The Covid-19 pandemic has been a struggle for everybody. It’s been a nightmarish concoction of anxiety, depression, and panic for a lot of people, myself included. We couldn’t even go outside for more than an hour at a time in the beginning. To make things worse, everything that brought joy to our lives came to a sudden stop. For me, this meant football (or soccer, for anyone of the American persuasion) came to an abrupt end. It was depressing. Thankfully, Football Manager 2019 and then 2020 came to me, like shining beacons through thick fog. Football Manager helped me to get through the pandemic and find some joy again.
While other people were busy setting up island paradises on Animal Crossing: New Horizons and/or ripping and tearing through Doom Eternal, I was managing the virtual version of my local team, Bath City FC. Football Manager might not be your first choice of a game to relax with or cathart to, with constant pressure on your performance and getting the most out of your team, but for me, I needed something to keep my mind off the world around me and take me back into the world of attending live football matches once more. It wasn’t a direct replacement for the real thing, but it was the closest I could get to the sport I love in a time when even having a kickabout with some friends wasn’t allowed. Football Manager, too, was a proper time sink that I had to think about. This is why, for a couple of months, at least, aside from my day job writing online, Football Manager was one of the only things bringing me any kind of sanity and normalcy.
While games such as Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing: New Horizons offer up a similar time-sink and some level of interaction/reward, Football Manager lets you take care of the football team you love and nurture them into world beaters. For me, it was about diving into the sport I love again in the time I needed it most. It helps that it's tremendously deep, too. You are in control of club finances, player signings, staff additions, and more, let alone taking charge of the team on match days.
Football Manager is a deep, engrossing, and terribly rewarding experience. It lets you mold a team into something of your own image and watch as the trophies come in. There are lows—times where you’ll be cursing your team’s lack of goals, appetite to win, and failure to defend set-plays—but the good results and feeling when your team scores a goal more than make up for the bad times. This is because it is something you achieved. It is something that you made happen with tactical tweaks and understanding of strategy. Football Manager is fulfilling.
Through the end of March 2020 (the start of lockdown here in the U.K.) until around May 2020, Football Manager 2019 was practically all I played. Once I finished working, I would boot up Football Manager 2019 on Steam and play it until my eyes started to bleed. I clocked up over 260 hours of play in around two months, which is far above normal levels of game-playing for me. I was hooked. I didn’t give up until Bath City had won the Premier League, which, coincidentally, I managed to achieve around the time lockdown began to ease. By this point, 14 virtual seasons had been played through. I thank all the players, real and digital, for their help in that time.
To help push the pandemic to the back of my mind, choosing a team like Bath City worked on a couple of levels. Firstly, the appeal of a game like Football Manager is taking a team from the bottom of the sport and bringing them up to the top. For those unaware, Bath City find themselves down in the National League South, the sixth-tier of English football, operating at a semi-professional level (players on part-time contracts). Secondly, Bath City is my local team, and pre-pandemic, was a big part of my life. A normal Saturday afternoon saw me and at least one of my brothers heading down to the hallowed turf of Twerton Park to watch the game and be part of something. I’d spend time with friends and family and have a chance to get behind the team (boy, do they need it sometimes). Covid ended this, and it got to me.
Picking Bath City, I could be in charge of the club I love and support. This is something you simply cannot do in FIFA, as the National League isn’t represented. FIFA isn’t as in-depth as Football Manager, either. There is far more scope for drilling deep into the tactics in Football Manager. You can set up tactics however you like in FIFA, but victory ultimately comes down to how you play the match or what difficulty setting you have the game on. Football Manager allows you to control everything. It’s great fun to watch a substitute make the difference, or to change a player’s individual tactics on the fly to see them block an otherwise goal-bound shot. You’re in control. Seeing your team lift a trophy or win a match on Football Manager feels like a genuine success, more so than in any other sports game I’ve played.
Thanks to Football Manager I could not only watch Bath City matches again, I could actively be in charge of the club and bring them some long-needed glory and League football. Putting my fingers in all the pies and tinkering with formations, player contracts, training, positioning, and shouting from the sidelines felt good and distracted me from the real world just enough. In my time managing Bath City, I took them from the National League South in the 2018-19 Season, before winning the Premier League in the 2033-34 Season. If this happened in reality, the manager’s name and those of their players would be etched into the folklore of football for the rest of time. Leicester City winning the Premier League would be nothing compared to the achievement of a team like Bath City lifting that trophy.
Bringing Bath City out from the doldrums of non-league football into the world elite gave me an escape from the bitter reality of the first few months of the pandemic. The 14 digital seasons spent with the black-and-white army felt good and left me wanting more. When we went into lockdown again in November 2020, I decided to boot up Football Manager again, this time on the iPad. Again, I chose to manage Bath City, who were at last playing once more, but without fans in attendance coupled with looming league cancellation due to the costs of playing without supporters. The iPad version of the game is better for quick sessions and I enjoyed its portability, but you cannot get quite as deep into the tactics or day-to-day running of the club. I’m glad I played the full-fat PC version in the first lockdown.
Now, more recently, finally getting bored of Bath City, I decided to try my hand at managing New England Revolution in the MLS. It’s a completely different set of rules when it comes to transfers and league structure in the U.S. It’s tricky, but I’m learning to appreciate the strictness of player transfers and the excitement of the playoffs (even if sports leagues in the U.S. are in dire need of relegation/promotion). Being able to try out many different teams is part of the beauty of Football Manager. There are thousands of teams to take charge of, and over a hundred different leagues, each one with different rules on player transfers, squad sizes, and makeup, and more. It’s been fascinating to learn more about foreign leagues thanks to Football Manager. I think a Malaysian team might be next.
Across three spells in the game during these horrible last 12 months and counting, Football Manager has helped me cope when I have been at my lowest. Thanks to having some pressure to fulfill targets without real-world consequences, I could, would, and do spend hours at a time trying to get the most out of whatever team I’m in charge of. Sure, the game can become stressful when things aren’t going your way, but this only adds to the level of immersion and distraction from the ongoing pandemic. While it didn’t represent a 1:1 replacement for heading down to watch Bath City with friends and family, Football Manager has helped me learn to appreciate what I had and made me enjoy the game with a more tactical eye. When things return to normal, I’ll be heading back to Twerton Park and watching with even more interest in the game than I had before. Thanks, Sports Interactive, for making my time locked inside a lot more bearable.