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.
Episode One – Waiting for Aylesbury
Whatever there might have been of a so-called ‘honeymoon period’ is over. It didn’t last long. I’ve swiftly realised that this project may be in danger of being one of those Channel 5 programmes where the concept is entirely given away by the title, leaving the actual show to drag on like a loveless marriage which is only held together for the sake of the kids. And in this case, there are twenty kids and they’re all aged thirty…
Reminding myself of my naturally cheerless disposition, I put this idea out of my mind as nothing more than a fear of failure and turn my attention to the task of creating a passable Vanarama North team out of footballing versions of Dolly the sheep. In much the same way as genetic modification does, I’m finding that messing around with the structures of the universe comes fraught with its own dangers. Having installed myself as manager of A Team of John O’Sheas—well, to be precise, having installed Geeson Cho (a name that is a portmanteau of a fan and a fellow panelist from the podcast…)—I am already finding glitches emerging within a game that is not designed to be played in this manner. Matt Rose, my assistant, produces a team report which informs me that I have bequeathed a squad which contains ‘a number of impressive decision makers… a closely knit group of players who often display high levels of… collective teamwork’. I worry that I have created a monstrous concatenation of individuals: a hive mind that will eventually return to destroy their creator like the replicants in Bladerunner. The positive section of the report came to a conclusion with the delightfully unaware admission that, ‘with the likes of John O’Shea amongst twenty players capable of playing as a central defender, there is an impressive depth in this position’. Quite.
Then the negatives began flowing in, most notable of which was the disclosure that ‘There isn’t much to speak of in terms of exciting youth prospects’. After muttering something approaching an attempt at witticism about the lack of any exciting senior prospects either, I moved my eyes down the list to see just how bad the eventual prognosis was. And there it was. The worry that had been playing on my mind since I had begun. But now written out in full on the screen of the computer in front of me: ‘There are currently no players capable of playing as a goalkeeper’. It was at that moment that I really understood for the first time what it must be like being Pep Guardiola.
I turned immediately to the resolution of this seemingly intractable problem. Heading to the club’s training ground, I hunted down my assistant, the aforementioned Matt Rose. He seemed nice enough, if not a little overwhelmed by the curious state of affairs that had left him with the responsibility of coaching a squad whose value had gone from tens of thousands of pounds to £52 million overnight. His day was only going to get worse. “Can you retrain this 30-year-old central defender as a goalkeeper?” I felt that bluntness was probably the best approach at this point. The answer came back in the negative. It is, quite literally, impossible to retrain an outfield player as a keeper in this game. You can attempt to rehabilitate any outfield player in any other outfield position. But not for a life between the sticks. My heart sank.
I had hoped that my disappointment was not too obvious to my new assistant. It’s hard to see how it can have been interpreted otherwise as I unleashed my programme of re-education onto him. This was how my logic went: There are twenty players of exactly comparable footballing ability here, one of whom will be charged with performing a task at which he will never be capable. The best way to counteract this will be by preventing this individual from having to perform this task. What I do have as an asset, though, is an overabundance of defensive players. Loading the defence and implementing an intense form of Marcelo Bielsa-esque pressing in deep areas, might limit the number of shots that John O’Shea would have to face and give the rest of the team an outside chance of outscoring the opposition (deliberately ignoring the fact that the rest of the team was not noted for grabbing goals on the break…).
Given that John O’Shea is a centre back by trade, has played full back on occasion and has even, of late, been moved into a sort of classic centre half/central defensive midfielder role in his twilight years under Moyes, I figured it would be worth working on both a back five formation, a 3-5-2/5-3-2 hybrid, with the further option of a flat four line up, most probably some sort of iteration of 4-2-3-1 allowing for two deep central midfielders. The 3-5-2/5-3-2 seemed to offer a formation in which John O’Shea was generally passable in most of the position. If the opposition were weak, the back five could be cajoled into more forward areas. Or so I convinced myself.
Matt Rose took more convincing. He did not think it likely that ‘at the stage of his career that he was at, John O’Shea would take particularly well to a position change’. Of course, I sympathised with this view. But there wasn’t an option for me to select which encourage my understudy to ‘take things with a pinch of salt’ so I spend the next twenty minutes drawing up a complete retraining schedule for the whole team individually. Each time, Rose dutifully informed me of the purposelessness of my actions so by the end of the session, I felt like I was in a Samuel Beckett play. The Johns, however, now roughly line up in the classic order for a 3-5-2 by position (at the risk of going biblical: John 1 in goal, John 2-4 as a back three, etc. etc.) The rest of the Johns are spread across the training regime, giving me plenty of back up in each area should the need arise.
In the run up to the first friendly match, I go through the rigmarole of the media circus. This passes without hitch although I am informed, in the process, that my team are favourites to finish first in the Vanarama North division. This doesn’t exactly take me by surprise given the fact my squad is worth about the same amount as John Stones but does bring home the gravity of the task which I’ve set myself here. To the undiscerning logic of the Football Manager game engine, A Team of John O’Sheas should cruise this league. But presumably that same game engine is assuming, as logically as any reasonable human might, that I will be playing a goalkeeper in goal… or a striker up front for that matter… Imagine the ignominy of being sacked as a result of being held to account by a system of rules that I am quite simply ignoring…
I remind myself that I am fascinating upon details that I simply have to ignore and work my way towards the first friendly match that is scheduled: away at Aylesbury. John O’Shea may be a Premier League star, I humour myself, but can he do it on a wet Wednesday in Aylesbury? Any enjoyment to be had from this weak attempt at comedy on my part is dismissed on the realisation that the game is on Saturday. But my mood is immediately lifted by my assistant manager, Matt, who informs me that, across the board (with the exception of John O’Shea 1 who is working on his agility 24/7 in a bid to make him a better goalkeeper) my team are unlocking their inner non-central-defensive potentials. Well. That’s not exactly true. His precise phrase is ‘could improve over time’. But that’s enough for me. Especially given that the majority of my time with Matt so far has been more akin to Waiting for Godot than waiting for Aylesbury away.
As the week wears on, the game continues to glitch. At times, I wonder if it too is in on the joke. In the course of the first week, even Matt seems to be attempting to troll me. One day he drops me a memo suggesting that I might want to look into buying Emile Heskey given the fact ‘We could do with a greater depth in attack’. The lack of emoji makes me suspicious. And then I remember his gormless face endless repeating the same answer to me at the training ground and I remind myself that he is not a man who is troubled by duality of meaning.
The dream of John O’Shea has become a reality. But at the present time it seems more nightmarish than anything else. And here we are caught in the midst of it—endlessly waiting for Aylesbury.