Still on furlough then? Or having to work from home? Aww diddums. This spuriously designated key worker says fuck the lot of you. Have you finished Netflix and Amazon Prime yet? Gone down too many YouTube rabbit holes? Finished your backlog on Steam? Have you developed an online poker habit? Were you planning to use this second lockdown constructively but lack the discipline to follow it through? Or maybe you had that discipline, have cleaned out the shed, hoovered out the car, done a few bits and pieces of DIY, alphabetically ordered your vinyl records and cleaned your vintage coin collection, but have no mundane tasks left to fritter away any more hours. Are you a parent at their wits end having to home school and you have the insatiable urge to drop kick the little bastards in the eye socket? Has lockdown made you pine for office small-talk, but spicing it up for shits and giggles? To the point that you’re worried that your social skills and graces are now compromised? “I’m going to have my cat put down.” “Oh interesting. What day is the execution, can I come and watch?”
Clearly you need to find something else to take your mind off missing the things you might otherwise be doing given a full suite of choices. Enter Football Manager 2021. Given the current circumstances, the series may finally escape its niche status of appealing solely to sad bastards. Go on, join us in the geek squad. There’s even better news, you have no reason to feel guilty or insecure that you truly are one. No concerts or gigs on. The clubs and pubs are shut, and will be for some time yet. Bingo halls and bowling alleys too. It’s either this, social media (aren’t you bored of it yet?) or shitposting on 4Chan. You have excuses.
There have been some considerable improvements since the last iteration I played in 2015 and wrote about. The game is still, broadly speaking, excellent. But given current events there’s something missing this year, and that’s my main gripe with it.
While predicting a pandemic is impossible, l find it hard to excuse Sports Interactive selectively ignoring Covid-19, as FM 2021 was developed during much of the first lockdown. Little doubt this lamentation will rile the insufferably pious holier-than-thou mob who exasperatingly lack any appreciation for dark humour (I’m not an anti-vaxer dickhead advocating the virus’s spread, okay?), but I’m disappointed that there’s no pandemic simulation in the game, even as an option. The game seems oddly sanitised without it and bans for clubs and players for instances of crowd racism or racial abuse by players on the pitch, which happens far too often throughout Europe. Look, I understand why certain realistic flourishes are excluded. There are legal reasons for having no incidents of racism occur in the game, as the rights of real club names and players are used. It would leave the game open to accusations of hypocrisy, as it strongly sports the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign on its intro screens. I also recognise it’s ethically shaky to include a hyper-realistic feature that’s caused the deaths of two and half million people (to date) in your product as a selling point.
I’d accuse Sports Interactive of slightly betraying their core audience by failing to add such a topical feature. Most of the effects of the pandemic are already written into the game’s algorithm in some guise or other, and, if you choose to manage a British football club, particularly in the upper echelons, the effects of Brexit are encoded and felt. Not to mention the dreaded (and antagonising) VAR is included too.
How hard would it be to have the 2020-21 season behind closed doors? Players missing games to self-isolate (they already simulate players getting the flu), or fixtures being postponed due to outbreaks at clubs? Thankfully, if you choose, there are fan made mods out there which will create certain conditions and additional challenges to suit, or, if you’re a Remainer, will remove Brexit. If only it were that easy in real life, eh?
Which begs the eternal question that dogs the Football Manager series. Should it, which prides itself on detail and immersion, allow sanctimony to encroach on realism?
Clearly, that would be yes. Sports Interactive’s intent is driven by how most players play the game, and that it’s still a game. Even among the FM diehards very few will find perverse pleasure amid the exacerbation of trying to get a result when most of the key players in the squad have to self-isolate on the eve of a six pointer. Without Covid-19 added there are already enough built-in challenges and a multitude of possible career arcs to explore. And if you ever get bored messing around carries an appeal. Hate a particular football club – in my case I chose Millwall, because they’re Millwall – create a save called ‘The Locust’, make sure you purchase the editor, select the ‘make unsackable’ option, and, to quote Billy Butcher, be as fucking diabolical as possible.
For most, being able to find a means of escape that doesn’t remind you of the way things are or other depressing asides associated with football, and perhaps led you to playing 300 hours of FM, will be welcome. Over the last two months I’ve had a blast taking Partick Thistle from the Scottish third tier to European Champions. In real life this would never happen, it’s bloody Thistle man! But, against the backdrop of covid-19, FM2021 sums up life quite well, anything’s possible, and it’s inherently strange. Case in point – Football Manager’s come to the fore during the most surreal of times by choosing to ignore it.