Something a little different this week guys, I am putting my ML diaries on hold for a week and will return next week, which will probably see the conclusion of season 2, as at the time of writing I am just into the January period, made some new signings, and turned a dip in form around to nudge us up the table, hovering just outside the playoff places.

But this week see’s a guest post from none other than regular commenter and community friend, Abbeyhill, who has just concluded a mammoth 15 seasons on FIFA career mode, so without further ado ….

September 2019. Just over a year ago but already feels like a different world and one to which I suspect we will never entirely go back. I started playing FIFA19 a year late and partly out of guilt. 12 months before that FIFA18 was looking decent and my career mode was off to a great start. But suddenly everyone was raving about PES2019 and I dropped FIFA like a stone, leaving Ipswich marooned mid-table in the Championship. Maybe not a bad place to leave them marooned in fairness, they will struggle to get back there in real life

When I say ‘everyone’ of course I mean the regular commentators on here and on peschonicles (RIP), it has been some years since I met a PES player in real life. Son gets very annoyed by my wife referring to his FIFA20 as Pro Evolution (NO THAT’S THE ONE DAD PLAYS). Took on a colleague at work one lunch break on my laptop and as we played out a 1-1 draw between Hibs and Arsenal on PES2019 I was impressed that he remembered most of the PES5 Master League defaults despite jumping ship for FIFA shortly thereafter. Understandable perhaps given the quality of that particular PES.

Equally I expect to remember my players in FIFA19 for a very long time. All youths, endless hours put into scouting them with my gradually improving network, best ones into the youth team the others abandoned to uncertain futures. Watching them develop, customising their weekly training, seeing the stats edge up, blooding them as late subs or in cup games, seeing sparks of promise that would later blossom into world class talent. Our youth development at Exeter City focused on British players initially and some of the early season signings formed the bedrock of the team not to mention the national squads for the next decade plus.

Jim Leighton was my goalkeeping hero growing up, and Exeter’s number 1 Riley Wilson was cast in the same mould. Angular, slightly awkward looking but incredibly reliable and a capacity for remarkable saves at crucial moments. Although his deputy Fabian Barros grew almost as good over the years, 89 OVR v 90, I could never trust him quite as much. Fellow Scot Ewan Young on the left wing. Tall, powerful and quick, a great header of the ball as well as finisher he had everything – in the final seasons he struggled to keep his place against Austrian wonderkid Joachim Dammerer but remained a key member of the squad. Our contingent from south of the border were equally important. Declan Jackson, a commanding centre half and my captain all the way through, even as a lowly rated youth he had a presence and calmness about him that Exeter’s starting CBs lacked. Two world class wingers Billy Harris and Morgan Rose. A classic old school centre forward with a classic old school name, Henry Thomas. His stats never amounted to much, peaking out at 79 OVR, but his 6’7 physical presence kept him in the squad for many years.

Here is Ewan Young scoring the decisive penalty in the Carabao Cup final v Spurs season 15. Then we turn to the Champions League round of 16, a horrible away fixture at Valencia in the snow. Have never managed to get used to snow, reminds me of that shocking pitch that used to be in PES with the stripes down it, Everton played on it, impossible to see the ball as it trundles oddly across the surface. Valencia scored an undefendable strike late on, only for Rose to deliver straight after kick-off. Next round, 1-0 down to Seville after the home leg, Jackson gets on the end of a free kick to seal the comeback in the return. Then a crucial save by Wilson in the semi first leg against a PSG team still spearheaded by Mbappe 15 years on. A few seasons earlier we had sold an increasingly immobile Thomas to Wolves, here he is in a 6 pointer late season league match being denied by Barros in the final seconds shortly after his successor big guy up front Cordoba put us ahead.

Despite all these promising young players the first few seasons at Exeter were really really tough. Playing on world class I was pretty optimistic about cruising through FIFA19 having been reading here over the prior few months the exploits of our good host Paul and also Darryl who I imagine both being FIFA players of a similar calibre to me. However, 21st in season 1 in league 2 was followed by 23rd in season 2. Arbitrary sackings in career mode have been one of my least favourite elements of FIFA over the years so I was delighted and amazed to be given more time, partly thanks to hitting all the other goals such as youth development and so forth. Having eventually arrived at a formation that worked – a 4-2-2-2, switching to a 3-4-1-2 when the opposition was playing one up top – we started to get some momentum going.

Lockdown in March. To be honest I really didn’t mind it too much at first, less time on overnight trains and alone in hotels, much more time with the family and getting stuck into my various gardening projects. Also more time for gaming on the PS4 and laptop rather than on the Switch, allowing my FIFA19 career to garner extra momentum. 5th in season 3, lost in the playoffs, then back to back titles. A couple seasons of consolidation in the Championship before stepping up to the Premier League.

One peculiar thing about youth development in FIFA19 was that although the scouts found any number of promising goalies, full backs, wingers and midfielders of all descriptions they continually short changed me at centre back and centre forward. Declan Jackson had to be partnered by a converted CDM, Eriksson, for the bulk of his career. We nurtured a stunning young New Zealand striker, baby-faced assassin Taylor Watson (seen below scoring v PSG) who ended up 92 OVR, but struggled to find a good partner for him once Thomas stopped developing. Lindstrom was ok but a bit lightweight – deadly from 2 inches out as you can see! Eventually our talented Irish attacking midfielder Pierce Brennan stepped up to the mark. Although he was as diminutive as Lindstrom and Watson he had presence in the air – here he is crashing through a pair of PSG defenders to seal our Champions League semi final win. And slotting in an equaliser from an acute angle against Fulham in the FA Cup final semi after a fierce shot from Young.

All this being said, the game I most associate with covid19 lockdown was the remarkable Red Dead Redemption II rather than FIFA. To be honest I only bought it as a graphical showcase for my new gaming laptop, not being a fan of the violence and cheap mission design of games by Rockstar. But over the months the atmosphere, music, characters and narrative arc of the title combined with the beautiful graphics to create something sublime. Endless evening hours spent wandering round the sun bleached American landscape, staring into the distance as the endless days confined to the house stretched ahead of us.

Meanwhile Exeter City were becoming a serious European force. A first Premier League title in season 10, followed by the Europa League the next. More league titles came although the Champions League eluded us with some painful knock-out defeats to Leipzig and Juve. In the past I had certainly never imagined playing a full 15 seasons on FIFA. Despite having admiration for the series since it became good (FIFA08) and in aggregate playing it more than PES since then, I lacked the stamina to take a club to the very top. My plan at this point was to give it 13 seasons and then switch to FIFA20, already a year late with that one too. However I found myself so attached to the players after all the time we had spent together it was impossible to say goodbye even after winning the treble. We still had the Champions League to win and I also had a nagging desire to see what actually happened at the end of 15 seasons, although admittedly googling it would have been less time-consuming.

The Champions League was clinched at last in season 14, leaving our final season with the target of a quadruple, or failing that just an extended goodbye to my virtual footballing friends. Some of the worst football game scripting I have ever encountered saw a tricky start of 5 straight league defeats but we gradually got back on course, while making progress in all the cups.

A massive run of wins after Christmas caught up with the leaders and soon Spurs, Wolves and Fulham fell away. After clinching the league next up was a memorable FA Cup final. By this point I was desperate to win the whole lot as there would be no further chances. Against an ageing Wolves side who were useful but a bit toothless and certainly beatable we were confident, but a certain Henry Thomas also had a point to prove:

That second goal was so reminiscent of the ones he used to score for me, towering over our CB Jackson to convert the cross, but fortunately we found a way back into the game through Watson and Hugo Dubois, our young Belgian LW who looked about 45 years old. Galeano, our towering Argentinian right back blessed with silver hair from an unusually young age, with the decisive header from that corner. He and Schmidt had been pretty much the perfect pair of full backs over the years, tall and strong in the tackle plus adept at getting forward.

My very last game of FIFA19 was a Champions League final against Spurs. We had failed to beat Spurs on 3 occasions over the season with their hyper aggressive pressure and narrow diamond so this was not going to be easy at all. After a lot of thinking I decided to abandon the usual patient approach and match them up with my strongest and fastest midfield – Young on the left, Harris on the right, Anzinger and Novak in the middle – with the aim of getting the ball forward as quickly as possible. Worked like a dream, one final brilliant save from Wilson and the two central midfielders scoring in the first half as we cruised home and sealed the quadruple.

And that was that. After playing a full 15 seasons without simming a single match I was hoping for something more of a send-off than a terse email. But it is fair to say that after a full year of enjoyment and distraction from life’s worries in exchange for £30 FIFA19 really did not owe me anything more, one of the best football game experiences ever. Thanks for reading!