I'm at the big Barnet vs Chester League Two clash. It's the usual routine: a few hurried ales before getting into the ground at 2.55pm, nodding to a couple of faces and taking my seat. Looking up, I notice that Barnet's keeper is called Flitney (it's written on his shirt), which seems somehow familiar. Remembering where I know him from, I unthinkingly announce to my mate that I signed him on loan a few seasons ago. Looking up from his programme, he simply stares at me blankly. "In Football Manager," I clarify. "It's not real," he correctly surmises, before returning to his overpriced pamphlet.
Of course it's not real. We know it's not real. But such is the resemblance to real football that it sometimes can't help but spill over. The sign of a genuine Football Manager addict is when they start banging on about their team as if it's real, and indeed as if anyone cares. It's a trait that I used to mock former PC Zone editor Jeremy Wells for demonstrating, as he endlessly droned on about his Arsenal formation. Of course, this was before I'd become addicted and started boring people myself. Guess what? Nobody cares. It's the equivalent of starting to tell someone about a really weird dream you had involving your headmaster and a goldfish - save yourself, they've already stopped listening. Yet still the game continues to absorb more addicts.
I was on a press trip recently with the usual bunch of slackers, quaffing foreign beers late into the night. The majority of conversational gambits had been exhausted - even politics - when it eventually got onto games. One wild-eyed PlayStation hack then confessed how he sneaks out of bed - like some secret lemonade drinker (one for fans of '80s adverts there) - leaving his girlfriend slumbering, to get his newly acquired fix of Football Manager. And of course he made the mistake of telling us how he'd signed Dudek and blah-blah-blah... Cue glazed eyes, yawns and a rapid scattering towards bed.
RETURN OF THE SMACK
The good/bad news is that Football Manager is back, and is - as if you hadn't guessed - as chronically addictive as ever. It's not a problem for me. I can handle it. As EastEnders' 'Nasty' Nick Cotton used to plea to his mum, Dot, when she locked him in the spare room to get him off the smack: "I'm better, Ma."
Yeah, I'll have the odd dabble, but I've moved on. It's a beautiful world out there, not to be wasted sat in an airless room pondering over formations and tactics. Besides, with the mighty Chester currently riding high in League Two (in 'real life'), I've no need for a digital substitute.
Bouts of Football Manager addiction tend to come when your real team is struggling, causing you to attempt to see how you could do better. There's no way I could do better than current Chester incumbent, Keith Curle, and I get my football kicks from travelling the length and breadth of the country watching us routinely twat several goals past the opposition.
But, just in theory, if I were sucked into the occasional six-hour session of FM2006, I may have been mightily impressed. I might have enjoyed the new Quick Tactic feature, enabling you to make changes on-the-fly. I might also have attempted to change things at half-time with the right choice of team-talk. I could also have been intrigued by the new physio reports, whereby they present the information to you, and even ask if a player should be given an injection to get him through the game. The new match engine might have even proved useful, with injured players marked with an on-screen icon alerting you to their discomfort. Or there's the fact that the new snapshot page gives you all the info you need at a glance rather than having to flick through pages looking for finances, fixtures and so on. There's even the option to view player info in easy-to-read bar charts instead of numerically.