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01st Feb 2016

JOE speaks to Football Manager expert Alex Stewart

Tom Victor

The most recent transfer windows have undoubtedly seen Football Manager cross over into the mainstream.

Sky Sports have brought up in-game stats to look at players’ real-life prospects, while some clubs have admitted to using the game as part of their scouting regime.

But before all that came to light, the BBC were calling on the expertise of Alex Stewart to run the rule over unknown quantities based on their performances in one of the world’s most addictive football games.

After receiving a mixed response on the last deadline day, Stewart agreed to let JOE in on some of his secrets.

JOE: How did the BBC approach come about originally?

Alex Stewart: Iain Macintosh, the Godfather of FM, was approached by Aunty but was too busy with real work, and so he recommended me. I’d been writing a series on FM using a stats-driven, Moneyball-style approach, first on my own site with Rangers and then for Iain’s The Set Pieces with Bristol City, and so it seemed like a good fit.

How long have you been playing Football Manager, and do you have any players you keep track of in real life because of their performance in the game?

I’ve been playing on-and-off since I was 15 or 16, when I used to shut myself in a room over the weekend and drink obscene amounts of coffee and smoke out the window and play for what felt like days. Remarkably, despite this slavish devotion to FM, I was (contrary to rumour) able to meet and talk to girls during this period.

I don’t really keep track of players in real life, though I always retain an interest in teams I’ve had successful saves with, like Bristol City, Kaiserslautern, and Roma. But I’m more interested in using the game to try out theories of player recruitment and scouting, so I suppose once I’ve moved on from one challenge to another, I can let go. Mostly.

How good a guide do you feel FM provides to the real-life quality of a player? What would you say is the general ‘strike rate’?

I think the general strike rate of players transitioning from being good in the game, or ‘wonderkids’ when it starts, to success in real life is fairly good. Obviously, you’ve got players like Viktor Fischer who are massively hyped on the game but haven’t yet quite delivered (and you can go back to Mark Kerr, or Cherno Samba or Kerlon), but generally they do well.

The scouting system is pretty robust for the game and while we all remember Samba et al., it’s in their interests to be as accurate as possible or it just gets silly (or sillier).

Have there been examples of players you’ve backed to adapt well based on FM and have then delivered the goods?

Marc-Andre ter Stegen was a player who was always going to do well and was a default signing for me from FM 12 onwards. Doria and Kurt Zouma were highly rated as 16 and 17-year-olds and look like they’ll fulfill that promise. Serge Aurier, Luke Shaw, Julian Draxler: there are a lot of young players who looked great when in their late teens who are now doing very well and still improving.

And how about the opposite – who has been the biggest flop who ‘should have’ done the business?

I think there are plenty of players who probably did have the potential but for one reason or another failed to live up to that in real life. Carles Gil was immense in FM 12 and 13, but is now often injured and frittering it away at Villa. Lots of the La Masia products, like Sergio Gomez, have great careers in FM but seem to bounce around lower clubs in real life once they’ve been cut loose by Barcelona and never quite reach the heights that they might have.

I suppose there’s so much uncertainty in how a player develops – the right manager, the right tactics, the right club, injuries, mentality, and so on – that while you can assess a teenager and say they have the right tools to do well, it shouldn’t be a shock when that doesn’t materialize in every case.

Sunderland v Aston Villa - Premier League

How do you feel about football fans who get angry at the BBC using a ‘Football Manager Expert’?

I think people are entitled to be angry about whatever they feel angers them. It’s funny to me, mostly. The point of the feature is to be light-hearted, add a slightly different angle. It must be popular, because the BBC have retained it and Sky Sports have adopted it, albeit in a slightly different form.

The internet is full of people who vent and they a lot of what is discussed is far more serious and important than anything I’m doing, so why should I let it bother me? I’m getting a chance to talk about something I enjoy.

Catch up on Alex’s Football Manager Meets Moneyball series here, and follow him on Twitter.