WORDS BY GREG RICHARDSON | @RAKIS14
Every football fan plays manager at some point. Whether it is disagreeing with an international squad selection, your club’s starting eleven and formation or picking over tactics or transfers, we all believe we can do better than the man in charge. Computer games over the past 25 years have given us a chance to prove that point. Many of us can point to CVs detailing how we led Barnet, or some other lower league minnow, from the Conference to the Champions League in five seasons.
Aside from vindicating our belief that we all have an inner Pep, this relatively modern phenomenon also creates a subsection of ‘cult heroes’: players we have used in games such as Championship/Football Manager, FIFA and PES, who have helped us achieve glory. They may have scored for fun, dominated midfield battles or been young gems who blossomed into the world’s best. But in the real world, they haven’t hit the same heights and so are beloved only by a select few who got to experience the best version of them - the one that’s ‘in the game’.
One such player is Ibrahima Bakayoko. The 1997/98 edition of Championship Manager had the 21-year-old marked down as one of football’s future stars. Blessed with pace, strength and skill he was the focal point of many an attack and was available for a reasonable fee from French club Montpellier. He could lead the line or drop off and create a la Bergkamp and would win many individual and team awards. In the game.
In real life Everton paid the French side £4 million for his services and were rewarded with just 4 league goals in 23 games. Bakayoko often looked as though he was at odds with his athletic frame. He returned to France from Merseyside and actually performed reasonably well, scoring 34 times in 115 games for Marseille, but failed to reach the dizzying heights of his in-game self.
Another name that will spark nostalgic reminiscence is Championship Manager 3 cult hero Andri Sigporsson. The Icelandic striker spent time at Bayern Munich’s youth academy before returning to his homeland as a 19-year-old. His exploits there, scoring 35 goals in 48 games, meant the eggheads at Championship Manager HQ gave him the best possible potential rating of 200. Gamers could pick up the best player in the game for peanuts from the Icelandic minnows and he would score the goals to secure promotions, cups and league titles. Sadly for Sigporsson, his early goalscoring exploits were about as good as it got for him and injury cut his career short.
Aiden McGeady is a bit of a cross-over cult hero. Fifa 13 rated him at 82 (out of 99) and he was a Football Manager must-have. His passing and dribbling stats, as well as creativity and vision, meant McGeady was the in-game equivalent of an Irish Ronaldinho. Capable of playing anywhere across the front three, he would score and create goals for fun. A teenage sensation at Celtic and a hidden gem at Spartak Moscow meant on Football Manager he was a relative bargain. In FIFA’s Ultimate Team he was more costly, his 5-star skill rating and respectable pace making him a fan favourite. So when McGeady turfed up on Merseyside following his signing for Everton there was a level of expectation from the gaming community. However, the highlight reel of the Irishman's time with the Toffees would consist mostly of him coming off the bench and being largely ineffective. He made just 42 appearances over his two seasons with the club, scoring once. He spent two seasons on loan first at Sheffield Wednesday and then Preston North End. He impressed enough at Deepdale, finding a good mix of goals and assists (eight of each) that when manager Simon Grayson left for Sunderland he ensured McGeady would join him. Despite this recent resurgence of sorts, he is still a considerable way short of the player his in-game self suggested he could be.
Another player who will always hold a place in the heart of gamers and bore comparisons to a legendary Brazilian was Freddy Adu. Signed by DC United at the tender age of 14 in 2004 and tipped to be ‘the next Pele’ by the hyperbolic press, great things were expected of Adu. As you might expect his in-game stats reflected these expectations. FIFA 05 gave him a potential rating of 98. Football Manager 03/04 saw him go on to be one of the best attacking midfielders in the world with his teenage stats surpassing a young Argentine called Lionel Messi. Many a title were won via the feet of the prodigious American starlet. Yet in the real world, Adu was released from DC in 2006 and has enjoyed a nomadic existence with stints at Benfica and Monaco and ten other clubs, most of whom you would need to Google just to know what league they play in. Each of these clubs no doubt hoping to unlock the potential that saw him so revered in his youth and each becoming disappointed. He currently plays for Las Vegas Lights in the USL. And is still only 28. It may be too late for him to surpass Messi at this point.
Ahmed Musa, Emmanuel Emenike and Seydou Doumbia are a trio who, in FIFA 15, would destroy teams with their pace, power, close control and precision finishing. The overpowered trinity, with ratings of 75 (with 93 pace), 80 and 82 respectively, were the bane of opposing defenders online, blowing past them as if they weren’t there before dispatching it into the net. Their ‘in the game’ personas meant that Leicester City, West Ham and Newcastle fans were filled with excitement when they joined the Premier League.
Each fanbase was left massively disappointed. Despite relatively respectable careers in Russia, they failed to have any real impact for their new sides and are now all elsewhere with considerably lower FIFA ratings to boot. Musa scored only two league goals for Leicester and is currently on the books of Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia. Emenike scored a brace for the Hammers in an FA Cup game against Blackburn but did little else and, after a goalless stint in Greece with Olympiakos, is now on loan with Las Palmas in the Spanish second tier. Doumbia failed to notch for Newcastle but did bag 20 goals in 25 games for Basel whilst on loan the following season. He has since had two barren spells at Sporting and Girona.
Possibly the most overrated in-game player of all time is Adriano. The Brazilian forward was effectively a cheat code on Pro Evolution Soccer in the mid-noughties. Seen as the natural successor to Ronaldo, Adriano was admittedly a great player. He moved to Italy from Flamengo in Brazil and enjoyed success on loan at Fiorentina and Parma before establishing himself in the first team at Inter Milan. He scored 47 goals in 115 games for the Nerazzurri, netting roughly at a 1-in-2 ratio between 2004 and 2006. It’s a reasonable return but in an era of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka, Adriano wasn’t even the best Brazilian in his country. In PES 4, 5, and 6 (released during this period) he was the best player in the world. With a cannon of a shot, the build of a bulldozer and in possession of F1 levels of acceleration, Adriano was unplayable. He was rated at 90 for attack (meaning he was always in the right place) and 98 for balance which, when coupled with 88 for pace, 90 for acceleration and 92 for aggression, meant he was impossible to dispossess. His shot power of 99 meant goals would fly in from anywhere.
Rumours suggest an executive at Konami, the company that made PES, was an Inter fan, Adriano was his favourite player and so he asked programmers to give the Brazilian special treatment. True or not, he helped make a gaming legend out of a player whose career declined due to inconsistency and a taste for the party boy lifestyle.
Despite Adriano’s in-game greatness, perhaps it was Championship Manager 01/02 that spawned the greatest of cult heroes.
For gamers of that era, the name Mark Kerr will stir up memories of a midfielder who combined the combative nature of Roy Keane and the vision and creativity of Paul Scholes with the double-figure goal scoring threat of Frank Lampard. For those managers who opted to sign him from Falkirk at bargain basement prices, he acted as the lynchpin of their sides. In reality, Kerr was a journeyman and amassed just 14 goals in his career.
Cherno Samba was another Championship Manager 01/02 hero. The youngster reportedly scored 132 goals in 32 games at schoolboy level, and continued to impress as part of Millwall’s academy. He was even the subject of interest from Liverpool, who tabled an unsuccessful £2 million bid. In the game, his goalscoring proficiency persisted and he would consistently bag 50-plus goals each season.
However, Samba never made a league appearance for Millwall. He had a stint in Spain with minnows Cadiz and Malaga B (where he scored 11 goals in 18 games for the Segunda Division B side) before returning to English football, scoring on his debut for Plymouth Argyle in 2006. Those who held a place in their hearts for him hoped it would be the blue touchpaper moment and a flurry of goals would come. Alas, Samba retired in 2012 having scored only three more goals - with those coming for FK Tonsberg of Norwegian third division fame.
There are many more who could be mentioned depending on which version of these games you played. There are no doubt names you feel should have been included, who won you games time and time again and hold a special place in your heart.
Cult heroes are elevated to new heights of admiration by a fanbase for whom they hold special reverence, not normally mirrored by the majority. For these players, those fans just happened to be sitting at computers or consoles rather than standing on the terraces.