It's Football Manager week at Bleacher Report and day four brings an exclusive interview with one of the game's greatest players—a man who credits FM with a lot more than just taking up most of his life.
"I got to the point where I could name every club's players in the Turkish Third Division, and when my Liverpool-supporting friend told me they'd signed a certain new player, I scoffed and said 'Why? He's AWFUL.'
"It was at this point I said to myself: 'This is not normal.'"
Football Manager means something different to everyone; commitment levels range from the reasonable to the ridiculous. For every player who opts for the fleeting hour after a tough day at work, there's another dressed in suit, shaking the door knob as he settles down for a tense FA Cup final.
Its addictive powers are known across the world to most football fans (and their significant others too), but for Daniel Jonsson, it was akin to a lifestyle for a number of years. The ensconced Icelander has played it religiously for close to two decades, enjoying micro-management, stern challenges and, most notably, an escape from real life issues.
He's never done the classic "Conference North/South to Champions League glory" challenge so heavily purported in forums and communities, but has tried other, more condensed ideas. No, he takes on a much harder challenge every year without fail: to win the UEFA Champions League with an Icelandic domestic club.
"My best games have always been with an Icelandic team, trying to win the Champions League. Before Sports Interactive (SI) introduced the dynamic reputation adjustments to the leagues (meaning the Icelandic Premier League's reputation never enhanced to a level where good players wanted to stay), this was HARD. My regens would decide to leave Champions League football with me to go and play second division football...in Denmark!
"Only the Northern Irish league had a lower in-game reputation level, but with those clubs you could form partnerships with Premier League outfits. With Icelandic teams, there were no agreements."
Quizzed on his method, it's always the same:
"I find the best Icelandic free agents, even if they're 36 years old and played 20 years ago. Then I construct a system that somehow allows them all to play—even if it's one game in, one game out because they are so old and unfit.
"The seasons before reaching the Champions League are very easy, and you can play them at maybe three times the speed of a normal one. Once you get into the Champions League you pay more attention; the only way to succeed is to increase your scouting range and spend hours checking free agents. I would spend hours inviting every available free player for a trial to see if they were any good, in hope of finding one gem. Most of them were complete s--t.
"In Football Manager 07, I had a Spanish striker who stayed with me for I think 10 seasons. He came for a trial and he was amazing, and he was my leading scorer every season for a long time. I sold him for a lot of money—it's finding players like him that drive you through the hours of checking free agents' statistics."
Jonsson finds pleasure in micro-management and rewarding himself by finding those rare players who make the searching and trawling worthwhile. He doesn't try to "figure out" the game engine and manipulate it to win "easy," though.
"There was a guy who posted on the forums how he had taken the club predicted to finish 20th in the league and finished first, and the points gap between second was big. I know there are players on the Sports Interactive forums who try to figure out the game. There was a guy whose central midfielder scored 70 goals in a season—he broke the game engine.
"I don't like it when it becomes unrealistic"—Jonsson questioned whether or not he should keep playing with an Icelandic domestic side after building a new 11,000-seater stadium purely because, in real life, that's bigger than the country's national stadium—"it makes me feel uneasy."
A well-known bug in Football Manager 08 was a corner trick, where a certain setup of player placement and type of delivery could yield strong centre-backs buckets of goals a season. "Even though it was a legitimate, realistic corner setup, I still felt uneasy when Christopher Samba was my top scorer on 50 goals."
Asked when he fell in love with the game and the addiction took hold, Jonsson reveals how therapeutic the simulation game was in his childhood days. He used FM as a form of escapism, disappearing into a virtual world for hours on end where he was in control and he called the shots.
"It would have been when I was about 13 years of age [when I got hooked], so about the 96/97 Championship Manager mark. I had a big battle with depression for about six years or so, and FM/CM was an escape.
"It meant I didn't have to think about going to school the next day or the bullies that were there, and it gave me a sense of achievement (winning trophies etc.) that I wasn't getting anywhere else.
"It was a release to simply load up the game and get lost for hours."
Years on, the temptation to play "just one more game" had taken hold of him. He recounted one of the most bizarre methods of "enjoying" the FIFA World Cup 2002 to me—of course, FM played a prominent role.
"During the 2002 World Cup, based in Asia, the first game would start as early as 6 a.m. in Iceland. I told myself 'OK, there's no way I'm going to be able to get up for a game that starts so early,' so why not play Football Manager all night until it starts?
"I began waking up from naps between games, opening up the save and saying to myself 'why did I sell that player?!? why did I decide on this tactic?!?'—it was the best/worst decision of my life."
Many have spoken of FM's therapeutic effect; in Iain Macintosh's Football Manager Stole My Life, he transcribes an interview with a psychologist after consulting him about his tendency to stay up until 3 a.m. guiding Welling out of the Conference South.
Being able to control the day-to-day workings of something appeals to many, and for Jonsson, he was able to create a world in which he didn't have to go to school the next day or think about how he was going to handle bullying.
After a while, it even helped him leave his shell; so impressed with his achievements with Icelandic sides in FM, Jonsson attempted to share his exploits by creating YouTube videos. He poured hours into editing and graphics despite knowing little about it, and although the venture was unsuccessful, it stood an important milestone in his personal growth.
"At that time, I was about as introverted as can be. I'm a fairly reclusive person overall but I'd seen some people doing videos and just having a blast so I decided to have at it."
For the record, Jonsson is yet to win the Champions League with an Icelandic side. He's reached the quarterfinals and semifinals in epic saves, but never quite managed to topple the very best and reach the summit.
He commits less time to FM than he did when he was younger, naturally, but the transformation in him is remarkable. Once introverted, escaping from reality; now happily engaged, chuckling as he remembers his amateur attempt to turn himself into a YouTube phenomenon.
He still yearns to take an Icelandic side to the top, though.
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