Oh how I miss the days of five-hour seasons and having the power to select and arrange advertising boards. Even when they took themselves way too seriously, like with The Manager and the Premier Manager series, football management games used to have a wonderful innocence to them that the latest Sports Interactive fare lacks. There was a playfulness and a willingness to part from realism because it was cool, and because games don't need to be lifelike.
Premier Manager 2 is, to my mind, the last of the old kind of virtual football management; it's the final hurrah for a less-is-more approach that eroded on one side with the rise of Championship Manager's stats-driven simulation and on the other with the flash and misplaced grandeur (and terrible graphical match engines) of later Premier Manager and Ultimate Soccer Manager games.
I remember hours spent racing through matches with the speed cranked up to "ultra", the ball hopping back and forth along a narrow strip that looks more akin to a progress bar than a football pitch. I could imagine a world of possibility from that bar and the barebones commentary that accompanies it - reporting tackles, passes, interceptions and shots with utmost efficiency of language.
The Premier Manager 2 match engine has all you need to portray the drama of football; tension rises as the ball edges closer to one end or the other, the clock ticks away in rapid chunks, a few basic stats keep you in the loop on which team is leading on possession or shots at goal, and shots themselves are accented by canned scoreboard-style animations that for just an instant leave you holding your breath as you wait for a highly-pixellated MISS, SAVE or GOAL to fill the screen.
Fans of the beautiful game like to remark upon its poetry. The grace of a single touch that deftly flicks the ball past an onrushing defender and into the path of the striker. The harmonious rhythm of a Barcelona or Arsenal or Brazil side at their best, or the breathtaking poise and balance of a great player like Messi in full flight with the ball at his feet. But football video games - the management sub-genre included - often get caught up on the mechanics, on tactics and attributes and ball and player physics and all manner of other little details that account for none of the delight of a goal made from nothing or the anger of a bad tackle left unpunished.
Football thrives in moments, not numbers, while games grip most tightly when they control your imagination. Premier Manager 2 balances these strengths better than most. Even the mighty Championship Manager's iconic text-only match engine, absolutely brimming with imaginative potential, fell short to Premier Manager 2 in capturing the moment-to-moment magic of a football ping-ponging up and down the pitch as players battle for control of the play.
Championship Manager has it beat all ends up in terms of authenticity and simulation and data nerdery (there's a reason the Champ Man series has a reputation for being a glorified spreadsheet), thanks to a raft of totally sensible features like player happiness and personality, match ratings, a more logical set of attributes (the original Champ Man, released one year prior, takes account of pace and heading ability, for instance, whereas PM2 does not) and vastly more sophisticated signing and scouting procedures.
But football management games are games, after all, and Premier Manager 2 is content to omit the cruft of simulation in favour of including more control and variety. You get enormous agency within your club, able to choose the sponsor boards that dot the perimeter of the pitch and to build upgrades to your stadium. Do you want fans to get splinters from wooden seats or to stand in the rain or lap up some luxury in fancy seats with similarly-fancy covering? Do you make tickets cheap, so that any old Joe can attend, or pump up the price of entry?
You can hire and fire backroom staff with no consequences and sign out-of-contract players on the cheap that you turf off to the highest bidder the very same day (each week is three days: Monday, Wednesday, Saturday), while injured players can be treated by the physio or sent off to hospital or to a specialist sports injury centre at higher expense (unless you have them insured) for faster recovery.
You do all this via a nifty phone-and-notepad interface that lets you actually dial the numbers of your staff if you don't feel like clicking on their names. You get faxes that tell you about transfers and results, with the existence of important news badged on the main screen by the word FAX. It sounds horribly dated, but it was the height of football management cool in 1993, and it makes for quick and easy access to most of the menus that matter.
I kept detailed notebooks of my own wherein I charted the development of my players from one season to the next, fascinated at how the five base attributes - handling, tackling, passing, shooting, control - creep up or down over the course of a season and fly up over the summer break. Players barely improve at all after they reach 23 years old, and you can predict the amount of improvement during the off-season by considering their age and the training regime they have on the last day of the season (in my case, usually their best attribute at "extreme" intensity). A 19 year old, for instance, will often gain as many as 20 attribute points, focused mostly in the area you're training him.
There's not much randomness to the procedure, nor are there hidden "potential ability" points. Premier Manager 2 is surprisingly transparent in all its facets. What you see is what you get. (And what you want to get is Conroy, because the Preston North End striker becomes the best player in the game after a few seasons.)
Where Premier Manager 2 gets really interesting, though, particularly when contrasted it to the football management games that followed, is that it forces you to start at the bottom. You choose a team in the Conference League (Halifax Town if you want first-season promotion, Stalybridge Celtic if you want a serious challenge to survive) and make your way up through the English football hierarchy to eventually win the Premier League. You can't start at the top, as in most games of the sort; you have to earn your place there.
It's tough, too. You can very easily get slaughtered week in, week out with what looks like a strong team. Your squad is like a puzzle. You have to work out the best tactics and formation for the players you have. Figuring it out doesn't require the slightest bit of football knowledge - genuine tactical nous might actually stand against you - but rather some intuition involving which numbers are higher and what elements might go well together.
The individual components aren't particularly compelling on their own - none of the systems or features of Premier Manager 2 are particularly deep, it must be said. But together they add up to something special. Later entries in the series held on to the approachability and lighter simulation, but they gradually lost the magic as the match engines took on more detailed graphics and development passed from Gremlin Interactive to Dinamic Software (who are known in their native Spain for the excellent PC Fútbol series) to Zoo Digital.
In a market dominated by the singular vision and remarkable depth of Champ Man successor Football Manager - even accounting for the stripped-down Football Manager Classic - there's surely room for the kind of pick-up-and-play lightheartedness of a Gremlin Interactive Premier Manager or its other contemporary powerhouse Player Manager. These were games that didn't take reams of patience or an encyclopaedic knowledge to understand and master, and their innocent, simplified take on simulation may be a welcome return to the many refugees of Football Manager's march towards authentic realism.