When Plymouth Argyle Went All Championship Manager
What a game Championship Manager 0102 was - is, in fact - and always will be. For all the funk and jazz of the latest Football Manager releases, CM0102 is a timeless entity that astounds in its effective simplicity. I don’t know if anyone bothers with those Millennium boxes or time capsules for future generations to find anymore but I hope one exists with a Windows 98 and a copy of the red disc inside.
Some were pulled by a rampant Ruud Van Nistelrooy to Manchester United, others to the near invincible Roma side, but those in it for the long run would start in the old Third Division or lower. Hull, Luton, and Rushden and Diamonds were popular choices, as was Plymouth Argyle. At that level, bargains were ever important but some of the higher tier freebies and wonderkids were just out of reach - for now.
At The Terrace, we are fairly sure one of the scouts working at Argyle in 2005 and 2006 was a fan of the game and had perhaps even played as the club. In 2001, when the game came out, the Pilgrims were about to embark on their fourth season in the Third Division, which would end in promotion before two seasons in the Second Division and another promotion. It’s the kind of achievable ascendancy synonymous with skilled ChampMan players. Their most talented and efficient in-game counterparts were Nicky Banger, David Friio, Ian Stonebridge, and David Worrell, according to expert CM player Ian Edwards, who is also the graphic designer behind this article’s artwork.
Come the start of the 2005/06 campaign, you were already four seasons deep and ready for number five. Michael Dunwell was probably still tearing it up for you and you’d chained Mark Kerr to the clubhouse outside of match days for fear of one of the big boys coming in for him. It’s at this point that you’ve perhaps built up a budget big enough for the plentiful of talented players available at around the £1-2m mark. Here’s where reality and imagination seemingly collided almightily.
Plymouth were about to commence their second season in the Championship when Taribo West rocked up at preseason training.
Argyle manager Bobby Williamson was “delighted” with his new signing. “He turned up at 2am and that shows his commitment.” Supposedly having his head turned by the ambition at Home Park, West purportedly turned down interest from Benfica. Unfortunately - and perhaps not just because it was four years on from his free agent status in-game - West would not replicate his cult hero virtual persona. Five games later, and the number 4 had his contract terminated. Tony Pulis – and the obligatory presence of son Anthony – in, Nigerian legend out.
Although it was still early in the season, many felt the writing was on the wall if the club stuck with Williamson, so in came in Pulis – tracksuited and booted. It marked the end of West’s time at the club, not leaving before having a dig at the new manager, claiming he couldn’t manage big name players, but Pulis himself would not last long. Eight 0-0s was indicative that Pulis had stamped his trademark on the team in double-quick time, but even a return of a 14th place finish was unable to save him. The “boring Argyle” label was not something the club wanted to stick, and in came Ian Holloway, an extra 25 goals over the course of the season, only a solitary 0-0 result, and an improved finish of 11th.
It was a comparatively free-scoring team after the previous season and among many of the goals were Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Barry Hayles. But neither were anything special on ChampMan, were they? Instead, it was the transfer deadline day antics that brought the second CM0102 legend to Home Park: Cherno Samba.
Having once scored 132 goals in 32 games, Samba joined Millwall and it was here that you could find him on the iconic game. Just to make it clear, those 132 goals came in a real-life season, albeit as a 13-year old for his school football team, and not on a CM save. So, it was understandable just how hyped up he was in the game and in real life, where he entertained talks with Manchester United and Liverpool, despite neither materialising into anything.
When I ran a ten year simulation on CM0102, Samba's accolades extended to a Premier League winners medal, a Players’ Player of the Year Award, three Premier League Team of the Season spots, and a Golden Boot. He was a fully-fledged England international, as well.
On 31st August 2006, Holloway signed Samba on a free transfer after his two-year sojourn in Spain had ended following his 2004 release by Millwall. He scored 11 goals in 18 games whilst on loan at Malaga’s B team from Cadiz, so there was still every hope he could fulfil his potential – only a year earlier, he had been capped by England U20s.
It was a perfect start for the Gambian born striker, scoring the winner on his debut in the 82nd minute, eight minutes after coming on as a substitute. Unfortunately, Argyle’s second attempt at harnessing the coded gold of Championship Manager legends had failed too. Four months later, Samba was sent out on loan to League Two Wrexham for one month and the option to extend it was not taken up. At the end of his two-year contract with the Pilgrims, he left as he joined – on a free transfer – with no further goals to his name and just 13 league appearances.
There has long been speculation that Taribo West had lied about his real age throughout his career and so when he arrived at Plymouth in 2005 aged 31, according to the former general secretary of Partizan Žarko Zečević he may well have been 43. “He joined us saying he was 28. We only later found out he was 40, but he was still playing well so I don’t regret having him on the team,” Zečević said years later.
It is a rumour that has followed West and some of his other international teammates of the same generation around for many years and could explain why his abilities so quickly dropped off at the end of 1999. At this point, his maths would have had him aged 25 and surely heading towards his peak as a centre-back, yet that isn’t at all what happened. He went from a double-winning colossus at Auxerre and a UEFA Cup winner with Inter, to a bit of a journeyman and caricature. It would make much more sense if he was instead 37 in 1999, as Zečević believes is the case.
Similar – yet very less intense and seriously taken – rumours briefly surfaced around Cherno Samba but were dispelled just as quickly. Instead, his was a case of the pressures of the game and the lack of attention to mental health there was in football just as recently as 15 years ago.
If Plymouth fancy their luck one more time – third time lucky and all that – Freddy Adu has only just turned 30 and believes he has it in him to give it one last shot at fulfilling at least some of his potential.
Remember to check out Ian's work: https://twitter.com/citizenedwards