Champ Man & Me: Alex Stewart

Well hello there! I’m being joined by Football Manager royalty this week, as Alex Stewart from various well known publications joins me on the metaphorical Champ Man interview sofa. Would a sofa work for a one on one interview? Would probably need adjacent chairs of some sort. We’ll work on that. Anyway, you may know Alex from his work for The Set Pieces or perhaps you’ve seen him presenting Thief Trackers on BBC One. Or maybe his name in brand new to you. Either way, read on and we’ll learn more about him.

Thanks for joining me, Alex. You’re a hugely respected author on FM and football content in general, how did you get your ‘foot in the door’ so to speak?

I did English at university and edited my uni newspaper, so writing was something I had always enjoyed. After finishing postgraduate study, I joined the Met and served for six years, but towards the end of my time (I eventually resigned in 2014 and wrote about why for The Guardian), I started writing again because I missed it. I had always enjoyed football and came across an article about James Joyce and a Hungarian football team. I researched it, worked out who it might have been, and jotted a quick piece on a blog I created for the purpose – putnielsingoal.com – named after Niels Bohr, the atomic physicist and goalkeeper. A few people picked up on it, most notably Mark at The Football Pink, and they encouraged me to keep going, so I did. I’d always played FM, so it was natural once the blog was up and running to write about a save, the first Moneyball effort, ironically with Rangers. Iain Macintosh saw it, gave it some profile, and things started to take off. Iain has been a great help and is now a good friend, and so when he asked me to do a series for The Set Pieces, a brilliant all-round site, I jumped at the chance, and have not looked back since. 

You recently launched ‘The Men Who Stare at Goals’ – how would you describe it for anybody who hasn’t yet heard of the project?

TMWSAG is an anthology of FM writing, but with the aim of covering all the forms and styles that that can take. So, on the one hand there are saves (Blackburn, Toronto), but also pieces about people’s personal relationship with the game, advice on writing about FM, and a few, more idiosyncratic bits and pieces. I saw how much good writing was out there and wanted to collect some of the best authors in one place, give them a platform, and push the boundaries of how we write about the game. I think, in that, we’ve succeeded.

Part of the profits from TMWSAG go to CALM – Campaign Against Living Miserably. What made you choose CALM?

Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 20-45 in the UK, which is also, I guess, FM’s main demographic. Jonny Sharples, who wrote in the anthology about Ivica Strok, his famous Celtic regen, has worked tirelessly for CALM since the death by suicide of his brother Simon, even using Strok to raise money for the charity. Jonny immediately said that he wanted his share of sales to go to CALM, and Chris Darwen, whose piece is about FM and mental health, said the same – given the natural fit between the charity and FM, and given that I have also had MH issues in the past, it was an obvious move. CALM were hugely receptive and we quickly sorted out an agreement that will see 10% of all profits go directly to the charity. I’m really proud that not only can we support a crucial cause, but also that the idea came from the writers themselves.

Do you have a favourite version of CM/FM from the series?

Probably FM16 – it’s got the complexity without being quite so insanely, cruelly hard as 17! To be honest, though, I’m a huge fan of the evolutions that the game has gone through, and I can genuinely say that as each new one comes out, I embrace it. 

Obviously we’re big fans of CM97/98, do you have any memories of this particular version?

Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Terrible stats, but lethal in front of goal. It was my introduction to the game, my first taste of the immersive world of football management, and a real education in the real football world. I was in an odd place at the time, a troubled teenager if you will, and CM 97/98 was respite from all that. 

Do you have an all-time favourite save? Everybody has at least one CM save that took over!

The Bristol City one for The Set Pieces. I think, in part, because so many people were reading it and engaging with it, but also because there was a real aim from the start, to use a philosophy that had a genuine, sensible basis, and see how far I could take a club with it. To win the Champions League was amazing, and fall just short of the Premier League title a few times, was fantastic. I built the club up from next-to-nothing into one of the richest in the world. The save also had two other benefits for me: it came at a difficult time in my life, when there was a fair bit of uncertainty and upheaval for me personally, and so I could dive into FM and forget about everything else. It was also the thing that, I guess, made my name in FM writing terms, and was the start of my work with Iain, which has been great for a host of reasons. Luke Freeman – I will never forget you. 

I was enjoying your part in the FM17 project for the Set Pieces until your heinous sacking. When Matt inevitably also gets sacked, do you think there’ll be a similar project for you and Iain in the future?

Yes, I think that’s very likely. To paraphrase the new manager interviews in FM17, our conversations are always constructive, and we all want the (site) to reach the highest levels possible. It would not surprise me if quite a lot happens in the FM17 Project, but that’s all I’ll say for now.

What’s next for you? You always seem to have plenty of things in the pipeline!

Ha, yes. Well, I’m currently still a part of the BetBright x FM17 Old Firm project, I’m writing videos for uMAXit explaining tactics and football history, and I also do various other bits and pieces of sports writing here and there. I’m also planning some more FM writing on my blog, thinking about the next anthology, and generally keeping busy. Obviously, looking after Frodo takes a lot of attention and care too…

Lastly, I’ve always wondered…I first started following you on Twitter after you were the BBC’s FM expert on deadline day. How did that come about!?

The simple answer is that the BBC realised that gaming insight was something that had appeal, or at least the possibility of generating discussion (/abuse), and they asked Iain if he could do it. For whatever reason he couldn’t, but he pointed them in my direction. I did it for three deadline days until I felt it had lost its novelty, but it was fun. I basically sat in a café, monitored deals and rumours, and then scouted players or checked how they had done on a six or seven season save I had running. I was told I had ruined journalism and football, which isn’t bad for a day’s work.

Once again a massive thanks to Alex for taking some time out to chat to me. You can follow Alex on Twitter @AFHStewart or visit his website Put Niels in Goal. The Men Who Stare at Goals is available at this link or by clicking the front cover below

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