Thursday, 24 March 2011

John Lennon And The Meteoric Rise Of Pro Vercelli

Lennon said `I'm an artist. You give me a fuckin' tuba and I'll get you something out of it.' – Frank Costello, The Departed

The international break rolls around every year at this time. Every year, just as title races all across Europe kick into overdrive and every game, every second, every action begins to have season-defining consequences, the international break pops up and disrupts the flow. For the avid football fan the phrase “international break” holds the same level of dread and apprehension as “surprise audit” or “tax return” in other walks of life.

So said fan is forced to go elsewhere to find his fix during the international break blues. Somehow the idea of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshire going head-to-head in a glorified friendly just doesn’t cut the athletic mustard for the discerning fanatic. The success or lack thereof of the Rooney-Carroll partnership is not going to cause many sleepless nights. So this week I plunged myself into the digital ether in order to find a cure, a patch, something to tide me over until the Milan derby and the resumption of the Champions League.

What I found was genius. Although he is a well-known figure in the Twittersphere where he resides, the name Brian Phillips is unlikely to elicit more than a bemused expression and a mumbled reply along the lines of “Wasn’t he that actor from the sixties? Yeah, he was on ITV all the time when I was a lad.” This is a tragic state of affairs because, rather than playing Mike Steele in “Inside Job” Phillips is actually the editor of Run Of Play and a contributor to Slate magazine in the U.S.

I had been aware of Phillips work for some time and shared the sentiments of Chris Mann of Equaliser Blog fame when he said that Phillips “wrote one of the greatest sporting essays ever written” about the phenomenon that was Pele. However that was not what kept me riveted to my seat until nearly dawn, getting repetitive stress injury from going click, read, scroll, read, click. It wasn’t even an essay about a real person, place or club. It was the Football Manager universe. Everything was fictitious but read like the Brian Clough autobiography that never was. As Nicholson’s Frank Costello stated, give an artist anything and he can get you something out of it. While innumerable hacks sit pouring over drab ideas, Phillips has created a genuinely gripping series from a computer game. An entire narrative has been constructed and the people given real personalities. The coaches to games are the scenes of emotional trauma and joyful elation as little details flesh out this brave new world.

The story of Pro Vercelli’s progress from the lowest depths of Italian football to the giddy heights of European football was an exceptional read. With all the verve and dry self-deprecation of true great, Phillips reports on his journey with the provincial fallen giants in Football Manager. Of course it helps to be familiar with the insanely detailed world of the FM’s where the phrase “Letting the side down” is more than just a throw-away phrase, it summons up a wealth of experiences. Remember that time you took your bedraggled and desperate team and, with one speech, sent them out as tigers baying for blood?

But even if one is a newcomer to the world of FM, Phillips long-running series captivates to the point where missing sleep is preferable to missing the next instalment. Surely he should have seen Ibanez was never going to cut it in the unforgiving environs of Serie B? But he managed to unearth gems like Jose or Fabrizio “The Red Baron” Barone so surely the man knows what he’s doing.

His ascent through the leagues is supported – tolerated? – by his wife Siobhan who consents to cooking dishes from the Piedmont region of Italy as celebrations for his virtual successes. She details exactly what she does for her husband, hunting down various obscure ingredients to ensure authenticity as his managerial genius deserves. Never mind the incompetent fumblings of Walter Colombo, the real assistant in Vercelli’s meteoric rise is one S. Phillips. Andy Gray and Richard Keys, eat your hearts out.

As I read the adventures of Pro Vercelli, the familiar itch to challenge myself against this amazing game re-emerged and, as an homage to the wonderful Vercelli team that conquered all in its path, my new game was started as rivals Casale from the same region. We have endured a mediocre start to the season but from small beginnings and all that...

Brian Phillips and Pro Vercelli:

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