The English football brand is arguably the strongest when it comes to commercial revenue and TV deals abroad. The last package agreed for the 2019-2022 cycle was said to be 30% more valuable. With the instant channels of communication available to virtually every corner of the planet it isn’t hard to expand into previously untapped markets.
To say early 1990s Moscow was a different world, however, would be an understatement. Mikhail Gorbachev had overseen the seismic dissolution of the Soviet Union that formally took place on Boxing Day 1991, but information was still not a cold hard currency. To hear of English football would not have been all that different to decades earlier when Dynamo Moscow’s mysterious team toured Great Britain in 1953.
Alexey Zakharov is a long-standing contributor to Russian Football News, and life-long Spartak Moscow supporter, and most bizarrely of all has a soft spot for Southend United and Francisco Cagigao. Even for neutral Englishmen it would be surprising, but how did a young Russian boy even hear about them, yet alone develop a connection?
“The first exposure of English football for me was a program on Russian TV called “На пути к Уэмбли” (On the Way to Wembley) which randomly told about Sunderland’s ascent to the FA Cup final in 1992,” he told Heart of Football. “Then I read up on football in general, newspapers and such, then Spartak played Blackburn in the 95/96 Champions League. Before that, Spartak also played Liverpool in the 1992/93 Cup Winners’ Cup, of course.”
David Batty and Graham Le Saux’s infamous scrap inside the Luzhniki’s cavernous bowl lives long in the memory of many football fans. The mid-90s was still a time when Roy of the Rovers comics were fresh in the impressionable minds of youngsters in Britain. Invariably, exotic European campaigns involved an exploration into the dark, frozen unknown of Russia. Printed pages were not the only medium though, even back then.
“Then I got a weird game called ‘Ultimate Soccer Manager 2’ from Sierra and started randomly looking through lower-division teams. Southend caught my eye because it featured Mike Marsh, who’d played against Spartak for Liverpool in 1992, and then I got Championship Manager 93/94 too and saw that Stan Collymore played for Southend.
“Never in a single playthrough did I manage to acquire Mike Marsh in that game, even after winning the Premier League with Southend, but I did occasionally buy Ronnie Whelan, who was a player-manager of Southend in USM2.”
CM 93/94 was the second edition of the legendary series that has now morphed into the largest, most detailed scouting network in the world. The fact that the use of real player names and eight – *eight!* – different background images were trumpeted as genuine advancements tells you the level of sophistication. Even this level of technological wonder was not enough to satisfy Zakharov’s hunger for gaming.
“I also used to play Sensible World of Soccer around that time so, as you see, it’s very convoluted,” he continued. “Francisco Cagigao was also in Southend’s default lineup at that time, so I didn’t ‘sign’ him. I just remembered the name because I don’t have the slightest idea in hell how to pronounce it.”
Cagigao was certainly no flash in the pan who slipped out of football altogether. His playing career took him to modest surroundings after starting out in Barcelona’s youth system, but it was as a coach and sporting director that he explored the depths of his potential. Twenty-one years under Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta as Head of International Scouting – bringing in Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla, Arteta himself and Robin van Persie among others – are testament to that.
London-born Cagigao may have been the most noticeable name, if only for its originality, but he was far from the only key player for that iteration of Southend.
“The main goalscorers for me in Southend saves were usually Stan Collymore and Brett Angell. I do know more Southend players than most people care about!”
The default lineup featured Keith Dublin, Pat Scully, Christian Hyslop, John Cornwell and Steve Tilson, and, using my knowledge of the ‘future’ from later games, I would usually try and sign Mark Stimson, Phil Gridelet and Mick Bodley, as well as some future non-Southend starlets such as Mark Draper. Sometimes I’d even managed to randomly persuade Tottenham to sell the 16-year-old Sol Campbell to me, who was a striker in this game.”
One of the greatest pleasures of virtual management games is surely finding those gems that blossom into the most spectacular world beaters. To think now that the erudite if self-confident Sol Campbell, an iconic defender for club and country, was once a striker is deliciously quixotic in a way only Championship Manager could make.
Hindsight is also a wonderful source of amusement. Not that Paul and Oliver Collyer could possibly have had the slightest inkling what a young Russian boy would have in mind for a teenage Campbell, but there’s no denying the beautiful symmetry across the virtual and real worlds. Almost three decades after Zakharov lured the England international to Roots Hall, Campbell is in charge at Southend United in real life.
It wasn’t all a bed of roses though. “Other ‘future’ Southend players, such as Andy Rammell and Julian Hails, were shite in CM93/94, so I didn’t sign them. CM93/94 was very… should I say… friendly.”
“It increased players’ stats if you won promotion, so that you could compete in the next-tier league with largely the same lineup. I actually won the Premier League with most of the players listed above. At least it seemed the game increased stats.”
So after a twisted journey that brought the delights of Southend to the heart of Moscow, did the entrancing delights of early Championship Manager instill a deep love for the Shrimpers?
“I remember probably the only time Southend got mentioned in Russian newspapers when they defeated Manchester United and Freddy Eastwood scored. I’m not a diehard fan, but I did follow their history for a while and tried to play them in later Football Managers..”
Even that is quite an achievement.