Taking on the Football Manager “Fergie Challenge”

Football Manager blogs are all the rage these days. Sadly, in my house, Football Manager is not “all the rage” – unless you take that literally, because the very sight of a laptop and Football Manager can, in certain circumstances, lead to rage.

That is part of the reason that I don’t actually own FM17, the latest incarnation of the world’s best management sim. I used to spend hours playing these games, up into the wee small hours taking on the task at many different clubs.

Those days are long gone, but when I play, I do like to have something interesting to take on, so I decided to take on the “Fergie Challenge”. The premise is that you go on holiday until November 6, then take over the team next to bottom in the Premier League and try and make a dynasty, as Sir Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United.

I thought I’d try and make things a little tougher, so I went “on holiday” for a whole season from the start of FM16, setting my return date for November 6 2016.

So, the game ticked on as I sat there. Just who would be waiting for me?

Well, it was Burnley.

Obviously the Clarets had, just as in real life, got promoted in 2015/16, and were now in the top flight. The Clarets had got promoted in the game with just a handful of loan signings, and in the summer had added James Wilson and Chupa Akpom on loan, as well as splashing out on Jake Livermore and Idrissa Gueye. In real terms, the challenge shouldn’t have been too different from real life.

The big sticking point though was that when I took over – from Shaun Dyche – Burnley were in a right old state. From 14 matches, they had a whopping five points. FIVE. And a long way adrift already. The only reason they were 19th – and therefore the team I took over – was that Brentford, promoted with them, were even bloody worse.

The differences between the Fergie Challenge and actual Fergie soon became clear. When the Scot took over at Old Trafford he could make transfers straight away, pick any of the players at his disposal and was, after all, at a big club. What he didn’t have was the transfer window and two players not even registered to play. The two – Dyche’s only signing the previous year Bradley Dack and striker Ashley Barnes – both came to me within days to say they wanted more first-team football. Dack was happy to accept my very reasonable explanation that everyone would get a chance to impress in my regime. Barnes, however, got the hump and asked to be sold. So I put the wheels in motion to do just that, only for the massive pillock to refuse to agree personal terms with Red Bull Salzburg. Tosser.

On the pitch, I stopped a five-game losing run at the first attempt, drawing 1-1 with Southampton, before in the next game moving on to nine points by dismantling Brentford 3-0. Easy this… Or not. I lost the next four, while also spending time trying to reshape a squad that was paying massively over-inflated wages to bang average players who were nowhere near the first XI. Sadly, I completed this task too late to actually bring anyone of note in during the transfer window.

The squad was uninspiring at best. No offence to them, but Scott Arfield and George Boyd are not the sort of wingers I like in my FM sides. I want pace. I’ve tinkered with formations, but I can’t seem to get the best out of these players.

After beating Carlisle in the FA Cup, we had a week to remember in late January as we hit five two games running, beating West Ham and Leicester City 5-0 and 5-2 respectively. I was still a long way from safety, but if we’d kept that up, the best escape act since I kept Hearts up from minus 15 points on FM14 was in sight. I went on to win the league with them.

Sadly, there was to be no repeat. Eight dismal defeats in a row put us on the brink, a win over Swansea – who could have been caught if, you know, you believed in bloody miracles – gave us a bit of hope, and a 3-3 draw at Watford where we never trailed but ended up hanging on with ten men after Gueye’s red card kept us mathematically alive.

Taking the lead at Southampton gave us some more hope, but losing 5-2 put the nail in the coffin.

The relegation being confirmed led to a revolt. Tom Heaton, Michael Keane and Arfield all wanted to go straight away. We beat Brentford again, and as the season came to a close, the board suddenly decided they hated me. I was called to two meetings in two weeks to discuss my future. At the second of them, I was ordered to get nine points in the next five games or I was gone.

The summer was brilliant fun. I sold and bought an entire squad. I had money to spend, and although I don’t normally, I splashed the cash. The wage bill was fun to play with as well. Heaton replaced by a keeper on £30k a week. Ki arrived from Chelsea, wages of £63k. They weren’t alone. I had built a squad more than capable of not just getting straight back, but winning the Championship at a canter.

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I spent a while planning what formations might work for this squad. When I got back to it, I’d lost a key man – attacking midfielder Marco Djuricin – to injury for five weeks, but I had the strength to deal with that.

Or so I thought. We opened the season at Leeds United, and were handed our backsides on a plate, losing by five goals to nil. The tough start continued against Crystal Palace, and we lost that one too, 2-1.

Next up, in a continuation of that tricky start, were my old mates Brentford. I’ve beaten them every time… But not this time. A 1-1 draw. Remember that ultimatum? Yep. That one. Yep. Sacked. Game over.

I left it running for a bit until I got another job. By that time – I was at struggling Brighton in late November – the Clarets were up to sixth. I may well have created that Ferguson dynasty… I’m just not there to oversee it.

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