend Stephen, who I’ve known since I was 11 and was best man at my wedding, started to get into the series around this time. CM4 had a disastrous and buggy launch, eventually hitting our shelves in March 2003, which meant CM01/02 had a longer shelf life than normal. The fact that CM4 was too buggy to enjoy meant that Stephen and I were able to have a few long term network games. The best of which saw us install an update for the 03/04 season, meaning Chelsea had a bucket of money to spend, whilst Steve pitched up at Man Utd. I splashed the cash on Shevchenko – a move that happened a few seasons later anyway – and we were unstoppable. I then moved to Blackburn and with Nathan Ellington leading the line, won a lot there too. We also had an epic International save where my highlight was Finland beating Argentina to reach the World Cup quarter-finals, whilst Steve won the World Cup with Italy. I know what you’re thinking – how did we fill the gaps between International breaks? Easy – Yahoo Pool.

Life in 2D

The CM4 series saw the birth of the 2D pitch, a move which some were sceptical about. I remember going to buy the magazine that included the CM4 demo on my lunch and Steve expressed his disgust at the thought of watching little 2D dots run about. Steve plays more FM than me these days…

Anyway, with network games now a real chore I mostly remember single player games around this time. I had a great save with Norwich (presumably Rob’s influence) on CM03/04 where Supat Rungratasamee, Toledo and Tijani Babangida all arrived for very little money to take us out of the old First Division and on to Premier League glory. All the while we were still playing CM9798 at Ross’ several times a week. The game was still good but I was at the time where the game was running my pc to its limits and crashes were a constant worry. For that reason, I don’t really recall CM4 or 03/04 with any great delight – except for Lionel Morgan.

The Split

After CM03/04 Eidos and Sports Interactive went their separate ways. Championship Manager 5 was released and is probably the worst game I have ever played. Football Manager 2005 was good though, it was clearly the closest to CM03/04 with an upgrade and I got plenty into it. I was in the sixth form so free time was appearing on my calendar and I wasn’t going to use it to study. Albert Luque was unbelievable for Newcastle, and with Owen, Parker, Dyer, Shearer and Solano in the ranks it was a fun team to start as. I was working part-time in the kitchen at the pub where we lived and the guy I worked with, Chris, would tell me some of the players he’d found in the bargain bin. FM06 was very similar and in a sad milestone was the first I played on a laptop. I was off to University and FM had to come with me.

The reality is I actually lived at home during my first year at Uni but having a laptop meant I could kill free periods by playing FM. Or drinking. The opportunities were endless. For my second year, I moved into a flat with Steve and two other friends from school, AL and James. We were about to enter another world.

Local Party

James dismissed FM as an interactive spreadsheet, fortunately, AL was as into it as me and Steve so it didn’t take long before a three-way network game was started in our house. Most lads at universities were attending parties but we had a LAN party. Perhaps wisely, I split up with my girlfriend at the time just before moving into Flat FM so outside of the 11 hours a week I had at uni, it left a lot of time for FM.

I remember the day I moved in, everybody else was out. I felt uneasy, as I guess anybody would, at moving away from home for the first time and with the house empty I suddenly felt very alone. With no internet or TV, there was little else for it. I loaded up FM and put some music on. You know, this might be alright.

We had two network saves – the first I was Arsenal, Steve Man Utd and AL Liverpool. We got about 2 seasons in, I remember AL won the league on the final day of the season through a last minute goal and I wore a suit for an FA Cup final. Steve was midtable but reached the Champions League final…which he lost. I seem to remember he spent big on Robbie Keane who broke a leg about 5 minutes after arriving. This was the game where everybody wanted to sign Arshavin but I don’t think any of us managed.

A winter update and a new game to accommodate Steve’s laptop saw us drop into the Championship. I was Preston, Steve Sheff Wed and AL Watford. I loaned Victor Anichebe and he was amazing but we couldn’t defend for toffee and finished 8th. Steve lost the playoff final and I honestly don’t recall how AL did. I couldn’t get Victor back for season 2 and I was sacked shortly thereafter. We were addicted though, one night I saw 4am when I had an exam at 9am. I scored higher on that exam than any other I did, somehow. I wouldn’t advise approaching any exam that way!

There was still time to play 01/02. My friend JC, who I’d known since school, was living in the area but with people who didn’t play. We ended up playing on the same 5 a side team and I suggested we played some CM01/02, which he was up for. We absolutely ravaged through about 5 seasons, I think I was Notts Forest but I remember very little about it.

Here and Now

I moved back home as I worked for a year and didn’t fancy the late nights combined with a 6.30am start. I’d met a girl who said she lived near Milton Keynes and referred to “The Dons” so I started a save as them, trying to get them out of Division 3. I took them to the Championship but no further. The long work days were tiring though and my eyes were barely open on a night. I played a little but I also started seeing the girl – Steph, who is now my wife.

For 2009 I was back into student accommodation, another flat with 3 different friends. I had an epic save with Hartlepool where we reached the Premier League thanks to Rob Earnshaw but were forced to ground share with Middlesbrough whilst Victoria Park was renovated. We had another 3-way network game going, this time as Birmingham, Wolves and Bolton. All Premier League strugglers but we survived and had a great time in doing so. I think I even got a young Suarez to Birmingham by the third season but as we were all in our final year, dissertations took over. Sometimes you have no choice!

It was during this year though that I played CM9798 for the first time in several years. I was barely in uni and with the other lads out, I figured out I could play the game using dosbox. I had tried to play it without dosbox but the game didn’t work, so after putting some time into it it was actually quite easy. I played as Newcastle and won everything – I was far better than I had been a decade previous, but of course, I’d had lots of practice by this time. Even if I didn’t get together with Ross and co anymore, all those hours had come in handy. During the 2010 World Cup, I had a network game with my flatmate Connor where he was Barcelona and I was Real Madrid. It was easy so we decided to sign a terrible player from our respective clubs. I got Xisco and he got Rade Prica – all well and good until Prica knocked me out of the Copa del Rey!

I had one more year in student digs, though I was working full time after graduating. We did try a network game, in Turkey, but it barely got going. Lives were busy, finding time to play the game was proving difficult let alone when all three of us were there. I had Darius Vassell though, that was the main thing.

Tell a Story

It’s now 2011 and Steph and I bought our first house. She wasn’t up for a network game. When we first moved in I was again indebted to FM, as we had no TV or internet for a week and Steph was on a family holiday. My Newcastle team was incredible, with Phil Jones at the back and Jack Wilshere in the 10 role. Great scouting. I mostly played on a night, Steph has always slept earlier than me and she got me a new laptop as an engagement present (well, she did get a ring) so I was able to continue dabbling with FM.

The series at this point was pretty complex. I had less enthusiasm to get involved with the nonsense and by 2014 I was playing 01/02 and 9798 again. I’d cleaned up with Newcastle on 01/02 with Pablo Aimar proving particularly brutal whilst on 97/98 I’d waited a season and took over Altrincham, with no players, and set about taking them to Champions League glory. It took ages, but the stories it brought up had me chuckling away to myself.

It was that Christmas that I met several of the lads mentioned in this article for a season tipple. Several pints in I was telling some of these stories and a lightbulb metaphorically came on – I should blog about this.

I’d been writing about the Premier League to an audience of very few – I’ve always had the writing itch but seeing no views on a detailed article was pretty demotivating. But with Twitter and good luck, I could make this work. The market for Premier League writing was saturated. The market for CM9798 writing was empty. But did anybody care?

I launched my CM9798 blog in January 2015 and luckily some heftily followed accounts re-tweeted it in exchange for screenshots. The best thing I ever did was set up a page with installation instructions, which is still the most visited page to this day. The aim of the blog was to complete the game (30 saves) – a plan that fell short when my laptop ran out of battery mid-save and corrupted us 14 seasons in. Nevermind, dust off and start again. We made it the second time.

I take a huge amount of pride in the number of CM9798 screenshots I get sent on Twitter. I’m not saying I started a movement but there are more CM9798 or retro CM accounts now than there was when I joined Twitter. I think it’s great. Long may it continue.

Full Circle

By 2016 we had been married 3 years and moved house. With some more space, I was able to have an office and a desk for the first time since Uni. Chris Darwen of this parish had contacted me in June 2015  about writing a CM9798 book that was released later that year and I had started writing regularly for his Football Manager website with other retro CM stories. Chris started “real football” writing and asked me to join him. We got there!

Writing and blogging about CM was always meant to be my start towards writing about football more seriously and this as the best of both worlds. I had a small social media presence and a platform to present my work on. I’ve been writing about real football for 18 months now but I owe it all to Championship Manager.

It’s opened so many doors for me. Two published books (a CM01/02 book was published in November 2017), covering football matches as live texts from within the stadium but I get the most pleasure from having interviewed Paul & Oliver Collyer, the SI Games founders – I could never have imagined that!

That’s my life in CM. It’s been with me every step of the way from primary school through to my adult life. I say adult, I’m now 30 and sit in my “mancave” surrounded by old computer games and toys having just completed a CM9798 tournament held over the internet with strangers. One more game?