Twenty years is a long time in anybody’s estimation, but in football, where a season might as well be measured in dog years, it’s a veritable life time. A quick look back at the season of 1991/1992 confirms as much, for not only was the Premier League yet to be formed, but Leeds United stood unequalled at the old First Division’s summit, carried to their league title by the enigmatic Eric Cantona – now whatever happened to him?

Elsewhere the now non-league Luton Town were relegated from the top division (no doubt expecting to leap straight back), Ian ‘Wright-Wright-Wright’ topped the goalscorer’s chart with 29 goals, and Graeme Souness took Liverpool to an FA Cup triumph with a 2-0 win over second division Sunderland.

Indeed the only constant between then and now was the presence of Alex Ferguson, a young and sprightly Scotsman at the helm of Man United, and the emergence of the original ‘new George Best’ who never did quite become the honorary sixth Beatle (as Best was the fifth) but did become the one and only Ryan Giggs as he tore defenders apart up and down the land.

Amid such footballing nirvana – before money became all encompassing, and the goal line technology debate stopped at making sure the chalk line itself was painted on in a straight line – a game was released which was to have as much impact on the reputation of footballers as an entire network of Newcastle United scouts, and that game was Football (nee Championship) Manager.

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

Studio Director Miles Jacobson first got involved with Sports Interactive, and what was then known as Championship Manager, way back in the mid-90s; when the promising Neil Lennon was the go-to player for every virtual manager’s first signing and the fledgling development staff were but a fraction of the team working on the game today.

‘Well, to be frank, I wasn’t there very much!’ Says Miles when I ask him about his early time at Sports Interactive’s offices. ‘I had a “proper job” – if you can call working in the music industry a proper job – during the day and most evenings, so most of my SI work, which at the time was based around data and a bit of business help, was done remotely.

‘But the office was a lot of fun. Football was on TV from every possible angle. Sponge ball guns were all over the place, although normally in people’s hands being shot. Loads of work got done, just because everyone stayed all hours of the day, but it was more a playroom than an office. But then my office in our current studio still is!’

There can be no denying that it’s been a mammoth twenty years for Paul and Oliver Collyer’s start-up since the early years, when obtaining accurate player attributes – to a degree that even professional managers would find difficult – was just one of many challenges. ‘Mark Woodger & Oliver Collyer came up with the idea of “crowd sourcing” the data, well before crowd sourcing was even a concept, let alone a buzzword,’ Miles explains.

‘They got in touch with people who wrote fanzines about clubs in the UK, and abroad, and the network started from there. I was the UK head scout for many years – me and Ov used to fight about payment… He kept trying to pay me and I kept refusing the money. It was so much fun to do and I learnt so much.’

‘We actually embraced the internet very early on which is how a lot of the data came together. The early football mailing lists around 1995 were good places to find scouts, some of whom are still working with us today. Although the data was still done by filling in forms and emailing or posting them back. That’s when we started our community too.’

And it’s the community as much as the studio which will be celebrating this 20th year of the management sim, with fan sites springing up left, right and centre, with a core of the earliest devotees even eventually becoming part of the SI staff. ‘A lot of the guys who were online at that time came to work for the studio. Boah – who made the first data editor – and Marc Duffy – who used to send fan letters into us until we let him run the official fan site in his spare time – have been with us well over 10 years full time. Graeme Kelly used to make a data editor, mainly to help him cheat at the game.’

Since then, with the boom of the internet and later Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media platforms the game has gone stratospheric, with people talking tactics, formations, best buys and boasting of their triumphs way into the night. ‘I deal less with our forums nowadays than previously. I do a lot of tweeting though and talk to people directly through there – sometimes it freaks me out, when someone tells me a story of how FM saved them in some way, or how many hours they’ve played the game for. 99% of my communications online are really positive. I’ve made some good friends, met some great people, from postmen through to doctors, potato peelers to rock stars.’

THE CONTROVERSY

Aside from its success, perhaps Football Manager’s greatest talking point remains the move from Eidos to Sega that meant not only wholesale change for the studio but a change of name, leaving old moniker Championship Manager gone but far from forgotten. Not just because fans remember those days before Football Manager, but also because Eidos still publish a management sim under that name, even if Sports Interactive had long-since stopped to be associated with it.

‘We’ve never spoken about the reasons why, nor will do beyond the “musical differences” lines that was used at the time, but the reasoning you think it obvious is not accurate.’ Says Miles, when I ask whether the change of name of studio was due to licensing issues alone.

‘There were moments of the process that were very stressful. It made me quite ill & I ended up in hospital after collapsing in Los Angeles literally two days before a meeting where it was all going to be “final”. But there are no regrets at all. In fact, I don’t think it could have gone better for us as a studio. There were a lot of people in the industry who thought we were all crazy and it was a huge risk, but it paid off and I really do believe that Football Manager today is bigger and better as a brand and a game than anything we could have done under our old relationship.’

THE FUTURE

With SI already expanding the brand to iOS and handheld consoles, as well as continuing to release regular updates for PC I ask him they’ve looked to expand further; to social media, home console or wherever he thinks the path might lead them.

‘We already integrate social media into the game – you can send info via twitter or facebook in the game. But if you mean being able to play the game on Facebook, that’s a bit like trying to shove an F1 racing car engine into a Skoda and putting it out onto the road. It would be (just a little bit) too powerful.’

‘We tried consoles a few years ago with an Xbox version, which did OK, and then a couple of Xbox 360 versions, which didn’t. At the time, we thought it was down to the interface being a bit, well, rubbish, to control with a joypad. Since then we’ve done a lot of research into why the console games didn’t do well, and what we could do to help and the simple answer is “we can’t”.

‘People tend to play our games for much longer bursts of time than other games, and taking over the living room for long periods of time doesn’t go down well with flatmates and family, particularly as FM isn’t the best game to watch unless you’re actually playing.’

He’s also able to briefly talk about Football Manager Online, a game initially developed for the South Korean market who, along with Blizzard’s StarCraft, seem to have taken to SI’s game like the proverbial duck to water – though only if the duck was compulsively obsessed with said water.

‘There’s still work to do, and we won’t release it until both us and KTH (the Korean development studio) are happy with it,’ he says. ‘We have jointly designed the game, with us responsible for mainly gameplay code and them responsible for some of the server side code and screen design. We’ve learnt a lot during the process, particularly about what the customers in these countries require from a game, which is very different to the Western customer.

As for what you can expect – a cross between a Korean online game and Football Manager. You can play against both humans and AI teams, build your squad up with transfers and training, all using points that you earn whilst playing the game. There are tournaments, clans, even secretaries (who are TV stars in Korea) to help guide you through.

Enough to keep you occupied for another 20 seasons.