Jumpers for goalposts …

It’s 30 years since the original Football Manager and the grinning, bearded Kevin Toms graced thousands of computer screens across the country. Here’s a brief British history of the beautiful game in videogame form, from the stickmen and square balls of the early ‘80s, to Sports Interactive’s all-conquering Football Manager of today.

Back in the early 1980s football games weren’t up to much. Pele’s Championship Soccer was a memorable game, but really only played like a simulated game of table football, with all of your players moving as one synchronised group.

Judged by these standards, the original Football Manager on Sinclair’s 48K Spectrum was a simulation par excellence. The brainchild of Kevin Toms, it took the basic idea of a football management boardgame he had invented and married it with his skills as a programmer working on mainframe systems. Early prototypes of the game had gripped his friends so much that he struggled to keep them off his keyboard. Grown men pulled on their sheepskin jackets, willing on their team of rudimentary stickmen through Toms’ inspired “highlights” feature. Football Manager sold a reputed 400,000 copies, but didn’t spawn a sequel until six years later. The World Cup edition in 1990 was Toms’ last involvement in the series.

In 1986, a challenge to the title came from D&H Games’ Football Director, which like Football Manager was only available through mail order at first. It was a no-frills sim that cut out unnecessary graphics and attempts at arcade action. Offering more stats than OPTA, it introduced morale, share dealing and the opportunity for Grimsby Town to have a European cup run.

The Double by Scanatron, released in 1987, was one of the first games to include a database of real players. Another first was that players had no ability ratings – unlike in other sims, you had to judge your players’ abilities over time, though you could employ scouts who gave you handy reports to assess individual talents.

A sorely underrated title was Tracksuit Manager. It pioneered textual match commentary and saw you take charge of an international team aiming to qualify for and then play in the European Championships and World Cup.

Britain delivered the first defining action football game: Match Day by Jon Ritman. It featured a pseudo-3D perspective pitch, fictional teams, the option to play a game in real-time – and a rendition of the Match of the Day theme, in the days when games could get away with not acquiring a licence. The sequel arrived in 1987, introducing a new powermeter for kicking the ball, backheels and the ‘revolutionary’ diamond deflection system – allowing the ball to ricochet realistically.

Perhaps the finest football game of the 8-bit era was Microprose Soccer, the maiden game from a company called Sensible Software. Released in 1988, it was viewed from overhead, and introduced aftertouch, weather, action replays and the infamous banana shot. Jon Hare and his team then took the amazing match play of its Microprose title and released Sensible Soccer for the Amiga in 1992, wrapping it up in perhaps the most accomplished football title of them all in Sensible World of Soccer in 1994.

With Kick Off in 1989, Dino Dini gave us more overhead, fast, flowing football, and one of the first games where the ball didn’t stick to the players’ feet. Kick Off 2 delivered much improved AI and graphics. Dino went on to release his own title Goal! in 1993, but after that he upped sticks and went to work in the USA.

During the 16-bit era, management games stagnated, barely evolving from their 8-bit predecessors. This upset Oliver and Paul Collyer, two brothers who were so disappointed with lacklustre management games and their lack of depth, they set to work on a game of their own. Championship Manager, developed by Collyer’s own Sports Interactive label, featured immaculate attention to detail and broke new ground – but was painfully slow to play. Only with Championship Manager ‘93 did Domark deliver the title to play the competition off the park. Adding a real life player database and other features, it established the franchise, and set the pattern for season-on-season updates and improvements that continues to this day.

In 2004 the Collyers left their publisher, taking their code with them but leaving the name Championship Manager behind. When looking for a name for their new game, there was only one that would fit the bill. Sports Interactive purchased the rights to the famous Football Manager name and released Football Manager 2005. Every year since, it’s been a top-of-the-table scrap between Championship Manager and Football Manager, each game armed with the latest features and available on consoles, handhelds, mobiles and tablets.

Today, Football Manager 2012 is an exhaustive reproduction of the business of being a modern-day football manager, taking in everything from training and tactics to dealing with the media. Its lavish 3D match engine is a world away from the original’s primitive pixels, and its sheer depth has made it as much of an obsession for football fans as the real-life sport. So much so that, according to its publishers, Football Manager has been cited in 35 UK divorce cases!

Originally published as part of the Games Britannia festival in 2012.

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