Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Fields Of Dreams

Having moved in with my better half and started getting the house in some sort of order, last night we took to the task of lifting the bedraggled turf that masquerades as her (now ‘our’) garden. I’ll refrain from a diatribe about the appalling state of the ground (spades aren’t really designed to slice through chunks of brick and stones, is all I’ll say…), and instead offer this piece from last year.

I was reminded of it, not only because the bit about gardening is (reasonably!) relevant, but also because I recently read a book by comedian Andy Kind where he recounts getting involved with somebody’s game of Championship Manager on a train. For anyone with an interest in football, there is NOTHING better than recounting your PC-confined glories as though they actually happened.

I'll be open from the start: for some this will be quite remarkably boring to read. On the other hand, I hope others will nod and smile with the recognition of trying to achieve things through the medium of a videogame that are impossible to achieve in real life. Sometimes, however, the boundary between the realities of those achievements can become blurred when you least expect it…

When I took over the managerial ‘hot seat’ at Chelsea, it was on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism similar to that which greeted me at previous clubs. The level of expectation visited upon me was in no way matched by personal feelings, however, and I was perfectly comfortable with – or should that be resigned to? – the likely outcome of being sacked before Christmas.

To the fans, board of directors and members of the media, my previous management records meant nothing. They meant an awful lot to me. Yes, I had seen Swansea promoted from the lowest tier of English professional football to the Premier League, narrowly losing an FA Cup semi-final to Arsenal during one season along the way. I had seen Crewe Alexandra qualify for the Champion’s League, with the team’s goal scoring efforts led by Ruud van Nistelrooy in his prime. I’d even held aloft the European Cup while in charge at Newcastle United, with the league title being the other half of a satisfying double.

But there were the low points too. Like quitting the Polish national team after several months in charge without having seen a game played. Or the breakdown I had when my first few months at Manchester United didn’t go to plan: signing expensive players on long, lucrative contracts, and then immediately letting them go as free agents to trigger compensation payments in the tens of millions of pounds. Eventually I succeeded in reducing the entire squad to just ten goalkeepers and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before being (understandably) dismissed with a rock bottom reputation and United bankrupt.

Despite such turbulent times, home form was rarely an issue during either success or failure, so I was confident of extracting good results from my new team when playing at Stamford Bridge. In the hostile atmosphere of other teams’ stadia, however, clean sheets and positive outcomes were harder to come by, and it was this that I feared being repeated as I took the helm in West London.

The board were generous in allocating transfer funds, £42 million of which I immediately spent on triggering a release clause in Dani Alves’ contract with Barcelona. With a little more patience I perhaps wouldn’t have needed to pay such a sum, but hindsight is wonderful and there was only enough cash left to buy Freddy Adu from Major League Soccer. Not that I hadn’t already inherited a strong squad…

The season started in promising fashion but soon deteriorated into the sort of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ form that plagued my dreams and influenced my tactical decision-making. The player resources at my disposal were sufficient to ensure that the level of talent and ability within any team I put out remained high. Morale, however, was considerably less consistent, despite my attempts at praising players even when they barely deserved it. When I did offer criticism, or – in moments of extreme, err, desperation – fine them a few week’s wages, players would speak to the press and proclaim I did not have the confidence of the dressing room.

The league campaign spluttered to an eventual seventh place finish, mainly thanks to sacrificing strong positions against opposition that shouldn’t really have troubled us. At the same time though, our progress through the Champion’s League was unstoppable, casting aside the powerhouse teams of Europe. The term ‘big-game player’ came to define most of the squad I carefully (ahem) nurtured during the season as they secured a 2-1 comeback win against Bayern Munich, just days after losing by the same score to Wigan in domestic competition.

Success in Europe was enough for the board to offer me a contract extension, despite the shaky league form, albeit with ‘only’ £12 million in transfer funds for the new season. This was unfortunate in the extreme, mainly because a £20 million pound deal for winger Mancini had just been agreed and quickly had to be postponed. Needless to say, I requested – and then demanded – more money from the board, in order that they allow me to realise the ambitions I held for the club.

So they sacked me.

Steve Clarke, my assistant, was installed as manager and promptly given an astonishing £60 million to spend, a proportion of which secured Fernando Torres’ services. From the sidelines of unemployment I sniped repeatedly at my successor, telling anyone who would listen that I cared little for the talents of my previously reliable no.2 and suspected he would fail. In time I would be proved correct, as the following season would start poorly for Chelsea. It didn’t result in the board offering me back the job I felt was rightly mine, however…

With a solid reputation, and a European Cup in my trophy cabinet, I didn’t expect to be out of work for long. Keen for a new and quite different challenge, I quickly identified a job in the Australian A-League that took my fancy. Admittedly, someone already held the position, albeit only tenuously. I therefore concentrated another negative, media-based campaign against the incumbent in an effort to see him sacked.

I failed, and found myself choosing between two club jobs in Argentina to further my stalling career. Even as I took charge at Newell’s Old Boys, I continued applying for other jobs around the world and took minimal interest in the performance of the team during my first two games in charge. My new employers reaffirmed their confidence in me and I repaid it by agreeing to take charge at New York Red Bulls, believing that success in Major League Soccer would be, to use a phrase, ‘a doddle’. I left the city of Rosario only 13 days after first arriving and my latest challenge awaits…

*  *  *  *  *

An alarm is unnecessary. Too many years of getting up early makes it a difficult habit to shake, and the bright dawn light gives my body an aversion to returning to the land of nod. And already it is hot. So hot. Today is going to be what they like to call ‘a scorcher’. Too much to do and not enough sun cream to put on while I’m doing it.

Time to get up then.

I go straight into the garden; after all, feeding myself can wait. Right now I don’t have any pets, and nor do I keep any livestock. I couldn’t devote to them the time they would need or deserve, so it’s the plants that get all the attention. Tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, carrots, cucumber, rhubarb, raspberries and parsley – that’s my garden in list form.

A few days ago the courgettes were on the brink. I fell behind with watering them, and as the new season and the warmer weather began to take effect so the leaves of my zucchini began to wither. But frequent refreshment and a few rays have seen them rally and begin to look like they might start offering a few flowers in the coming weeks.

Similarly, my raspberry bushes are looking a little frail, so tending to them is on today’s to-do list. But first, with breakfast out of the way (for me as well as the plants), it’s time to head into town and stock up on a few essentials.

By the time I’ve done this, then been to the garden centre to buy some bamboo canes, erected a makeshift trellis with them to support the raspberry bushes, and tended to a few other bits of the garden, it’s lunchtime. Again, however, I feel the need to prioritise the fruit and vegetables over my own nourishment because the day has, inevitably, got warmer and warmer, and the soil is starting to look dry again already.

Once that is done though, I can – for a short while at least – relax and enjoy some time with my girlfriend. We’ve been together for over two years so, without wishing to sound complacent, there is no need to spend a long time ‘wooing’ her or repeatedly shower her with lavish gifts. To prove that I’m not using my laurels to rest on, however, I offer to cook for us and so head to the kitchen to prepare our dinner.

The washing up is just about done as the sun begins its steady descent toward the horizon. There is still plenty of temperature left in the day though, and you can almost hear the plants outside gasping for another drink. So that is what I provide for them as my final act of a long, quite draining, but nonetheless satisfying day. And tomorrow I can do most – but, thankfully, not all – of it again…

*  *  *  *  *

Sometimes it’s not easy to work out if life is imitating art or things are happening the other way round. Maybe it’s because some videogame ‘franchises’ are so well established. They’ve had a long time to make tweaks and edge closer to a kind of perfection, existing in so many iterations that it’s difficult not to find something along the way to relate to. Sure, there’s no way I’m ever going to get close to emulating anything that happens in Football Manager, but then it never crossed my mind that real life might one day start to feel like Harvest Moon.

The strange, ironic beauty of it is though, that while it sometimes feels like there just aren’t enough hours in a real day, it is possible to simulate an entire football season in a matter of hours at the same time as working under considerably less pressure in your own actual garden for greater reward. It makes you wonder if the opposite can be said to be true, but you’d have to ask someone like Sir Alex Ferguson about that and I just can’t see him playing the latest Harvest Moon game on the Nintendo DS.

Which begs the question: maybe he prefers the Animal Crossing series instead?

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