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Tuesday 14th April 2009

Fittingly perhaps, given that I am writing a book about my unshakable immaturity, instead of working yesterday evening as planned I stayed up playing a version of the genius Kevin Toms', Football Manager that I had discovered that was playable online (if you want to waste some of your precious life you can play it here. I was playing on my PC and can't find the link, but if you are cleverer than me you can download it from, for example, here.
This was my favourite computer game when I was a teenager, although I played it on the Acorn Electron computer, which I think was a slightly different version (I seem to remember the goals would come up as text, rather than the exciting stick man goal mouth scrambles that this version displayed). I remember buying it from Middlesbrough shopping centre, when I must have been about 15, (which makes sense as it came out in 1982) because I recall my mum was terrified that I would play it all the time and not do any revision for my upcoming O levels. I can still see her concerned face, just as I can still see the bearded face of Kevin Toms which stared out at me from the cassette box in which the game was enclosed.
Video games really were in their infancy back then and younger readers probably would not believe how long it took to load in the simplest of programmes - especially if you tried to copy them manually out of a book. But older readers will be familiar with the electronic fax-like sound like screeching (even more) out of tune, electro-bagpipes.
I played for hours on end (yet still did well in my O levels despite my mum's concerns), though the Acorn Electron finally gave up the ghost and died when Phil Fry was playing a game of Defender (which meant I could blame him for the breakage, even though it wasn't his fault at all).
The game was, as I discovered on playing again last night and then for too much of today, astonishingly simple. You tried to guide your club up from the 4th Division and to win the FA Cup, but merely had a squad of up to 16 players with skill level (that would randomly change between seasons) and energy levels and either defence, midfield or attack position. At the end of each game you got an opportunity to buy one extra player of the computer's choice and could sell your own if necessary. There was a very slight financial aspect where you had to balance the books and could, if required take out a loan. But that was it.
How it engrossed me so completely as a child is a bit of a mystery, but not quite as much of a mystery as how it managed to engross me completely yesterday and today. At least in 1982 this was a sophisticated and amazing programme and I was 15. But now in 2009, I am not only practically 42, but there are hundreds of much more complex and amazing football manager games available. I have often bought them and tried to play them, but have become annoyed by their intricacy and subtlety and by the amount of stuff you're supposed to do and the difficulty of actually winning anything.
With this original and groundbreaking game (that led the way to these flashy offspring) you merely have to balance skill versus fitness, resting a good player during an easier game and putting out your top squad for the bigger games, making sure you note your opponents strengths and weaknesses. My only advice to the would be player is to buy a player with skill of 1 right at the end of a season, as chances are they will randomly become a much better player the next season and you will have got them for a snip. Conversely don't buy a star player at the end of a season because chances are they will be shit within minutes. That is a slightly frustrating aspect of the game, if like me, you play for six seasons. You're building up a squad and then have to pretty much start again every new year. Kevin Toms is an idiot. Yes it's fun to be churlish and critical about a game that has brought me literally days of pleasure and which I have pined for for years (I have tried to download emulators and programmes in the past, but have never been able to make them work).
And it's amazing how much hypnotic pleasure this gave me, as on the second easiest level, in which I am guessing it would be almost impossible to lose, I led lowly York City to win the FA Cup in their first season (though I didn't manage promotion), then in successive seasons, in a grimly ironic parody of their real life progress (far from magically they look odds on to be relegated from the non-league division they are currently in) I then took them to the third, then the second (was knocked out of the FA Cup early in both these seasons), then to the first (where I won the Cup and the league title). I got a strange visceral thrill as York City beat Chelsea 3-0, something which I imagine will never happen in real life, even if the league continues for another million years.
I had planned to stop playing once I'd achieved this easy feat, but I decided just to see how the first few games of the next season went. And inevitably I ended up playing for the next two hours as I finished off the fixtures, again finishing top, but annoyingly losing 2-1 in the FA Cup final to an Arsenal team that on paper I was beating in every discipline.
Tempted to make up for this slight, I considered having one more go at it, but something sensible within me, a part of me that wants to actually get my book written, took the clever step of just closing down the webpage without saving my progress. My imaginary achievements, disappeared in a storm of electric dust (my understanding of how a computer works is perhaps not entirely accurate).
Of course it was all about the nostalgia, spending a total of maybe seven or eight hours stuck in front of a flickering and slow computer game, reliving the excitement of mainly winning and occasionally losing. It's still a brilliant game, but it was mainly about spending some time wrapped in the comfort of remembrance of things past.
Though I had managed to tear myself away by about 2pm, I spent the rest of the day with one of those computer game headaches that I haven't had for a while, that come from staying up too late and staring too intensely at the screen.
I could get nothing of my book on immaturity written, but you know, I suspect that what you've just read might well turn up in the finished work in some form or other.
It's a good life where failing to write is actually research for what you're writing. I have a ludicrous and tragic and wonderful life.

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