I had to go back. I had to prove a point. I had to show that I can be battered and beaten, but I can never be broken.
I will not allow Everton Football Club to make a victim of me. Of all my humiliations on all the incarnations of this game, this was the most public and the most painful, but my response would be private. As Alex Stewart and I commenced the FM17 Project, I started a new game at Goodison Park to take the lessons I had learned at such grievous cost and put them into practice.
First, I made a number of changes. Paul Collyer said that he respected me for going into the game with transfers switched off and with my ‘natural’ reputation switched on. He said it was, “hardcore”. But it was also stupid. This time, transfers were on and I was coming in as a former England international in his first managerial role. I needed every advantage.
With £40m in the bank, I went shopping immediately. It was the defence that did for me last time. And the attack and the midfield. And a new goalkeeper would have been handy. But the defence had to come first. Michael Keane and Steven Caulker were quickly recruited, faster and more capable than Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka. The versatile Mattias Jorgensen came in to ensure that I no longer needed to rely on Jonjoe Kenny. I do not ever want to find myself relying on Tom Cleverley again, so Andrea Poli was snapped up from AC Milan. And that was my entire budget gone within a fortnight.
The next change had to be tactical. The flighty, attacking plans I laid down last time had to be torn to pieces. There was no balance, no stability, no power. Alex will testify to the dozens of tactical plans that lurk on my laptop, a mountain of maniacal schemes, each more ineffectual than the last. But in amongst the wretchedness, there was one set-up that had shown promise. A crude adaptation of an all-out attacking formation I’d found on the forums that had served me well in a link-up super-draft game.
There are a number of people who believe that there are ‘magic’ formations on Football Manager. Transferable set-ups that will bring success to any team. This, I am reliably informed by the people who actually make the game, is bollocks. Every now and then someone will discover a way of overpowering the AI with some unorthodox wizardry, but the programmers are always watching the forums. They put those online theories into extensive in-house testing and if they do reveal an unrealistic weakness, it is ruthlessly eliminated in one of those tiny updates you see every now and then.
What does work, however, is a thorough examination of your resources and the construction of a tactic to maximise them. Everton do not have much, but they do have pace on the flanks in abundance. So that’s what I seek to develop. I want this team fluid, I want them to defend as a team and counter-attack as a team. I want them play it out from the back, look for the gap and then burst into action. And always down the flanks. So many teams play 4-2-3-1 in this division. There’s so much room to get behind people out wide.
So you have a defence that defends deep. You have full-backs who attack and stay wide. You have an anchor man who doesn’t fly into tackles, but just intercepts and recycles. You have two midfielders who support the attack to varying degrees. You have two wingers who get forward. And you have a striker who does whatever he wants, but does it a little deeper to link up with everyone. All things being equal, Everton should sit deep, then attack in numbers. And I should keep my job longer than three months.
I still have a lot to learn. It transpires that constantly playing attacking full-backs leaves you very open to the counter yourself. As the season progresses, I gradually throttle back to supporting full-backs. Possession is important too. There’s no point putting a premium on it and having a goalkeeper who punts it long. Before long, Stekelenburg is rolling it out to start moves. We find from time to time, particularly against three man defences, that a single striker just isn’t enough. We are also pounded occasionally by teams that are just much, much better than us.
But for all of this, we are fairly decent. Gerard Deulofeu, one of the worst offenders last time, is transformed into one of the best wingers in the league. Ross Barkley goes into hyperdrive, ending the season as my top scorer. As we reach the final stages of the season, we hit a groove. The best XI is clear, there are three gameplans for every eventuality, all similar but nuanced. An extra defensive midfielder for when we’re holding on. An extra striker for when we’re chasing the game.
So I’ve learned a bit about tactics and I’ve learned a bit about recruitment. But, hey, the most important lesson I’ve learned was about myself. You can see in those fixtures that every now and then I’ve hit a sticky patch. These have been dark moments where I’ve questioned everything, including my propensity to keep coming back to this bloody game. But one aspect of football that FM17 does very well in recreating is the way that shit happens. It happens frequently. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes, you’ll do everything right and lose. Sometimes, you’ll miss scores of chances and they won’t miss their only one. It’s football. It’s never going to be perfect. But if you keep at it, you might just get somewhere.
So what happened? Well, I finished eighth. That’s pretty much where we wanted to finish. Had we not let a 2-1 lead turn into a 2-3 deficit in the last 13 minutes of an April fixture against West Ham, we might have finished higher. With so many of the older players leaving, I snapped up young AJ from Celtic in order to mould him for the future. In March, still unconvinced by my goalkeepers, I signed Jordan Pickford for the following season. And with all of my sales, including packing off a sulky Michael Keane to Arsenal, I turned a profit too.
And we had a bloody good run in the FA Cup, beating Liverpool to take a place in the final against Manchester United. But boy, did it all go wrong at Wembley.
United started so well that we barely had a chance until the 33rd minute when Romelu Lukaku was shown a straight red card, at which point we had no chance at all. We got battered and it was awful, but at least we were there. After the game, we had an end of season team meeting and I wanted to be positive. I wanted to say to the lads that we could build on this. I wanted to take our eighth place finish and push for the top six.
They didn’t take that too well, no. This game. This bloody game.