There was a time before The Great Footballing Schism. Long before Sports Interactive peeled off from Eidos to monopolise the sphere of football management simulation, there was a little shareware game orbiting around in 1995. A game that let you do pretty much everything you wanted.This was a game that knew of football's darker sides, and the suited and booted trials and tribulations that a manager had to face. It wasn't all Umbro tracksuits and plastic cones for goalposts. Sometimes you had to stick on a tie and get your noses dirty.
Ultimate Soccer Manager released in '95 for DOS, Amiga, and Win95, as a shareware title doing the rounds with a fully-fledged demo that allowed you do play your way up from Division 2 as Brighton and Hove Albion. I discovered it stuck to the front of a magazine (I forget which one exactly), housed in a light grey floppy disk, with a green sticker displaying a bespectacled chairman on the front.
I immediately fell in love with it. I didn't have anything to compare it too at that stage, to be honest. It was only later that I picked up Championship Manager 2, once you could nab it for a couple of quid from Argos, and thus my tactician's brain was moulded by Impressions and Sierra.
The joy of USM came in the details. Far more expansive than its Eidos counterpart, USM offered gamers the chance to take on the role of the world's most overworked manager. Today we have sales managers, directors of football (I still don't really know exactly what they do), team managers, press officers, board liaison officers, and lots of other bureaucratic hangers-on, poncing about in suits and generally getting in the way.
Not so for the Ultimate Soccer Manager!
Micromanagement was the order of the day. On the pitch there was the matter of team selection, tactical deployment, and swiftly changing things up if things weren't going your way. The top-down perspective looked very much like Sensible Soccer, which was no bad thing, and drag-and-drop elements made tactical shifts easy and intuitive. There was even a full editor packaged with the game (and, indeed, the demo) that allowed you to create superteams of you and your friends, with stats maxed out to 99, long before such user-friendly openness came to the Championship Manager series.
Even better were the elements that really rooted you in the world of a manager. Instead of simply presenting you with a slick, streamlined database, Impressions delivered an interface that shared much in common with the point-and-click adventure games that had taken off in the 90s. Fixtures were accessed by clicking on a clipboard; the league table and other leaderboards could be accessed through teletext on the TV in your office. Perhaps best of all was the news: any interview quote you'd give after a game would be wildly embellished, and something almost unrecognisable would turn up in the newspaper left on your next each day. For a sense of immersion, USM really couldn't be beaten back in the day.
Then, of course, there were the extra tasks too. You could oversee the construction of new stadia - expanding terraces, gradually building your own theatre of dreams - not to mention better training facilities, increased parking, with construction work visible from an overview of your footballing plaza so you could see it all happen right before your eyes. It was from here that you could access the various hubs for training, match day preparations, offices, and also up the parking prices if you wanted to fleece your fans.
Financial considerations were key too, with advertisers bombarding you with offers, and your traditional buying and selling of players conducted via a computer. How very meta. But the best bit was that you could be a wheeler-dealer of a manager, with fingers in some very shady pots if you wished. You could dish out bungs to opposition teams, and place bets on the outcomes of your own matches. While you were fleecing people in the stands with overpriced merchandise and absurdly expensive hot dogs, you could be rigging the on-pitch action too.
Put simply, USM gave you more power than you could possibly dream of. None of these Russian billionaires telling you not to sell a player. Sir Alex would've certainly approved. After all, no one is bigger than the manager, and if the Chairman didn't like it, you could honk his nose and rearrange his stationary.
NB. The writing of this article has rather filled me with a sense of craving that I usually only reserve for a cool pint on Fridays, and the delights of hoisin duck. If you know of a working version (ideally optimised for DOSBox) please please please could you let me know, because the ones that I've tried thus far have been shit.