Football is a lot like trainspotting. Well... not that's not strictly true. Football is nothing like trainspotting. Try playing the long ball game on Platform 3 of Doncaster Station and you'll soon find yourself crushed under the wheels of the 1934 London to Hull Central. However, being a football fan is a lot like being a trainspotter. All those endless, wet afternoons and evenings spent on a draughty, exposed concrete platforms or terraces avidly watching nothing very much for a long time followed by a brief moment of excitement when Dion rises above the defence to head home (or the 14:03 arrives on time).
Taking things a bit further, there is a seriously trainspottery element in all sports. These people are sometimes called enthusiasts, sometimes statisticians. More often they're called Eric. For these people, nothing that could happen on the field is as exciting as what happens in the form book, league table or accounts ledger. For them, Championship Manager is like a wet dream come true. (I beg your pardon. Ed)
There is a frightening amount of information to juggle with Championship Manager. On the playing side, each member of your team is rated for speed, skill, stamina and the like, as well as less tangible things such as influence and character (arrogant, rash or quiet, for example). You also have access to their record in the previous season, their current state of mind, other clubs that are interested in them, their wages, their valuation... the list is endless. All this and more for every single player at your club.
Then there's the non-playing staff- they've all got their own characteristics and abilities to worry about too. And of course there's the ever important money side of things. How are attendances going? Can you afford new players? Can you afford to send your injured striker to a special clinic in America? Most important of all, can you afford a new suit?
If you can wheel and deal your way through a week of this, you might actually get to Saturday with a squad. Having selected your team, your tactics and your style of play, it's action time - a strange sort of action, though, rather than watch the match, you watch some bar charts jiggling up and down to display both sides' attack, midfield and defence, plus the occasional commentary to highlight goals, penalties, bookings and injuries. After the match there are more statistics to plough through showing each player's performance as well as the performance of the team as a whole. Then it's back to more decisions, more statistics and more anxiety until the next match comes around.
Paul: One glance at the manual and a couple of game screens was enough to convince me I should have stayed at home. This was obviously going to be a very difficult, very complicated game, and probably a pretty boring one at that. Couldn't I review a mindlessly violent shoot 'em up with loads of gratuitous sexism? No, apparently I couldn't, so Championship Manager it was.
As it turned out, it was nothing like as bad as I feared. In fact, I got quite hooked and was still battling away in the promotion zone long after the pubs had called last orders. Although there is a welter of information to get through, the game is actually quite straightforward to operate. You can choose to check every single statistic, test the wind speed and read the messages in the tea leaves. However, if you just want to pick the players with funny names, you can do that too.
To be honest, I'm always a teeny bit sceptical of the facts and figures in these games. How many of them really work and how much of it is a mixture of three key figures and splash of random? For example, Championship Manager boasts the new idea of character compatibility. Team performance can be affected if the manager or trainer have wildly different temperaments than the chief striker, for instance. Of course, you've no way of knowing if it really is.
One of the unusual and appealing touches in the game is that you're not tied to one team. You are more important than the team, and it's possible for you to be sacked or move to another club at anytime during the season. A neat touch.
Crammed with information and competitions (league, FA and European Cups etc) and a video printer result service to boot, Championship Manager has enough stats, and even enough playability, to make football buffs roll onto their backs, wave their legs in the air and make strange purring noises. At the same time the fact that the leagues are wrong and the team names are fictitious could easily rankle with the seriously pedantic. The inclusion of the Domark Trophy is a case of gratuitous self publicity taking over from realism.
This may sound as if I'm taking it a bit seriously, but serious football fans are the ones who'll be queuing up to buy this game. It's a bit off-puttingly statpacked, a bit slow (particularly when you have to sit through all the results), but a the end of the day (Brian) this is a playable and even addictive bit of number-juggling.