Who'd be a manager? Well, a lot of people I would imagine. While sat at home watching your team on Sky Sports, you can't help but think you could do a better job. As everyone who supports an underachieving club knows, your team is better than the performances the lads put in, and in the right hands you'd be much further up the league. Don't even get me started on international management. Is there another job in the world that pays so well for what is effectively a long holiday? The peerless Football Manager series is now available for the Xbox 360, so football fans can live out their management dreams from the comfort of the sofa.
Let's get the fact that the game requires the Xbox 360 Hard Drive out of the way first. Yes, it's annoying for everyone who bought a Core pack, but Sega and Sports Interactive did the only sensible thing, giving the best possible chance of a faithful port from the PC version. We've had watered down console ports of management titles in the past, so it's good to see that a few extra potential sales were squashed in favour of quality. You'll get frequent pauses while the 360 processes all the stats and works out results, but it's never a problem, and nothing all that different to what you get in the PC game. In fact, unless you have a fast PC, these pauses will probably be a little shorter in the 360 version.
Ok, back to the game. It's brilliant. If you've been waiting for word on the game's quality, that's all you need to know. It's an awesome game that will consume more time than is actually available in each day. It must come with its own inverse time TARDIS, as every hour seems like a few minutes, and before long you've been sat in the same position for six hours, the names of every member in your youth squad are engraved in your mind, and player stats are etched onto your retinas. That TARDIS analogy doesn't quite work if you think about it, but you get the idea: It's incredibly easy to become a complete obsessive over every last detail and time slips away.
The Xbox 360 port is impressive, with just about every stat, function and setting available in the PC game being available here. You will have to fight with the in-game menu system from time to time, and some screens may be a little hidden, only to be discovered after you accidentally press a sequence of buttons when collapsing over the controller due to a particularly long gaming session. The important thing is that the things you want to do are there. It might take a good few hours to get used to the control system, but unless you want to sit in front of a PC for hours on end, it's worth the effort.
How brilliant Football Manager is can be best explained using my first season in the game. I chose to manage Spurs, obviously, which meant Martin Jol rather unfortunately got the boot, but from then on it was a nail biting season. In my dreams I'd take the club into Europe in my first season, and a Champions League place was an outside chance, but given the strength of the squad (and the fact that Jermaine Defoe is a goal scoring machine in the game), prospects were good. Not wanting to overwork my players I opted for a pretty standard training scheme, but set up more vigorous schedules for my up and coming youth team players, with schedules tailored to each playing position.
Pre-season attempts to add to the squad proved fruitless as my transfer budget was minimal and big name players saw no future in a club like Tottenham. Deals for Chelsea's Wayne Bridge and Barcelona's Leo Messi fell through after contracts couldn't be agreed with the players, forcing me to make do with the players I had. With Aaron Lennon on the right wing, instructed to make blistering runs to the byline, and a spine of King, Dawson, Carrick, Davids, Mido and Defo, quality was there for all to see. Carrick played the holding role, offering extra defensive cover, allowing my wing backs to make strides up the pitch and link up with the midfield. To say the game gives you options is an understatement.
The season panned out very well indeed, and although I had to discipline a number of players for shouting their mouths off to the press and for not turning up to training, the team lied in fourth spot with two games to go. We held the final Champions League place, but Manchester United were only a point behind. It couldn't have been tenser. Cue an injury for my trusty left-sided midfielder Andy Reid, which forced me into shuffling things around and playing the final two games without a true left-sided player going forward. The inevitable defeat followed, but Man United only managed a draw, pulling level on points, but still a place beneath me in the league due to goal difference. As long as they didn't win their final game by three goals more than I won mine, I'd take fourth spot.
The final fixtures couldn't have been worse. I had the in form Newcastle, who had managed to claw their way into sixth spot, while Manu faced the poorly performing Birmingham. I feared the worst. At half time of the final matches in the season I was a goal down and United held a goal lead over Birmingham. My Champions League dream was all but over. In a bold (or rash) move I took off Stalteri at left back and Davids in the middle, and went for two extra attacking midfielders. It was more than a gamble as I'd already subbed my goalie due to a first-half injury, meaning any further injuries would put me a man down. What happened next could well go down in Football Manager history.
Fists were clenched and arms were raised as Defoe netted his 30th goal of the season to bring us level. A quick check on other scores revealed that Manu still held a one goal lead, but at least there was hope. Moments after the restart Dawson pulled a hamstring in the centre of defence and had to leave the pitch. Disaster! With only two defenders on the pitch and no subs left I had to pull my midfield line back and hope my two men up front would get lucky and latch onto long balls. The final fifteen minutes were a nervy affair, but I managed to hold on for the draw. My fate now lied in the hands on Birmingham City Football Club.
Seconds later I'd leapt from my seat (not something that happens often). Birmingham had got an 88th minute equaliser and Spurs had held onto fourth spot. For three days I'd done little more than fiddle with statistics and shout insults at coloured blobs, but the sense of achievement rivalled anything I've managed in my sixteen-year gaming history. Being football, disappointment wasn't too far away though. After spending £14 million on Stuart Downing (£4 million than I wanted to pay) and signing Mido on a permanent deal during the following pre-season, I was drawn against Inter Milan in my Champions League qualifying match - not exactly a dream draw.
Three games later I had lost 2-0 to Inter Milan at their place and lost the first two games of the Premiership season. My season was already in tatters and one of my players commented to the press about his concerns: The highs and lows of being a football manager. You can't beat it though. Once you get into it, you can't let go, and you don't want to. Play it enough and you'll start to mix real life with the simulated one, and you'll wonder why your team's star players aren't starting in the game that's live on TV.
Add in entertaining Xbox Live leagues and Cups that let you play with any squad that you've got saved from a single-player game, plus fifty achievements to earn (earn being the key word), and you have a game that could be played for hours every day. Paying full price seems a little steep considering how much the PC game costs, but there's no denying that you'll get your money's worth.
If you love football and don't own a mid to high-end PC, the decision to buy Football Manager 2006 for the Xbox 360 should be a simple one. The fact that it's far more expensive than the PC version doesn't change the fact that it's the most addictive and long-lasting game available for the Xbox 360. Many of the best next-gen games released so far for the 360 have impressed with their stunning visuals, but there's nothing flashy about Football Manager 2006; It doesn't need to be when it's head and shoulders above all other football management games released on consoles to date.