Anyone who has ever played any version of Football Manager or Championship Manager will have a few players he never fails to sign, no matter for which club. These tried and tested players would never fail to disappoint, churning out consistently scintillating performances and carrying teams to success on such a regular level you simply couldn’t resist buying them for every team and every save.
The more experienced players of the game will undoubtedly recognize names like Tonton Zola Moukoko, so good they named him twice, and named a real-life Chelsea legend after him, Cherno Samba, Maxim Tsigalko, Ibrahima Bakayoko (so good Zlatan borrowed his name), To Madeira and other such legends of the hyper-realistic world of simulated football management. Now while I haven’t racked as many man hours on the game as players of the early Championship Manager have, I have still about two months on the game in total, during which time I’ve managed the likes of Wigan, Newcastle, Derby County, Athletic Bilbao, Tottenham, and Manchester United, winning countless trophies, spending billions of dollars and coming across some truly memorable players. In this article, I’ll list and briefly talk about fond memories of my five favourite Football Manager players, of the hundreds I’ve managed. Now they won’t be cultural icons like a Zola Moukoko or Bakayoko, nor will they have last names to rival theirs, but they’ve been absolutely stellar over the years, and my memories of playing Football Manager would be incomplete without them.
5) Zinedine Zidane
The only versions of Football Manager I have played are FM12, 14, and 15, so it would seem strange to say I’ve had the honour of managing the great Zinedine Zidane, my favourite player of all time. The opportunity to do so came along when I found a fantastic Legends database for FM15, and the moment I realized it was legit, there was no question about which team I was going to manage. Sure, United had Duncan Edwards, Sir Bobby Charlton, Roy Keane, and George Best, and AC Milan had Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Frank Rijkaard. Sure, Maradona, Pele, and Luis Ronaldo were all in action, but there was no beating a Real Madrid team consisting of Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, and the one and only Zinedine Zidane.
I took charge of the team, playing a 4-1-2-1-2 with two narrow central midfielders (Redondo and Pirri, with Guti deputizing from the bench), two wing-backs (Roberto Carlos and Chendo), and Zidane playing as the attacking midfielder behind the deadly combination of Don di Stefano and Puskas. I only played four pre-season games on this save, before uninstalling the game (I’d failed two courses out of five during the semester, simply because guiding Wigan to European Champions Cup glory mattered more to me than studying Econometrics), but there were enough moments in those four games to cement Zizou’s position in my Football Manager Hall of Fame.
One stands out in particular, and it was almost too perfect to be true. I am struggling to find the words to describe a goal Zizou scored, but essentially, it was an exact replica of his spectacular volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the final of the 2001-02 UEFA Champions League. Roberto Carlos unleashed a powerful cross from the left, albeit not like his hopeful swing of the boot during the build up to the goal in 2002, and although the opposition defender rose above Puskas to head it out, Zidane was waiting outside the penalty area (he scored from about 5 yards outside the area, unlike the goal against Leverkusen), and as the ball traced an arc in the air, he met it with a perfectly timed left-footed volley, and the keeper had no chance.
Given I don’t have video evidence of the goal, you’d be well within your rights to question the legitimacy of this story, but believe me, I was as shocked as you are unconvinced. This was one of those quintessential FM moments you never forget, and a darn more memorable one than that time you had 23 shots on goal to your opponent’s 2, and ended up losing 1-0. I was on my feet clapping at my screen, and have often thought about the goal since. Only Zidane was capable of moments like that.
4) James Husband
I love it when you take a gamble on a player, not knowing how good he’ll be but not too bothered if he doesn’t work out since he came cheap, is young, and has resale value. Former Doncaster left-back James Husband was one such player.
During my second season in the Championship with Derby County, I felt I needed a significant upgrade on Craig Forsyth, and since Doncaster Rovers had recently been relegated, Husband had been transfer-listed, and despite his bang average statistics, I felt he was worth bringing to the team, although that was more an indication of my lack of options within the squad than any premonition regarding the unbelievable success Husband would have in my team.
At left-back during his first season with Derby, he consistently achieved 7.50 ratings per game, and his tackling per game was off the charts. I’ve lost count of how many times we scored on the counter after he performed a perfectly-timed sliding tackle on his man and launched a counter attack.
After I resigned from Derby following a poor run of results that saw us win 2 games in 13 in our second season in the Premier League (we finished 9th on our return to the top flight), I joined Wigan, and for some reason didn’t go right back to Derby to poach the left-back. I persisted with the likes of Shane Ferguson (who performed admirably, and netted me a neat 1.5 million pound profit after 12 months), Rugenio Gregoria (the next big Dutch left-back, but didn’t settle in the Premier League), and a couple other evidently unmemorable players, but in the end bought Husband over. He was still only 25, so I knew I’d get 6 or 7 excellent years out of him. And wasn’t he fantastic. Part of a legendary Wigan side that won four Premier League titles in six seasons, in addition to a number of domestic trophies and one European Champions Cup, Husband excelled year after year, putting in performances that defied his attributes and price.
For those of you who enjoy buying players cheap and nurturing them into top-class professionals instead of spending 40 million quid on Luke Shaw, I’d strongly recommend you give Husband a go. What a fantastic player. Also, other great players from that legendary Wigan side: James Tomkins, Alex McCarthy, Matt Lowton, Ryan Ledson, Josip Radosevic, Javier Mascherano (I bought him when he was 34, and he was stellar for two seasons!), and Thierry Ambrose.
3) Andre Schurrle
A member of a fantastic save with Manchester United in FM14 (read all about my first three seasons in that save here, here, and here!), Schurrle wasn’t a signing I had expected to make, and certainly not a player I could have seen becoming my goalscorer-in-chief for five excellent seasons.
With Wayne Rooney, Diego Costa, Robin van Persie, James Wilson, Adnan Januzaj, Wilfried Zaha, Antonio Valencia, James Ward-Prowse, and Marouane Fellaini capable of occupying the three attacking midfield roles in a 4-2-3-1 formation between them, I felt I had enough manpower to take me through the season relatively comfortably. However, when the German winger became transfer listed and offered at around 60% of his true market value, I felt it was too good an opportunity to ignore. And it proved to be the wisest decision I’ve ever made on impulse.
Schurrle was an immediate success, making the Inside Forward role on the left wing his own, linking up beautifully with Rooney, Costa, and van Persie to plunder goal after goal after goal. He was effective enough from the left, but after van Persie left and Rooney lost his goal-scoring touch, Schurrle became an Advanced Forward as part of a two-man partnership with Costa, and later Mauro Icardi, up top, ending as club top-scorer for four of the five seasons I completed (scoring 28, 26, 36 and 29 goals in all competitions in those four seasons) and helping us win five Premier League titles, two European Champions Cups, one FA Cup, two Capital One Cups, three Community Shields, one Club World Championship in five glorious years. With 116 goals in 228 appearances, he was a deserving member of the club’s Best XI first team, and a United legend in my book.
2) Kurt Zouma
Second place on this list goes to another member of that successful side, the French behemoth Kurt Zouma. Now, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of defenders in this save: Rafael (later Gino Peruzzi), Phil Jones, Chris Smalling (both excellent in the game), Luke Shaw, James Husband, Toby Alderweireld, Eder Alvarez Balanta, John Stones, and, of course, Nemanja Vidic. They were all rock solid, and Vidic was stellar during the two seasons he played before I moved him on. His Bravery, Strength, and Heading made him a fearsome defender, but also a dangerous threat going forward, particularly from corners. In his 58 appearances over the two campaigns, he scored 17 goals, including a HAT-TRICK of headed goals from corners in a Capital One Cup semi-final tie against Chelsea. I kid you not. He almost made it to this list just for that!
But I had to go for Zouma because, after I brought him in for 33.5 million dollars (using the 35 million from the sale of John Stones to Arsenal), he exceeded all reasonable expectations and topped Vidic’s record both defensively and going forward. Played in a Covering role on the right of a two-man central defense, Zouma was always on hand to lap up any mistakes that put strikers through on goal, and I do not remember him making a single mistake in four seasons (not one, and you can trust me on this, since I have a worryingly accurate memory when it comes to FM). As if that wasn’t good enough, he left Vidic in the dust when it came to scoring from corners. I believe he scored 25 goals in all competitions in his first two seasons with the club.
In his two complete seasons at United, Zouma made 85 appearances in all competitions (43 at 7.54 in 2016/17, and 42 at a scarcely believable 7.78 in 2017/18, and as of April in the 2018/19 season, he’d scored a 7.56 average rating in 27 appearances. In both those two full seasons, he was awarded the Fans’ Player of the Year, and it says something about how good a player he is in the game that he was consistently the best player in THIS star-studded and hyper-effective team:
People say Eder Alvarez Balanta is the best player in the game, and he is absolutely fantastic. But given the money to buy him, I wouldn’t pick anyone ahead of Kurt Zouma.
And now for my all-time favourite player on Football Manager.
1) Anthony Mounier
Slightly underwhelming, isn’t it? Were you expecting a Neymar or a Gabriel Barbosa? Perhaps an Aleksandr Mitrovic or Luke Shaw (who I have seen get 25 assists in a Premier League season)? Nope, it’s this little-known French winger with the most average set of attributes you could possibly find.
But, as was the case with James Husband, the numbers don’t tell half the story. I have signed Mounier on a number of occasions, but I believe the first time was with Spurs in FM2012, where I played a 4-1-2-1-2 with a midfield diamond that utilized wide midfielders. Mounier slotted in on the left, and delivered Beckham-esque whipped crosses from the get-go. I would need three or four more hands to be able to count on my fingers the number of times my Spurs, Wigan, and United sides in FM2012 equalized or won a game in the 90th minute from a Mounier cross down the left. The word sensational doesn’t do him justice.
As is probably the case with most FM fanatics with a favourite player, I soon began to explore ways to bring the best out of Mounier from a statistical point of view; how could I get him to make more assists and score more goals? Put him on free-kick and penalty duty even though his set-piece attributes are bang average? Check. Play him as a striker late in games so he can nick an odd goal every game? Check. I even changed him to a CAM in my United save, a move that proved a masterstroke. He moved from getting 7-10 goals and 15 assists a season from the left to getting 20 goals and 35+ assists when played behind two strikers in a narrow 4-1-2-1-2. His ability to find defense-splitting passes was second to none, and his slight frame and low centre of gravity meant he was constantly winning us penalties. Defenders couldn’t keep up with him.
Again, Mounier is statistically a totally ordinary player, but one of those rare gems who was unplayable on FM.
So there you have it: my five all-time favourite players in Football Manager! Some of the contenders were: Nemanja Vidic (for reasons mentioned), Toby Alderweireld (consistency and adaptability personified), James Ward-Prowse, James McCarthy, Javier Mascherano, Thierry Ambrose. Notice I have not mentioned any regens, since they wouldn’t be identified by readers; if I had, however, PSV Eindhoven youth product Sander Vink would certainly have been number one; a 6′ 6” central defender with attributes off the charts across the board, he captained my Wigan side to all those titles I mentioned in the section on James Husband, and was in the World Team of the Year for three seasons in a row, joining me and Dave Whelan in the Legends list at Wigan Athletic.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I’d love to know about some of the players who’ve served you well down the years!