Introducing the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge

Years ago, back when I bought into the sensibility that the only good Football Manager game was one that started in the lower leagues, I justified taking control of big teams by self-imposing restrictions on them. Why I did this is anyone’s guess. It’s my game and if I want to hoover up titles with juggernaut clubs to compensate for life’s other shortcomings then it’s all good, right? All the same, the best and most fun of these scenarios was the Nationalist Challenge, in which I would manage a side with bags of cash and only be allowed to sign players from the domestic population.

Playing FM 2005 I did this with Chelsea, who at the time had pushed back the frontiers of what could be spent on football, and assembled an all-English squad that developed into serial Premiership champions and serious contenders on the continent. Starting with a base of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole, I was able to recruit the likes of Wayne Rooney, Stevie G, Stewart Downing, Jermaine Jenas, Rob Green(!) and their groovy mates, to create the first side of entirely homegrown players that must have been seen in England’s top flight for some time. It was a wonderful group of lads, albeit one in which I had to continually swallow the bile that came with doing anything good for the loathsome Chelsea.

Calling it the Nationalist Challenge was intended to be a cheeky wink to what was, at the time, a fringe group of jingoists on the hinterland of our political landscape, screaming into the void. Brexit has kind of changed that. You can call it, and I do, the most pointless bit of policy making since the instigation of the Poll Tax and the only thing anyone is talking about, but it has inadvertently created a landscape in which patriotism is being willingly confused in some quarters with outright racism and getting a free pass because it’s what we voted for innit…? My personal feeling, with apologies to anyone who believes strongly that ‘taking back control’ is the right way to go, is that all this is the last gasp of an outmoded way of thinking as the world slowly and tentatively pulls together to start addressing the problems that affect us globally. But for now we have Brexit. It’s a thing. I’m prepared to deal with it, as I’m told by the winners of the Referendum to do, and more and more I like the idea of an FM save based on those exact principles.

This is my third attempt at beginning a Nationalist Challenge on FM 2019. My first was with Manchester City, which made sense because of the extreme bankrolling of activities at the Emirates, however I found there were too many gaps in the squad at the game’s start. Similar issues occurred with my second effort, managing Manchester United, with whom I had a lot of fun in an FM 2018 save. Old Trafford is home to some fantastic English players, but it wasn’t long before I discovered shortcomings that couldn’t be addressed in the first transfer window. The signings I made – Grealish, Ward-Prowse, Chalobah – were inadequate for the purpose, arguably not good enough for a team of United’s stature, and it quickly became clear the challenge was going to be an attritional affair, a case of wrapping Rashford and Martial in cotton wool and praying nothing bad happened to them. You can see for yourself how this is working out in real life for Ole…

And so on to my third and hopefully longer lasting stab, in control of one of my favourite Premiership teams, Arsenal. They’re the first side I managed in the earliest incarnation of the game I ever played – an ill-judged present from Mrs T nearly twenty years ago – and I’ve had a certain affection for them ever since. In the past, when Arsene Wenger confused French players for English and constructed squads based on Gallic influences, changing rooms stinking of garlic, and snails roaming freely so that they could be served up for dinner, the Gunners would have been almost the impossible job for a manager with nationalist tendencies. By now however, there’s a nice smattering of young English talent as a foundation, and Arsenal open the game with a good squad that covers most bases.

Managing Arsenal makes a world of sense to me. I know the team. I know where they’re strong and what they need in order to improve, and I think I might be able to make a success of it. While clearly rich, they aren’t cash soaked and so this challenge will probably take place over a number of years as I carefully need to decide which units to overhaul across the seasons. Constant watching of the list of transfer listed players is the order of the day. A combination of first teamers, bargains and wonderkids will come through the doors of the Emirates, soon no doubt to be retitled British Airways. Or Thomas Cook’s – too soon…?

I could set rules for completion of the challenge, suggest that by the fourth season Arsenal are entirely cleansed of any foreign elements, but my feeling is that this will add unwanted pressure and so the best choice is to follow the base instruction, which is that every player signed must be English; over time the squad will be expunged of dirty overseas influences and we eventually become the homegrown dream team that existed before Wenger got his onion-soaked fingers on them.

In this scenario, English players are to be defined as exactly that. Homegrown players who aren’t English are not allowed, so there’s no holding on to Emiliano Martinez because he grew up with the club. Similarly, I’m not permitting those from the wider United Kingdom, which ultimately spells curtains for the likes of Kieran Tierney. Players who hold dual nationality but declare for the England national team are fine e.g. Reiss Nelson. On the other hand, we can’t achieve the dream of drafting in Wilfried Zaha because he plays internationally for Cote D’Ivoire.