Football: small boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts, rush goalie, little Tommy sulking when he isn't picked for the 'good' team, somebody being a little too eager in the tackle and making Johnny cry and take his ball home. As a kid, many of us want to be footballers. Once we hit the real world, though, and realise we're never going to cut it, only then do we dream of becoming managers. Ok, maybe we don't dream, but it's true. Well, armchair managers at least. But it's funny that in all those games played in the park, did you ever recall seeing a kid on the sidelines barking orders?
Pointless intro aside, Football Manager 2006 is the second incarnation of the FM franchise from Sports Interactive (SI) in partnership with Sega. If you've lived under a rock for the last year or so then read our interview with Miles Jacobson or preview for a bit of background. Otherwise, I'll assume that you're familiar with the franchise (and the concept of a football management game, natch), and we can focus on the game at hand. Like a successful football team, a game needs a solid foundation to work from, with enough creativity to win games. With that in mind I shall present this review to you in a form that makes sense in the context of the game. So here we go...
Team Name: Football Manager 2006
Manager: Adam Jarvis
Bio: Having spent countless hours playing each title in the series since Championship Manager 97/98, Jarvis feels that he has a wealth of experience in the genre, with management heritage going back to Football Manager on the Spectrum (plus innumerable D&H games - anybody remember them?) and has seen plenty of change in his time. Prefers playing a 4-4-2 (or variations thereof) which allows for the creative streak in his sides to flourish. Adaptable to change, but he wonders if the team he has inherited has enough to mount a defence of their title this season, following the runaway success of last season - FM2005 won everything in sight. Looking forward to the challenge ahead.
A formation that allows a team to build on a solid foundation of a strong defence, sturdy - but flamboyant - midfield, and the finishing touch coming from strikers that have seen it all. The team breaks down as follows:
Goalkeeper: Every team needs a solid 'keeper. As is the nature of the position, though, they are best remembered for their mistakes. In this area there maybe is a potential fumble in the making. Even on a well-equipped system, the processing of background tasks labours a little, and there is some lag in the menus, requiring a second click before you get a response. Navigation through the various screens can sometimes grind, too - could we have a one-click option to get to the team and transfer screens (I know you can click on the team name at the top of the screen, but still)?
Also, whilst the media and player interaction has been expanded, it still doesn't always give you enough, especially when dealing with stroppy players. Furthermore, some of the possible responses you can give to other managers' comments are presented as positive, but on reading the news report it will say you react angrily, so it lacks a little finesse in this area. And I'd still like assistant managers to do more - such as organise new training schedules and provide better feedback on reserve players that need to make the step-up and so on. As I said, though, they are minor niggles. In the main the presentation isn't all that different from last year's effort, and there are no fundamental flaws with the title.
Defence: Every team needs a solid defence. Whilst it is true that goals win games, not conceding can't lose them. Whilst unspectacular, a 'brick wall' defence allows other areas to express themselves with confidence.
And so all the things you would expect to be in a Football Manager title are present and correct. You've got transfer wheeling-and-dealing, a tweaked 2D match engine that now shows benches at the side of the pitch, all the usual team choices, and it still provides very different experiences depending on who you choose to manage. Pick a big-name team and it's all about attempting to win things. Take a struggling lower-league team and it becomes a game of survival. Career managers will still love the way they can step-up the ladder until they hit the very top of the game, whilst fair-weather fans will love to spend money like there's no tomorrow at the Chelsea's of the world. Part of the beauty of the series has been that you can go as deep as you like to uncover the little gems in there, or play it purely on a superficial level, never getting into tinkering with player instructions, or training, or hunting out new, raw talent, and that is still the case with FM2006.
To be fair, SI could probably have stopped at this point and known that people would still buy it in their droves, just because nothing major went wrong, and because it has this year's stats. And given the way some companies are happy to release very incremental improvements as a full title, who could blame them - especially considering the dominance in the field they have - but they didn't. Not content to sit on their laurels, they wanted to enhance the feeling that you really are the manager of your chosen club. And they have.
Midfield: The midfield is the creative hub of a team, where the spark comes from. Sure, the strikers will score the goals and get the glory, but the midfield is where it all comes together. Both the engine-room and creator of wonderful things, the midfield is where you expect to see most of the silky-skills on display.
And the new skills on display help make the game better to play, as well as providing enough additional information to assist you in planning and analysing every game, right down to the last detail. One feature that has long been requested on the official SI forums has finally been introduced, for starters: manager contracts and stats that will rise and fall depending on your skills (although increases seem arbitrary for some of them - my loyalty was down to 1, for some reason). Whilst both would seem to be fairly superficial on the surface (the stats as far as I am aware are more for show at this stage), the manager contracts have a very interesting function attached. That is, you can use contract negotiations to push for increases to your stadium capacity, or improve the training facilities, or more transfer funds. You are offered a range of transfer budgets, ranging from an improvement in the overall wage ceiling with less cash to buy players, or vice-versa, or a happy compromise. You can still request these things outside of contract negotiations, but it's nice to include them here, where you have more clout. Obviously, the more successful you have been at the club will play a huge factor in whether you get what you want or not, but it's a wonderful touch that really brings you into the game-world.
Other such additions include even more media interaction (you can now issue more general comments about teams or managers, instead of having comments being context-sensitive to your next opponents), height and weight of players (which adds even more tactical considerations - you don't want a 10-stone weakling as your hard-man midfielder, for instance), a new tutorial mode for those finding it all a little too much, and many others. Possibly the biggest change, though - and you'll know if you read our preview - is to do with training. Past iterations of the game have seen the importance - and tweak-ability - of training increase massively. Where once you would simply move a player to a schedule called Defence or Attacker, it progressed to the point where you were able to organise every day's training to an alarming degree. Even Miles Jacobson (who came up with it) never used it. That should tell you something, right?
So, with FM2006 it has been completely re-written from the ground up. Now everything is controlled by sliding bars, with it all being kept in check by the intensity of the overall schedule. It may sound strange, but it's brilliant in practice. I confess that I hated the training in FM2005. It was far too convoluted, and yet to get the best from players you did need to put some effort into sorting it out, so I can safely say that the implementation this year is the best yet, requiring little effort to set-up effective training regimes.
Attack:Every team needs goal-scorers. Whether you go for a blend of youth and experience, short and tall or pacey and intelligent, you need quality. And FM2006 provides it in spades.
From the new injury mode that lets you decide whether to give an injection to treat certain injuries, new stat screens, the ability to give half-time and full-time team talks, to an increased number of leagues you can manage in, there is enough new content to dispel cries of 'It's too similar to last year!'. Of course, one day we will get to the point where we do say that, but that day is not today.
You have to hand it to SI. In every other genre there are a few 'must-have' titles, with no singular game that would cover every base. In the world of football management, you really do only need FM. Nothing else comes anywhere near to it in terms of depth, scope or intensity. Forget 3D match engines that bear little relation to your tactics, or the ability to build stadiums and fix hotdog prices. No, concentrate on what's important - feeling like a manager. And FM2006 does that. It's the most accomplished football management sim ever, without doubt. It's a game where you feel almost as bad when you lose on screen as it does when your team loses in the real world, and that is some accomplishment. It's a game where the line between success and failure is so fine it's blurred, and the payback is only in your head - you'll get no fancy FMV congratulatory screen here. It's a game where you define your own goals, and have to work hard to achieve them. To put it simply, it has the elusive X-factor. And so it should be left to the manager to give us his informed opinion on the way his team is prepared for the long season ahead:
"I've looked at my squad, and those of the opposition, and can safely say that we are going to walk it this year. Again."
Seems about right to me.