One game, a lifelong obsession, and an IBWM exclusive piece for you to understand a little more about the book.
Stalking is such an ugly word, full of needlessly negative connotations.
I prefer to see myself as a sort of digital detective – a dedicated disciple of those who secured immortality through the Championship/Football Manager series. It was my job – if I can call what was a hugely enjoyable pursuit a ‘job’ – to track down and extract anecdotal gems from 26 of these unlikely superstars for Football Manager Stole My Life.
So six months ago – armed with little more than a notepad, pen, phone and the reckless optimism possessed by battle-hardened Scotland supporters – I set off on my quest.
I got off to the worst possible start. A wall of silence surrounded the first target – former Manchester United youth product Alex Notman. He was last spotted in the colours of Scottish Highland League outfit Formartine United. Notman remains a man of mystery after ignoring messages via e-mail, Facebook and answering machine.
In fairness, it’s a delicate subject matter. What’s the best way to ask these players about their career high as a computer game prodigy before, in some cases, the descent into obscurity?
Notman wasn’t one of ‘my boys’ in the game, so that rejection was an easy one to brush off.
The same can’t be said for the brilliant Belarussian Maxim Tsigalko. A Champ Man goal machine almost without equal, he couldn’t be coaxed into a chat, despite the best efforts of his brother and the local FA. His career was cruelly cut short by injury and he’s said to be the shy and retiring type that doesn’t court publicity. It didn’t seem to matter to him that he’d single-handedly dragged my Hibs team to new heights.
The failure that cut deepest was the near-miss with retired Icelandic super-striker Andri Sigporsson. I consulted local journalists, a former team-mate, his brother at Ajax and a Champ Man obsessive within the Icelandic Football Association and established that he’s currently in charge of his father’s successful string of bakeries. Depressingly, e-mails to both his personal and work accounts, plus the odd (desperate) voicemail plea went unanswered.
One day I’ll drop in on that bakery for a fresh pastry and demand answers.
However, I’m glad to say the success stories by far outweighed the knockbacks.
A Norwegian knight in shining armour came through right at the death with a contact number for cultured Norwegian playmaker Tommy Svindal Larsen when all hope looked lost.
Ex-Millwall prodigy Cherno Samba – once at the centre of a tug of war between England’s biggest clubs – resurfaced in Gambia.
The excellent @garyalsmith bagged us an exclusive one-to-one with the lesser-spotted Nii Lamptey.
One by one they fell like dominoes – Willie Howie, Michael ‘Mike’ Duff, Kennedy Bakircioglu and a whole host of famous figures from an alternate reality.
No two stories were the same. Some achieved fame, fortune and football fulfillment, while others travelled rockier roads. Some had to come terms with an at times uncomfortable cult hero status while others were blissfully unaware of their CM/FM celebrity standing. They are all united by an unlikely legacy and, thankfully, they lined up to share their thoughts.
We named the chapter ‘There’s Only One Tonton Zola Moukoko’ in tribute to the best attacking midfielder the world has never seen. No addict (active or reformed) needs an introduction to the man who kicked off his real-life apprenticeship at Derby County – after spurning offers from the likes of Inter Milan. In the Champ Man universe his star shines brighter than any other.
I hunted high and low, speaking to agents, scouts, managers, former clubs and two national governing bodies but no-one knew where he was. In trying to talk me out of a Tonton-related tantrum my long-suffering girlfriend suggested I trawled the junk folder of my e-mail account. That’s basic stuff, but there’s never anything of interest in there aside from the promises of ‘enhancements’, bonus bank accounts and limpet-like mailing lists that I just can’t shake off. With little enthusiasm I clicked through them, one by one, searching for the proverbial needle in the Hotmail haystack. And there it was. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.
‘I hear you’ve been looking for me. Tonton’.
Fast forward six months and I’m writing this piece on the train back up from a three-day promotional blitz on London, with Tonton in tow. We flew TZM and his charming girlfriend over to Stockholm for what must have been the strangest experience of his eventful life and he brought ‘The Show’ to a game of fives against the Sports Interactive staff team (delightfully named FC To Madeira).
That’s what the book is about – a celebration of those who have live and loved a game that transcends genres. It’s been one hell of a ride.
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