By James Gill
My name is James Gill and I was addicted to Championship Manager.
My goodness. I already feel better for having got that off my chest. I’ve needed to tell someone for more than 20 years.
It all made perfect sense at the time but, during the 1993/94 season, I had a serious problem. Because, when I wasn’t drinking Um Bongo or polishing off a packet of Rocky chocolate biscuits, I was playing Championship Manager.
Any sap can take charge of, say, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool and win the league (that’s right: back then, people actually expected Liverpool to win the league), but it takes a real legend to drop down the divisions and build something special.
For me, that team would be Rotherham United. I’d be their Shankly, their saviour, their messiah.
I had it all worked out: so successful would I be that the people of Rotherham would build a statue in my image. They’d rename the stadium after me (“Millmoor? More like Gillmoor”). Strangers would stop me in the street to thank me for the memories. Sure, some might say football fans are fickle, but not the people of Rotherham. They’d remember me. They’d keep me close to their hearts. Perhaps a framed photo on top of the telly in every other house (you might think this sounds odd, but speak to any reformed Championship Manager addict, and these are the standard thoughts that go through your head).
To the uninitiated, in Championship Manager you start a season with a squad and, through a winning combination of wheeling and dealing, training and motivating, attempt to get the best out of your charges. It’s not just a case of picking a team and watching from the bench. To be successful, you have to immerse yourself in your team (any would-be England managers would do well to take note of what I’m saying here. No sightseeing trips before you play Iceland, yeah?).
The initial adrenaline rush – and how the game first sinks its claws into your psyche – comes from making a few audacious bids, where that rascal Hope soon laughs in your face. “Of course Peter Beardsley will want to sign! He will be able to buy into my vision. He’ll know Rotherham are going places.” Suffice to say, the big stars don’t want to touch you with a barge pole, which genuinely hurts teenage feelings. “Oh, Beardsley, you’ll be sorry. You’ll all be sorry! Sorry, mum – didn’t realise I was saying that out loud! Ha ha ha! I love you too!”
But, by keeping an eye on the average rating of rival players as the matches tick by and making best use of your scouting network, you’re able to bring in a few bargains. Granted, not every snowflake manages to settle, but there are few things more pleasing than seeing a new signing really click. “Get in there! What a goal! Sorry, mum – I’ve done it again. You’re watching Bergerac, you say? Ha ha ha! My bad.”
It might all sound like good, innocent fun: after all, I’d play for a few minutes after school, before diligently doing my homework and going to bed. Heck, I might even return to the family computer once the homework was done. “What’s that, mum? You’re playing Solitaire? That’s absolutely fine. You carry on. A trip to Bradford City will wait until tomorrow.”
However, as plucky Rotherham United soon began to take shape, school became an inconvenience. As did friends, family, fresh air, sleep, eating and, finally, breathing. My life revolved around Championship Manager. Heck, my life was Championship Manager. “Mum! For god’s sake! Get off the computer! We’ve got a date with destiny: Bradford City are coming to my place and they want revenge! I’m not shouting! You’re shouting!”
Wins would just about outnumber defeats and, in time, promotion would follow promotion. We’d excel in the league, but invariably come undone in the FA Cup. When I finally made the breakthrough and reached the final, I only just stopped short of renting a recording studio to put together the traditional “Cup Final single”. Oversized headphones, eyes closed while earnestly belting out the chorus, playful headlocks with the backroom staff while pretending I didn’t know the cameras were rolling, the works.
If memory serves, we didn’t win the cup that year, but did the year after, and a part of me thought, “Will Rotherham Council approve closing New Wortley Road for the open-top bus parade? They should. This is a team of kings!” before my mum timidly came over to tell me that it’s 1am and I’ve got school the next day.
You know you have a Championship Manager problem when you’ve played so many seasons that the game runs out of players and has to create new ones. That’s right: lads who were once promising teenagers have now become grizzled veterans and hung up their boots. That’s the moment you realise: I need to stop playing. I need to move on with my life. This isn’t real. None of this is real…
Years later I became a sports journalist, covering Crystal Palace home and away for the Croydon Advertiser series of newspapers in the mid-Noughties.
During Palace’s majestic promotion campaign of 2003/04 (third from bottom at Christmas. Promoted by May. Iain Dowie brought to life the stuff of Championship Manager dreams), I made the pilgrimage north to Rotherham with the in-form Eagles. A part of me was genuinely nervous.
As I entered the car park, would the press officer burst into tears as he saw me? Maybe the elderly chairman would offer an outstretched hand and ask if there was anything they could do to tempt me back? Surely supporters would swarm me, begging me to bring back the glory years. But do you know what? There was nothing. Not a thing. No one in Rotherham had a clue who I was.
Football fans. Turns out they really are fickle.