We’re poised in the drop zone, hanging on by a thread, and nobody seems to care if we cling on by the skin of our teeth or tumble into oblivion.
I am the manager of Bury FC and the terrible results aren’t the worst thing about this season. The truly heartbreaking thing is the apparent demise of a small club and its generations-old local support base. If a last minute goal condemns a team to relegation and nobody is around to see the ball hit the net, does it even matter? In Football Manager [official site], they only sing when you’re winning.
Football Manager’s 3d match engine is optional and I know plenty of people who’d rather pick a fight with Roy Keane than use it. They stick to the commentary mode, or the top-down 2d pitch, but I’ve been a convert of the 3d engine since its second year.
The appeal is partly in watching something that resembles football, so I can pretend I’m down on the touchline barking orders rather than tinkering with a simulation, but it’s also in the little details. Burger vans are parked around the grounds, players will occasionally do that sheepish thing where they kick someone’s legs from under them and then run away from the referee as if they have an urgent appointment on the other side of the pitch, and I have absolutely shouted at opponents who are clearly diving or going down after the slightest contact.
Like football itself, the match engine leaves some aspects of the game open to interpretation. But the finest of all the details isn’t open to interpretation at all. When your players file out onto the patch, a glance at the stands will tell you precisely how packed or empty the ground is, and blocks of empty seats can be as crushing as any goal.
You can see the actual numbers, of course. At half-time the attendance is revealed and you’ll be told what the likelihood of a sell-out or unusually low turn-out is before the match, but I love that I can see the evidence for myself. That’s partly because I can’t think of another sports games that treats crowds as changeable things. Load up Pro Evo or FIFA and every match, from a pre-season friendly to a Champions League Final, is the BIGGEST AND BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED. The crowds wave their flags and go through their chants as if they’re trying to summon the god of football to witness the sacrifices made in his name, and the commentators bang on and on about how important it all is.
What Football Manager gets is that football isn’t always important. Sometimes, when Bury are playing Fleetwood in a mid-table, mid-week slog, nobody really cares. Not even the fans. And if Bury are playing badly, people will stay in the pub or at home. Or, worst of all, they’ll start supporting one of the Big Manchester Teams instead. And so will their kids, and their kids’ kids.
And that’s why the crowd means so much to me. My inbox might tell me that average attendance is only 25% of the ground’s capacity, and shrinking, but seeing it for myself makes all the difference. I’ve been in those stands – those specific stands, at the real Gigg Lane which Bury still call home – and the patchwork of people scattered across them is strange and sad. I’ll never take Bury to the Premier League in my current Football Manager save, but I might bring a few thousand more people through the turnstiles every weekend, and that’d be an achievement.
Or we might be playing to a near-empty house next year, down in League Two, with a complete lack of financial support to go with our lack of fan support. Sport isn’t all glory and banners and chants; it can be sad and lonely.
Football Manager’s crowds tell all kinds of stories. Right now, I don’t think any of the stories I’m hearing have a happy ending.