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  • An Ode to the Double by Steve Betteley

    Posted: Friday 21st March 2014 - 14:15

    An Ode To The Double (Not the actual double)
    ‘The Double’ was a Spectrum game made by Nocturnal Software and initially published by Scanatron in 1987. It had an A-List endorsement from Howard Kendall and was favourably reviewed at the time of release. Particular praise was given to the extensive player database, an astonishing achievement at the time. The ‘goal’ of the game is, as the title suggests, to win the elusive League and FA Cup Double. Ten-a-penny these days, but for a game written just after Liverpool had won only the 5th double in nearly 100 years, the holiest of grails. The game is available, as are almost all Spectrum games ever made, at worldofspectrum.org, and one enthusiast has even written an editor program to allow you to update the database for the modern day, or any moment in history, the joys of which are simply too much to express in mere words.
    The game contained three divisions of 22 clubs, the Spectrum lacking the memory space for a full four division set up. It was the first game I came across, and I believe the first ever to do so, that had full, proper squads for all teams involved in the game. These squads are from 1986 and contain gems such as Tony Cascarino at Gillingham, Andy Sinton at Brentford, Keith Curle at Bristol City and Paul Parker at Fulham. This was nerd nirvana for my 10 year old self and, let’s be honest, blinded me to the glaring faults inherent in the management simulation itself.
    What separated the game from most of its contemporaries, aside from using real players in their proper club teams, is that the players themselves are not given a skill rating in the game. They have transfer values and wages that rise as you go further up the divisions but at no point are we given any indication as to the standard of their performances from week to week.
    So, how do you know which players are better than others without skill ratings? Glad you asked Greg, the answer lies through your personable, polite, somewhat limited, yet astonishingly well connected scouts (we’ll get to this contradiction later).  You have two scouts who are able to watch one game, and only one game, a week. This is because all games are played simultaneously on a week to week basis (as, it’s easy to forget, most games were in 1986) with the exception of FA Cup games that are either played in midweek or immediately after the league games, it’s never made clear in the game itself which is the case. After that game they will report back on the player you asked to be scouted, who would usually be a player who has been put up for transfer. Your scout will watch that player and that player alone. He will not make note of, nor tell you about, nor allow you to ask about anyone else. You know, scouting.
    His reports will say nothing negative about any player in the game, whether this is through basic politeness or a licensing clause I do not know. However, inferior players are indicated by damning with faint praise or a hedging of bets from your scout. Phrases such as ‘keep an eye on this lad, boss’ or ‘he might be the bargain you’re looking for’ indicate that perhaps this is a player best avoided whereas the better players will be praised to the heavens and their signing demanded - ‘if you can afford him  - buy him!’. The players with the better scouting reports will also be the players who will cost the most in transfer fees and demand the most wages. Unsure about what price to offer the selling club? Fear being outbid by equally ambitious rivals or by teams such as Bolton who buy and sell a player, often the same player, every week for no particular reason and with no discernible strategy? Fear not, by simply asking the scout to read his report several times he will, after a few vague statements such as ‘he’ll go for more than £26,000’, offer up the player’s ‘top price’. Somehow, your scout knows - to the exact pound - the maximum your rivals will offer for the player. All you have to do is make a bid of £1 higher than the top price quoted by your scout to secure your man.
    Squad sizes can be a maximum of 18 with a minimum of 13. Best to keep a decent size squad to deal with any injuries that might crop up during a gruelling season I hear you cry? Well, Greg, you’re wrong. Upon joining your new club you should immediately sell enough players to take you down to 13 players (for you are able to sell players in the first 10 weeks of the season, though not actually buy any. As the only club capable of selling players at this point, it makes the first 10 weeks of the season not so much a transfer window as a transfer monocle). If you only have 13 players in your squad, you will never suffer an injury and would only run the risk of an injury occuring when you purchase another player. Of course the moment you do purchase another player, your star performer, in as much as there is such a thing in the game, will promptly do his cruciate and be out for 28 weeks. Handy tip, as you can neither buy anyone nor get an injury - if you follow my advice - for the first 10 weeks, there’s absolutely no need to have scouts and physios employed  so fire them immediately.
    So you’ve got your team together, how are you going to play? Well hold your horses there Rinus Michels, the game has decided your tactics for you. A linear 4-3-3 is the only path to glory – why it isn’t 4-4-2 is unclear, perhaps the symmetry of the 4-3-3 makes it easier to list on a match screen - with positions identified by number from right to left - 1; 2,4,5,3; 10,6,7; 8,9,11.
    So, inspired by France’s fluid and dynamic 5 man midfield in the 1984 European Championships, you want to explore Adrian Heath’s potential as a trequartista operating behind Graeme Sharp? Well, tough, you can’t. He’s a number 8 so he plays on the right of your front three. Or you could play him in one of the other forward positions, or as a left back even, the game won’t stop you - but how would that affect the overall performance of your side? The answer is, you’ve no way of telling. There is no visible simulation of the game and no player ratings are offered for individual performance. Instead, the week’s results for all divisions are displayed on an unnecessarily slow moving Videprinter display. Want to speed it up? Well you can’t. If you want to find out how your Darlington side got on away to Chesterfield, you’ll first be told how Barnsley got on at Aston Villa or how Swindon fared at home to Plymouth before your result passes by with no more alert or fanfare than any of the other results. It’s as if you are a passive observer of a simulated football world being played out before you and that your moves and actions are essentially futile gestures thrown despairingly at pre-determined outcomes. And that’s because they are.
    No matter what you or any other club does in the transfer market, league tables will inexorably revert to the mean. Your league table every year will have no more than 30 points separating top and bottom, the difference between 12th and 3rd will be no more than 10. Go on a 10 game winning streak at the season? Prepare to lose at least half your subsequent games regardless of any changes or purchases you make. Do your purchases make any difference at all? Is it better to have that £300 a week number 9 your scout demanded you purchase rather than the £210 a week guy who your scout would damn with so much faint praise? Possibly, it’s impossible to tell. The previous guy scored 6 in 14 games, your new one 15 in 28. Was he any better or did your new number 6 midfielder prised away from Blackpool provide the creative midfield spark you were looking for? Who knows? The game certainly doesn’t and – if it did – it certainly isn’t going to be telling you about it.
    So the computer  isn’t willing to be overly helpful in your other quest in the game - to increase your managerial standing. This is displayed as a percentage, beginning at 40%, which is affected by results, league position and some other factors we get to below. If you are skilful/lucky enough to get your rating over 60%, you will almost certainly be offered a job by other, hopefully bigger, clubs. This is the only way to change clubs in the game with the exception of one handy tip. If you don’t like the team you are given to begin the game (apart from simply restarting the simulator, a luxury not afforded to my 10 year old self who would have to wait patiently for the 6 minute load time to complete should I wish to restart) then immediately take out the biggest loan you can, spend all the money on unnecessary ground improvements, deliberately underestimate the attendance for your next home game and voila! Bankruptcy and your immediate firing. Game over? Not at all, another Third Division club will take one look at the job you’ve just done and immediately offer you their post. Don’t like that one? Repeat and rinse.
    One other duty as manager is a feature very much of its time, in that the game asks you for all home games to make an estimate of what you believe your attendance will be. The higher you predict, the more you have to spend on policing. However, if you guess too low there will be crowd trouble which can result in large fines for your club. These attendance predictions also affect your overall rating as a manager which we touched on earlier. Guess it right and the percentage boost might just negate the percentage loss from that crippling home defeat to York City, guess it wrong – or worse have crowd trouble – and your managerial rating can start falling faster than David Moyes’.
    Of course, The Double pales in comparison to modern football management simulators but it remained the most authentic management experience right up till the release of the original Premier and Championship Manager series. Could The Double’s gameplay experience have been better or at least slightly less ridiculous? Of course, but I jest and I kid because I love. If the gameplay was better, given the limitations of the Spectrum, it would have to have been at the expense of that glorious database and that’s a trade I, and my 10 year old self, would never want to make.

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