The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Our season is over. I don’t mean that histrionically. Playing in a small league and not having cup matches made the year fly past, like one of those movie transitions where the snow piles up on a windowsill and then melts as tiny flowers start to bloom. Before I knew it, it was spring, and we’d dropped four more places: 12th in the league, with three matches left. It was almost enough to make me hate the Italian sunshine.
It was easy to say how we’d reached this point, harder to say how that set of reasons had come into being. Before I go any further, I need to explain a glitch in the game that made our downfall more confusing: the preseason expectations that were initially announced for us didn’t hold up at all in the way the game described our season.
Before the year started, the media picked us to finish first and the gambling odds third. Based largely on that perceived strength, I told the board we could win the league and got “The minimum expectation is that you win the Seconda Divisione A” emblazoned at the top of my confidence screen. But as soon as we’d played a couple of games, that completely changed, and our mediocre performance started being held up as a triumph; even as we slid out of the top 10, the match previews kept saying “Pro Vercelli have been playing far above expectations all season and find themselves in 8th place.” The board kept congratulating me for my “fantastic” league performance, and the pre-match odds routinely described us as a team who’d been picked to finish on the threshold of relegation.
What does that mean? It’s hard to say, but I think it might have something to do with my decision to use fictional players. When you untick the box marked “use real players” in the game setup screen, the squad the game generates for you appears to be random within certain parameters—in other words, if I picked Pro Vercelli using fictional players again, I’d get a completely different team, with different abilities. I wouldn’t wind up with Arsenal, and I wouldn’t get your local pub side, but I might get a team that would be noticeably better or worse than the “real” Pro Vercelli within the context of the fictional Serie C2/A.
So my theory is that the preseason expectations I initially saw were fixed in advance by the game based on the level of the team’s real players, and the completely different expectations I saw later had been recalculated based on the actual strengths and weaknesses of each randomly generated team. This isn’t a big enough issue for me to test it, especially since it shouldn’t be a problem from here on in. But it would explain the complete lack of correlation between performance and initial expectations, not just for Pro Vercelli but for the whole league (in which the teams that led the way for much of the second half of the season were picked to finish 16th and 18th, and the team that finally won the league was picked to finish 11th). This doesn’t excuse our poor finish; if anything, I should have seen what was happening sooner and adjusted my tactics to take into account the fact that we were weaker than I initially thought. But it might explain why we struggled to score in so many games, and it might answer a few other strange questions, like why our average starting salary was 30% less than the average for the league even though we supposedly had the best players.
Ultimately, of course, none of this really matters. The only thing that counts is that we set out to win the league and didn’t—didn’t even come close, didn’t finish within 20 points of the top spot. Despite the arrival of a talented new goalkeeper (Marciano van Dijk, formerly of Telstar), a veteran right winger (the fabulously named Orlando van der Ent, not ready to hang up his boots after a long career at Feyenoord), and a promising striker (Gianluca D’Errico, of the Reggina reserve team) in the January transfer window, the second half of the season was a miserable slog, ruined by an inability to score goals that I seemed powerless to affect. The new signings played well (mostly, at least: D’Errico was a disappointment, but even he was pretty good except when shooting from close range), but couldn’t keep us from suffering through two agonizing six-match winless streaks, one of which doubled as a six-match goalless streak and contained four straight 1-0 losses in which the winning goals were scored from 35 or more yards. There were definitely times when the ruby hue of my video-game self’s face might have provoked a mildly confused visitor to Vercelli to describe me as a “fiery Scot.”
I tried everything: yelling at the players, coddling the players, micromanaging tactics, simplifying tactics, emphasizing an attacking style, emphasizing a defensive style. Nothing seemed to work. I even tried incorporating Walter Colombo’s suggestions at one point (it helped no one, and I think even Walter was embarrassed). I’ve gone through dozens upon dozens of Football Manager seasons, and this was the most confused I’d ever been.
But here’s the amazing thing: beneath the crushing dismay, the game was as fun as ever. In a way, it’s even exciting to feel so out of my depth. How many video games do you know that can still outwit you after you’ve spent years playing them? (Sure, in my case it may have taken a game bug, but still…) As Daryl can tell you, this game can be frustrating to the point of cruelty, but it seems to draw you in further the more it makes you want to strangle someone in a fit of displaced revenge. (Your assistant manager, for instance.) And every time you think you’ve mastered it, it throws you for another loop. I mean, I’m the greatest football manager in the history of the world, and it did this to me! How great can one game be?
There were bright spots. Our young winger Carlo Saba, on whom so many Vercellesi hopes were riding at the start of the season, was injured too often to bear out our predictions for him, but a couple of other young players—especially Maicol Musumeci and our 21-year-old winger Pieter Oosting, another of the Dutch imports—showed some promise. Since the board and the fans seem to think we had a great season, my job isn’t under any pressure: in fact, the board was worried I would leave, and handed me a three-year contract extension at the end of the season. (In your face, Paul Ince.) And I stumbled onto another intriguing transfer for the summer, a 19-year-old Spanish forward named Jorge Ibáñez whose name I happened to click the day his contract expired at FC Eindhoven. I lured him to the club for free.
I’m worried about his first touch, especially if we’re forced to play more of a long-ball game next season, but his finishing, composure, technique, flair and general physical presence put the rest of my strikers in the shade. With any luck, when he arrives in July he’ll join with a more settled D’Errico and an improved Musumeci to end our scoring problem.
Another bright spot: we came on a bit at the end of the season, won two games (including a nice 2-0 win over Alessandria, one of only 8 matches in which we scored more than one goal) and finished the year in 10th place. Not much to be excited about, maybe, but at this point we’ll take what we can get.
Up next: Our summer transfer wishlist (if we’re lucky enough to be given a transfer budget). Our ongoing financial problems. And is it finally time to do something about the staff?
by Brian Phillips · December 14, 2008