The Higher Tempo Press @ BetBright FM17 Cup, Glasgow

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For a game that has been in existence (through one name or another) for 25 years, there aren’t many things the Football Manager series hasn’t seen. However, nobody has ever taken that brave, extra step. Something nobody has dared to do. Yes, the BetBright FM17 Cup has brought FM players together in actual human contact. And it’s bloody brilliant.

The concept of the BetBright FM17 cup is simple – Four regional heats each with 16 competitors, the winner of each taking £1000 home and, more importantly, a ticket to the grand final where the four winners will go head to head for a £5000 prize. Not bad for a video game, is it? To qualify for these regional events, The FM17 Project (instigated by Iain Macintosh of The Set Pieces) set the world three challenges, with the most imaginative entries being invited to make up the 64 qualifiers.

I was fortunate enough to qualify for the Glasgow event, which took place on Wednesday night. This posed a few problems. Firstly, those of you who regularly read my work will know I ‘specialise’ in retro Championship Manager. I am, at best, a casual player of FM17 but you have to be in it to win it and all that, but more importantly I really wanted to be involved in what I consider to be a ground breaking event for a series that has given me so much. Whether this was CM2 or FM17, the notion of this competition was good for the game, in my opinion.

My second problem was that I had to travel from Newcastle to Glasgow, which isn’t a challenge in itself thanks to a direct train service, but it did cross my mind on more than one occasion that I faced the prospect of the travelling, the cost of accommodation and the general awkwardness of playing FM with strangers all for a first round exit. I needn’t have worried. Even if I had crashed out in round one, it would still have been worth every penny.

The event was held at The Ballroom which, from the outside, is a pretty rough looking Pool & Snooker club, but inside it’s a well facilitated establishment, with good quality tables and big screens galore. The FM event was tucked away behind a curtain in a little side room, which many would argue is the best place for us. Fortunately there were several others already at the venue when I arrived, and I soon got talking to a few about all things football whilst the team carried out the final preparations.

Once the curtain was opened it was time to sign in, a process carried out by the legend that is Alex Stewart. If you haven’t read Alex’s work, stop reading this and go and do that now. Then come back (please come back). I can’t speak for everybody but I would guess he has inspired many people to have a go at blogging their saves or bringing a tactical idea to the table, or if not I’m sure you will have at least enjoyed his work. Having had the chance to work very briefly with Alex in recent months on The Men Who Stare at Goals, it was great to put a face to the name – or whatever the modern equivalent is for that saying now that everybody has already seen everyone thanks to social media. This was also the first chance I had to see my assigned squad, a randomly drafted side filled with talent. No real superstars, but maybe that suited me?

It was at this point that CM Legend Mark Kerr arrived. If you don’t know Mark Kerr, I’d guess you’ve never played CM01/02. Kerr would run your midfield for all of £500k, and indeed if you want to see how good he can be you need look no further than my own Scotland save, where Kerr starred in our run to the World Cup final. I had a fairly long conversation with Mark about all things football, mostly around Newcastle United and our Scottish contingent. I owe Mark a pint or 10 but he had training the next day so, ever the consummate professional, he declined my offer of a beverage.  Mark helped with the first round draw, which ran into some problems due to a couple of no-shows, but was soon re-drawn to get the event schedule in place.

The host for the evening was Mr Iain Macintosh. Again, if you aren’t aware of Iain’s work, head over to The Set Pieces or his current work on the FM17 Project and you’ll love it. But do remember to come back. Iain started the evening with a rousing speech about why we were all there, I won’t spoil it but it was excellently delivered. If I was to draw a man that encapsulated why we play FM, it would be Iain Macintosh. Dressed in a daring light grey (!) suit, Iain’s enthusiasm for dots on a screen knows no bounds, whether it be his stint commentating on the streamed match, during the live head to head with Alex (where Iain’s Arsenal rescued a 2-2 draw) or desperately stalling for time whilst some technical difficulties were overcome during the final. The world needs more people like Iain, well maybe not exactly like Iain but you get my point.

Onto the games then and I was cruelly pitted against one of the chaps I’d been speaking to pre-game. Due to my chronic lack of knowledge I’d decided to play it safe, shut up shop and play on the counter. Fortunately the draw for players had served me well on that front – Cuadrado and Schurrle had the pace on the wings and Benzema was a perfect fit for my lone striker role. With Busquets in there to break things up and Moutinho and Nainggolan in the engine room, it seemed like a good idea. I should point out that everyone had a strong team, just some were stronger than others…

Whilst the other manager sets up their team, you have to exit the technical area so as not to gain an advantage in going second. There are adjudicators on hand (fourth officials, if you will) and it’s a very slickly ran operation. I have to say everybody was impeccable in terms of respect to the opponent and the staff, there were no Mark Hughes or Mourinho type antics and thankfully, nobody flipped a table. My tactic of countering on the flanks worked a treat, with Cuadrado assisting Benzema with two identical goals at the start of each half in a 2-0 win. I was, undoubtedly, helped by Claudio Bravo being my opponents keeper. He probably should have saved both goals, but that’s Bravo.

My Quarter-final opponent had won his first round game 7-0, so it was with a huge amount of trepidation that I prepared my team for our clash. I tried to rack my brains to remember what I’d done in match one, but in truth I could have done the polar opposite and still lost. I faced a team playing a strikerless formation, three ball winning midfielders and complete wingbacks. As my side commenced their short passing, his ball winners bit their heads off and gave the ball to the constantly overlapping full backs. Three very similar goals later and I was out, but I have no idea if I could have stopped it. I guess I could have gone more direct to cut out the three ball winners, but who knows?

My conqueror actually went on to play in the final, against a wildcard entry who had arrived on the night to spectate but was drafted in due to illness. More on that in a moment. As I watched on the big screen as the chap who beat me not only set up his basic tactics in the 5 minutes allowed, he also had time to put together a set piece routine, set individual player instructions (which I’m still not 100% sure how to change even now) and assign throw in takers. They say preparation is everything and I was sorely lacking.

In a remarkable turn of events though, the Wildcard entry turned around a 1-0 deficit in the final 15 minutes with two quick fire goals from substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A more direct tactic was used in the second half and, against a high defensive line, eventually the goals came. There was still time for Gabriel Jesus to miss a one on one in the last minute, which would have forced extra time, but it meant the Wildcard entry took home the prize. The kicker? He was only visiting and can’t actually make the final in a few weeks, but two other gents who had been helping out will replace him. I believe the £1000 prize was actually split three ways for their help, which you have to say is a nice touch.

There were some grumblings about how someone who hadn’t entered the qualification process had won through and that it was a little unfair, but sport is full of such quirks and if anything it added to the narrative of the evening. It certainly gave Iain the chance to use a Cinderella analogy or two and for that I have only respect.

As somebody pointed out during the evening, it was a room full of people where if you told a joke everyone would laugh. Yes they were perhaps the types of joke that only the people in the room would appreciate, but that’s the beauty of it. This event brought like-minded people together under one roof to have a laugh and play some Football Manager. It was also a learning experience, seeing how others play the game and it’s certainly given me an idea of two to try and improve my FM17 fortunes. The streamed semi-final finished 5-4 and Tevez missed a late chance to level it up from 5-2 down but the tactical nous shown from both sides under the pressure of being watched by 40,000 people on Facebook was incredible.

There have been two important movements in the FM Community in recent times, firstly the #wearethecommunity hashtag and then more recently FM Slack. This type of event could be the future. There’s a lot of planning that goes into these events to make it run smoothly, and if you want to see a man under pressure watch Matthew in the director’s seat. If you are heading to Manchester for the next event, you’ll have a wonderful time. If you are free for the final in London, get yourself along and see how people cope playing a video game for £5k. Or just marvel at Iain’s suit. Those are your choices.

I have purposefully left out the names of the various people I met on Wednesday, purely because I only know half of them by their Twitter names and some I didn’t get to meet altogether, so decided to play it safe and not risk missing anybody out. But what a great bunch of lads [/Chris Hughton]. You can still watch the final back on Facebook, but you’ll never know the joy of the “No Phil Jones, no Party” shenanigans that took place off camera.

There’s only one way to end this piece and it’s with my mate from Falkirk, Mr. Mark Kerr. A total gent and he even let me take a picture for the mantel piece. Top man.