Five life lessons gained from 10 years spent playing Football Manager

Originally featured on TheFiveGuide

Hello my name is Adam and I am a self-confessed football fanatic. If I am not sat over-analysing a last-ditch tackle, an unfathomable piece of skill or a slightly suspect refereeing decision either on social media or by barking out my apparent wisdom at the television screen in my 12 year-old squeaky voice to the delight of everybody around me, you can probably find me looking for sports sections in newspapers which more often than not do not even cover sports, obsessing over the most blurriest of online kit releases ahead of an upcoming season or just sat wondering, daydreaming about just what the Premier League would actually be like if every transfer rumour was fact and not as it often is, fiction.

From the Premier League to the Ryman League, KDB to MLS, week by week I try to take in as much of the sport as I can. For the many articles, video-clips and podcasts I so often plan on reading, watching and listening to but later don’t because I quickly find myself already fixated on some other aspect of the game, I apologise. As pundit Tim ‘Legendinho’ Vickery has said so eloquently in the past, out of all the unimportant things in life football is perhaps the most important and fulfilling my football fix is made somewhat more justifiable with this in mind.

Yet thanks to modern technology never has been keeping up with players, divisions and individual competitions at home or further afield or just simply fulfilling your footballing interests, been so easy to do. For the players brave enough to take a leap into the unknown and apply their trade abroad, their progress can be tracked day by day, bridging the divide once made my distance and bringing fans and players both closer together and also closer to home. If your team are playing and you are unable to either get to the ground or television set to watch them in action, there are modern-day tweets and live in-game text commentaries which continue to work both uniquely and productively alongside more traditional means of radio commentary and television score updates. Likewise whether it be enhancing your knowledge on the wider world of football or just simply putting to bed a drunken football conversation with your friends about the most obscure aspect of the sport, never has it ever been easier to connect with all corners of the world made accessible through the internet, thus making the beautiful game that bit more beautiful.

Whilst it is true that I have in this case perhaps overemphasised my fixation with football for the purpose of this article, one thing that I cannot deny is that as a football fan I have always loved every single aspect of the game. As each transfer windows passes by and the next big thing is noticeably younger and younger whilst I am becoming older and older, it becomes that bit more apparent that any of my far-fetched aspirations of playing football well and truly disappeared alongside that of the flip-phone, portable CD players and the VHS. Nowadays I continue to find myself wasting, sorry spending and proudly enjoying my time playing football in a much different, yet also very similar manner to a decade ago – through video games, most specifically Football Manager.

Although I do believe that the minute elements off the pitch such as the analysis, the sponsors and even footballing video-games such as FIFA and Football Manager become more important than the competing players and subsequent results on the pitch, is ultimately is the day in which football loses its overriding attraction as a sport, I like many a football fan across the world, often find myself attracted to the furore, the drama and the razzmatazz to which the sport continues to produce. In the same way in which the torrent of transfer rumours soon produces deadline day drama, a quick commute to work quickly transforms a boring, repetitive train journey into as much of a real-life football managerial situation as my life will ever encounter.

Despite being labelled previously under a different name, the concept remains the same and the basics of Football Manager in its raw and original form are very much the same game which quickly superseded the likes of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer for me personally throughout my teenage years. From the early days of going round to a friend’s house and playing the now cult-classic Championship Manager 01/02 on his family computer, to eventually being lucky enough to get my own Championship Manager game one Christmas Day to play firstly and exclusively at home on the computer before becoming available for PSP and later as an application for mobile and portable tablet devices, to even playing in real-time on the internet against friends on websites such as Soccer Manager since 14 years old and unashamedly right now until the present day, a bit like the title of Iain Macintosh’s book you do begin to see how manager games start to steal your life – not that my Champions League winning Dover Athletic are complaining of course.

My latest and most recent Football Manager encounters have seen me swap three train stations I visit on my morning commute to three different countries through the mobile version of the game in an attempt to try and win every domestic trophy available. Just like entering a time-machine, with the press of a few buttons life in 2016 can soon transport you into the future; in my individual case a decade later. At present I find myself in November 2026; a little bit shocked at how much time I have spent playing Football Manager, a little bit annoyed it has took this long for my Torino side to reach their potential, but mainly more surprised, shocked yet somewhat satisfied at the state of World Football in 2026.

Here are five things that I have learned about the world of football during an in-game decade of playing of Football Manager:

1) The need for a good backbone

Eleven men or women (twelve if you include the fans) committed to a certain style of play, giving their all for the club and working together as a team and not just a group of talented individuals is often cited as the winning formula for any football club – in real life or in the virtual world. Yet more and more whilst this has proven regularly to be true, the nucleus if you like to being a successful club is firmly in its spine. Although we grow up to believe the lyrics that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, the hip bone’s connected to the back bone and the back bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, in this case it seems the backbone of a team is connected to a successful Football Manager team in such a unique way that even a song as good as that would struggle to even depict.

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Through forming a backbone that runs centrally through any starting XI, Football Manager has proved to be no different in its need for a good spine. I mean in many ways, just think of it like you are trying to assemble the best five-a-side team possible – who would you choose? Throughout the 10 in-game years spent playing Football Manager, whilst both wide defenders and midfielders can often play an important part in games and at times when you least expect it, from my own experience at least I have found that the most successful sides (even including my own in England, Italy and Spain) seemingly prioritise a top quality Goalkeeper, two Centre Backs, a Central/Attacking Midfielder and Forward with weaker players of a lower star rating filling in the wider positions. I mean you ask any Aston Villa season ticket holder between the 2016-19 Football Manager seasons – it certainly worked!

2) Learn to expect the unexpected!

Now perhaps the part I enjoy most of all the differences between football in the present day and that of 2026 are the game’s twists and turns and the predictions that it makes! Ranging from the ex-players that you could have never imagined as top-flight managers to the clubs that have either managed to remarkably turn their fortunes around or conversely free fall from grace, if there’s a ever a more potent reminder as a football fan that you should learn to expect the unexpected it can most certainly be seen through this game.

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As of November 2026 the best manager in the world is England manager Chris Powell, Crystal Palace have just been promoted from League 1 and you can find Rio Ferdinand, Shaun Derry and John Terry battling it in the Premier League as managers. Oh and did I mention, England are the current Euro’s and World Cup holders, ranked first in the world ahead of second placed Croatia and third placed Holland.

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Admittedly even my own in-game achievements would also seem somewhat extraordinary in terms of a real-life, modern-day footballing context. After leading Aston Villa from mid-table mediocrity to an eventual league title win (and much deserved one at that as I sit here writing this through claret and blue tinted glasses) after four gruelling yet rewarding seasons, a Champions League win later and Aston Villa have well and truly become a mainstay in European Football, returning the club back to their dizzy heights of the 70s/80s.

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At this current type of writing, a Torino side previously languishing in 17th position a mere two seasons ago are now sitting pretty at the top of Serie A under my management. With just under half of the season played and heading into January transfer window, it may be now time to put to bed the infamous Winter Break debate and see once and for all whether it does indeed makes a difference. The proof will be in the pudding and whether Torino can last the distance to be crowned 2026/27 Serie A league winners – talk about a cliffhanger, eh?

3) Trust more and more in your scouts – especially in South America

I quickly learned the hard way that relying on any current footballing knowledge can have its consequences in the long-term. Although I did quite like to think of myself as an ITK and that I knew or at least had a good idea of which players to sign in each position after taking over Aston Villa in 2016, like all good things this only lasted so long. On a fairly shoestring budget and with limited resources available, I initially managed to steady the ship purchasing only players that would improve the team, making sure to spend within the clubs means. As time went by and as the club bean to develop on all fronts, I continued to spend both sufficiently yet reasonably in proportion to the clubs size before eventually leading Villa to success on all fronts after 4/5 seasons played.

Yet fast forward this number of years later to the 2021/22 season and this approach, relying solely on players merely recognisable by name, has had far less (if any) real success.

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This is where my attention quickly turned to the scouting – trusting in them to find the next best player (often a re-gen) in my attempts to spark a title challenge in Spain. And it worked! Firstly with Valencia before finishing the job off with an out of sorts, uncharacteristic FC Barcelona side, helped largely by scouring each corner of the world and consequently purchasing players that were criminally undervalued given their statistics. With this approach I quickly managed to completely redevelop two aging teams into future title contenders and eventual league winners with Barcelona. Therefore scouting quickly proven its worth and this should help highlight its importance as time goes by, functioning as a successful method to earn money as well as limiting player’s wages.

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From my own playing experience, Latin America regularly produces the best young players who after signing can soon double in value as well as rating. Youngsters from the likes of Argentina and Brazil have proved to be the best in my individual game but if you are unsure, let your scouts do the hard-work whilst you sit back and you can be sure to watch both the good results and the profits soon roll in.

4) The struggle of the smaller club is real (and always will be)

Press Football Manager, click Start Game and then do one of the following: 1) Take over *insert big club with vast financial resources here* and subsequently win every trophy possible or 2) embark on your very own fairytale Football Manager story by transforming a small team into eventual world beaters.

Optimistically, I opted for the latter.

Start by mixing a dollop of shrewd transfer business with a bowl full of astute tactical decisions, season the mixture with the continued backing of the board before adding a pinch of luck and you are often on to a winning recipe. This was the case for my Aston Villa and seems to be doing the trick at present with my title challenging Torino. Yet the transformation of a mid-table top flight team into realistic title competitors is always a difficult and an undoubtedly very time-consuming task. No matter how good managers’ tactics or transfer purchases are, smaller clubs will always face an uphill battle. You could purchase three fantastic players for relatively low transfer fees and small wage packets and be amazed at how well you are doing, but keeping said players happy with the terms of their existing deal is another thing, as is fending off interest when bigger clubs come knocking.

At Torino, one of my greatest problems has been acquiring better players in the first place with it often taking a ‘Big Club Release Clause to prise them away originally. Whilst this appears to have worked in the short term, in this case helping Torino in their quest success and development, you can bet your very last pound after adjusting your budgets for the 10,000th time that they will soon be quickly snapped up by a bigger club after a quarter, maybe even half of a good season, leaving clubs like poor Torino powerless to keeping their star players and continuing to challenge beyond their means.

Should we take this as a realistic outlook of modern football? Possibly – but given Leicester City’s exploits last season it should be clearer than ever that anything is possible!

5) Move with the times or fear being left behind

As Pep Guardiola looks to implement his footballing ideology at Manchester City, you can see Jurgen Klopp’s high intensity and pressing football gradually being embedded into Liverpool’s style of play game by game. And for every dossier by Louis Van Gaal, there are numerous tactical innovations that are in force across the Premier League. From Chelsea’s choice of using three at the back to Tottenham Hotspur and Everton who seemingly favour a lone striker whilst the likes of Watford and Sunderland opt for a more traditional two attackers, each formation and tactics ultimately suit a different purpose, a different style of play and ultimately, a different club especially during the current Premier League campaign.

In the past decade, one cannot deny that tactics have become increasingly important in the sport and it is through this rich diversity of differing formations and footballing philosophies which makes the game so very interesting to watch. Although there are no perfect answers to the million dollar question of which tactics are the most reliable or indeed the most successful on any given occasion, one thing that I do think is that both versions of the sport, you either embrace change or fear being left behind.

Throughout the 10 seasons that I have played, I quickly realised to pay particular attention to my clubs own players and adapt my own tactics wisely, especially when things were going badly! You may win the league two years in a row with a certain formation and a set ‘unbeatable’ tactics yet you soon realise that neither are fool-proof and at some point, the cracks always begin to show. For this reason, I would always recommend admiring from a far/maybe even copying the more successful tactics and slowly introduce them into your team – rather than persevering with a certain formation or set of team instructions which prove largely unsuccessful.

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It is also very easy to back-paddle and to be left behind in other ways too, in my case particularly in the length of time it has taken to transform Torino into genuine title contenders From a world-class manager ranked second in the game after winning the Champions League with Aston Villa to a decade later as nothing more than a continental manager at best well and truly down the pecking order in the all-time hall of fame. Whilst I might not lose any sleep over it, always remember there is no time like this present, especially in Football Manager.

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