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Football Manager Challenge: Pilot Episode

Here at A Team of John O’Sheas, we pride ourselves on answering the questions that no one is asking. It is now over a year since the Team attempted to answer their first question: How good would a team of John O’Sheas actually be? To celebrate our first anniversary, Jon Mackenzie will attempt to settle the old question once and for all. His job is a simple one: try take a team of John O’Sheas as far up the English football league structures as possible on Football Manager.

When he was 33, Alexander the Great cried salt tears because he realised that there were no more worlds to conquer. As a man also in his early thirties, I find myself shedding similarly briny tears. Not because there are no more worlds for me to conquer. But because of all the possible worlds that exist for me to conquer, the one I have chosen involves me cloning John O’Shea twenty times on Football Manager.

Context, it is said, is everything. On the terraces of the football grounds around Britain, there is a song that is often repeated albeit with different iterations depending on the fans who are singing it. Imagine, the song invites us to the tune of Yellow Submarine, that you could have a whole team of one of your club’s cult players. Number one would be Gary Breen (to take the earliest extant version of the song I have come across) and number two would also be Gary Breen and so the song goes on all the way up to number eleven and all the subs (all Gary Breen for the record). A whole team of Gary Breens.

About a year ago, some friends and I decided to start a football podcast. As the market for football podcasts is as saturated as Stoke on a cold Wednesday night in the winter, we charged ourselves with the task of ‘answering the questions that no one is asking’. Our debut episode took up a question that gave the podcast its name: how good would a team of John O’Sheas actually be? (We figured most people would have forgotten about Gary Breen by now although, in hindsight, most of our listens probably come from people looking for a Sunderland podcast… poor sods…)

A year on, we still ask the questions that no one is asking and the analytics still suggest that there are still people willing to listen in to our discussions. We thought that this called for some celebration and one form that this celebration took was a decision on my part to put our original question to a test that was more rigorous than ‘what a group of friends from Cambridge think’. I fired up Football Manager 2017, read a few websites on how to use the Editing programme that comes included, and began cloning John O’Sheas.

My plan was simple: populate a non-league football team (Gloucester City in this case, for whom the Team of John O’Sheas podcast has a certain amount of affection) with John O’Sheas and see how far I could take them up the English football leagues. By applying the Football Manager algorithms to the Team of John O’Sheas question, I hoped that I would be able to come up with a more conclusive answer than the one we had reached on the original episode of the podcast: ‘Not that great…’ But I was also interested to see how the Football Manager’s famous match engine coped under this potentially problematic scenario.

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I must come clean from the outset. There was a certain amount of tweakery on my part. Consider this problem: John O’Shea’s salary at Sunderland is £47,000 per week; the average wage of a Gloucester City player is about £150 per week. There were, I conjectured, two solutions to this difficulty. You could change his contract at Gloucester so that he was only paid £150 per week. But then you have a player valued at £2.6m earning nothing and presumably easily tempted away by bigger clubs (i.e. every other club in the game…) The better solution seemed to be giving Gloucester City enough money to pay this high wage. After all, the only goal here is to keep my team fully populated with John O’Sheas. I added three 0s to the end of their current balance making £16,750 into £16,750,000. Any higher and the game editor reprimanded me for not having a ‘Sugar Daddy’ (its words not mine) giving any financial backing. Not wanting to risk some crazed Massimo Cellino figure messing things up for me, I stuck with my figure.

Of course, the more mathematically astute amongst you will have noticed that twenty John O’Sheas on £47,000 per week would invoice a total wage bill of around a million pounds a week. Given that this figure is in a similar region to the weekly security budget allocated by the US government to the protection of Trump Towers, you could understand why this might be a somewhat problematic figure for a mid-table non-league football club. Within four months, the John O’Shea collective would have emptied the coffers at Whaddon Road even despite the three-figure budget boost I had already machinated. To rectify this, I downloaded the in-game editor Sports Interactive offer Football Manager 2017 users so that, when the time came, I could invoke the spirit of Gordon Brown and quantitively ease my way out of any global financial crisis.

The other problem that presented itself was a conundrum that has haunted the human race since it crawled out of whatever evolutionary stage preceded homo sapiens: time itself. John O’Shea is 35. I didn’t want to risk getting out of the Vanarama League North only for my whole squad to retire en masse leaving me with little but the memory of what could have been. I played God and turned the clocks back by five years. My John O’Sheas come in at a sprightly 30 years of age which I suppose might give them a slight edge on the Real John O’Shea in terms of recovery period. But as a similarly-aged footballer-pretending male who huffs his way around a football pitch once a week, the Team of John O’Sheas is still well past its prime. Faust-like, then, I have granted John O’Shea a five in-game year grace period to see how far he can get in English football. He had better repay me.

Thankfully, the editing process proved to be less painful than I thought. I had prepared myself for the arduous task of creating twenty John O’Sheas from scratch but, in the event, it’s actually pretty easy to duplicate players. I chose the figure twenty because that seemed to give me a fair amount of wiggle room with injuries. In the event that I’m unlucky enough for the six spare subs to be slowly ‘used up’ (as Orwellian a euphemism as I’ve seen), then I will retire gracefully. As long as I have my three John O’Shea benchwarmers, it makes very little material difference. What is one John O’Shea to another?

Which brings me to my final dilemma: how do you differentiate twenty players who all share exactly the same attributes? Do I simply go off form—playing the eleven most highly motivated players? And then comes the question of position—how do I decide which John O’Shea to play in which position? To make this dilemma slightly less recalcitrant, I decided that each John O’Shea should be numbered. For some reason, my clones didn’t have their names correctly displayed so I gave them ‘Nicknames’ and added numbers to them. Hopefully, this should solve any problem of differentiation between the John O’Sheas and potentially stave off any confusion as to which John O’Shea plays best where? But then, would it even make a difference?

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All of these questions remain to be answered. One thing is certain, however. We will find an answer. I only hope that it is an answer that makes this all worth my while…

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