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Football Manager and the future of the beautiful game

Nov 30, 2008
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Football Manager developer Sports Interactive is investing in grassroots football – is it shrewd marketing, genuine altruism or a bit of both?


In the village of Harefield, a surprisingly quiet and leafy enclave amid the urban sprawl of north-west London, a group of schoolboys are warming up for football practice. It is an icy cold January afternoon, and once inside the warehouse-sized dry training facility, the temperature seems to drop considerably. The boys, though, have filed in quietly and professionally, and they go about their exercises with a genuine sense of purpose. But then, this is not an average school PE session. These may well be future England stars.

Four years ago, Watford football club teamed up with the newly opened Harefield Academy school and devised a new way to train the next generation of professional football players. As part of the school's innovative Gifted and Talented programme, skilled boys from throughout the south of England can apply to study and train here.

They get a full education in a well-equipped, high-tech school (when we're shown into the main auditorium, we're confronted with a Virtual Learning Area with 60 PCs and large plasma screens on the walls showing rolling news) but on top of that, football is a key element of their timetable. Two graduates, Adam Thompson and Gavin Massey, are already part of the first team at Watford, and several others are on the England youth squads.

Less chaotic lifestyle

While standard football club youth set-ups will provide kids with between three and five hours of training a week, the boys at Harefield get up to 15 – all of it overseen by Watford's own youth academy coaches. "It's a less chaotic lifestyle than traditional youth systems," says Nick ***, the academy manager for 12- to 16-year-olds. "They're not arriving and training in the dark – our boys will get in early in the morning, they'll train twice day, they eat properly, and they get home at 7pm rather than 10pm."

When the under-12 players come out onto the astroturf surface, their shirts bear a familiar sponsor: Sports Interactive. The developer of the Football Manager series has been funding this section of the programme for two years. Miles Jacobson, the company's managing director, is a lifelong Watford fan, but it seems the support of the academy is more about the company's interest in grassroots football, which has already seen in its support for the youth team at Luton FC.

"It's a brilliant set-up here," he says. "They've had Ajax turning up and saying it's better than their youth system, which is globally recognised. I hope that more clubs look at what they're doing here and rip it off! It's the best thing for British football. We just wanted to be part of it."

That would also seem to explain another of the developer's shirt sponsorship deals. In 2002, when the FA controversially ruled that Wimbledon FC could be relocated to a plush new all-seater stadium in Milton Keynes, a group of disgruntled supporters set up AFC Wimbledon, a fan-owned club that would eventually get its own ground at Kingsmeadow in Kingston-Upon-Thames.

"I was listening to Five Live when that was happening," says Jacobson. "They were interviewing Ivor Heller, who is now the commercial director. We had a conversation in the office and we were saying, well, how would we feel if this happened to any of our clubs? So I got Ivor's contact details from the radio station, phoned him up and said, 'how much do you need to set up the club?' He told us, and we worked out a sponsorship deal based on that amount."

Media storm

This turned out to be a canny marketing move. The formation of AFC Wimbledon became a global news story, and Sports Interactive found itself at the epicentre of the media storm. Almost a decade later, this is still a fan-run club (there are over 100 volunteers on a match day, and only seven full-time paid staff) but it's now just another non-league side battling its way through the divisions.

On the Saturday we arrive to speak to Miles and Ivor, the club is gearing up for a game against Fleetwood Town; the small press area is half full – these are local reporters and staff from the club's own radio station, the mainstream media has long since moved on. And yet, Sports Interactive is still here, renewing its sponsorship contract on an annual basis. "It's just fantastic to be involved," enthuses Jacobson. "We're down here quite a lot, we love coming here. None of us was a Wimbledon supporter before, but its everyone's second team now."

Beyond marketing and certainly beyond any sense of altruism, there are tangible benefits to these grass roots sponsorship arrangements. SI's long-running series of management simulations has featured non-league and youth teams for years, and spotting cheap talent down there is a key part of the sim. "We've learned a lot about the non-league game," says Jacobson. "We've learned about the budgeting and how the transfer system works down here. It's also about being around people who work inside football and learning from them. And they ask about how our match engine analyses player performances, they use our database … they learn from us, too."

True football geeks

It's also about fandom and obsession; the same obsession that Football Manager fans have for this idiosyncratic franchise. For two years, I worked on Future Publishing's sadly defunct Official Football Manager Magazine. I know SI well and one thing that needs to be understood is that they're true football geeks; they love the game itself, but they love the system, too – the architecture of the sport, the complex FA pyramid, the background machinations. There are also biographical parallels between AFC Wimbledon and Sports Interactive. In 2004, the developer broke its ties with Eidos, the publisher that owned the Championship Manager brand, and that had overseen the simulation series since 1992. Once free, SI quickly bought the Football Manager brand, well-known from the 8-bit series of football management titles, but it would have to build this franchise from almost nothing. Just like AFC Wimbledon.

"This deal fits in with the ethos and development of the studio," says Jacobson. "Moving from working for Eidos, to owning the Football Manager name, and then signing with Sega who had just pulled out of the console market and were back to being a smaller company, they were exciting times. A lot of people thought we were mad breaking up with Eidos, but we wanted that, we wanted a new beginning."

Ivor Hellor, who owns a factory down the road from Wimbledon's old Plough Lane ground, certainly appreciates the symbiosis between SI and his club. "We'd talked to a couple of other potential sponsors, but then I got an email from Miles. I didn't know who he was, or anything about Sports Interactive, but I contacted him and as soon as he got on the phone, I knew they were going to be our sponsor. Miles said they wanted to be involved because they believed in the Dons trust, they wanted to see us in the football league – those were the magic words. There's a feeling of having a body of people behind us, a worldwide brand, that could have gone to any league club they wanted. But it's more than a business relationship, they're our friends."

Educational benefits

Nick ***, too, sees the educational benefits of linking with FM: "Video games are a great way for the players to relax, and perhaps Football Manager stimulates them to think about tactics and the responsibilities of a coach – the psychological aspects of managing players. It gives them an early insight, a different perspective on the sport."

Back at the Harefield Academy, I have to ask Nick the obvious question – why is it that England is proving so ineffective on the international stage? Why don't English players shine against their Continental European opponents? *** says there are myriad reasons, including the fact that we simply and continually overestimate the international standing of the English side.

But he provides a telling scenario: "If you took two Spanish under-11 teams and asked them to play until there was a winner, they would play a brand of football that was possession-based and would involve a calculated passing game, with players in every position dropping off and defending. You take two under-11 teams in this country, they'd kick each other, they'd run around, they'd work hard; the managers on the touchline would praise effort and energy rather than technical ability. It's our culture, it's our society."

But at Harefield, that culture is being quietly challenged. I watch the training session for half an hour and the emphasis is on quick accurate passing and intelligent movement. In the background, there's a progressive, scientific approach.

The academy has a huge state-of-the-art gym, complete with cameras that analyse the performance of students; the food at the cafeteria is scrupulously healthy. The pupils on the Gifted and Talented scheme are taught about the mentality of competition, as well as the physical effort – they are apparently among the most academically successful students at the school.

If more clubs do adopt this approach to youth development (and it's possible – Liverpool, Manchester City and Celtic have all sent representatives to view the programme), we could see a gradual end to the monosyllabic British slogger. Within this context, Sports Interactive's sponsorship is very fitting: a developer that has intricately tracked the progress of the sport over the last twenty years, may well end up playing a small part in changing it forever.