First, an apology. We intended to deliver these words somewhat earlier, back when we covered Football Manager Handheld. Both games are, after all, football management sims based on popular PC forebears and revised for PSP, both were released around the same time, and indeed we started our reviewing in tandem.
It's just that Championship Manager 2006 has taken a little bit longer.
There are three reasons for this. The first is that, well, it's rather extensive. Whereas Football Manager Handheld opted for a cut-down, retro approach, Championship Manager 2006 goes the other way. It's every bit as huge as its PC parent, covering 55 leagues from the 12 leading footballing nations.
Granted you can only play with the leagues of one country at a time, but each country has all the appropriate teams in all divisions, as well as reserve teams and youth squads. Each of the resultant 25,000 players has the usual mountain of statistics spread over five screens, detailing their skills, form and happiness, and they can all be trained, transfer-listed, praised or damned in the media, fined, demoted or promoted through the ranks, loaned or sold.
The transfer market is equally thorough, with a filtering system that enables you to search for specifically skilled players augmented by features like being able to scout or declare an interest in a player to unsettle them, and complex deals involving player-exchanges and sweeteners. With clubs negotiating deals or pulling out and media speculation and disgruntled footballers playing their part, Championship Manager 2006 feels real in a way that Football Manager Handheld didn't quite manage.
The matches themselves are equally involved affairs. There are six different ways to view the action, ranging from quick result to textual descriptions, possession bars, and a 2D match view complete with crowd sounds.
The latter is obviously the most tantalising attraction. When you're starting as a manager watching your charges (well, coloured circles) scurry around the pitch is even more hypnotic than viewing a mute pub TV, especially at the slowest speed. Combine this with more tactical options than Mourinho could ask for (custom formations, specific team and individual tactics, and even specific runs and passes for players to make) and you'll see how even pre-season friendlies can absorb hours.
You might also comprehend why it has taken us weeks of on-and-off play (and multiple recharges) to get through just a season. And though the more casual armchair manager might want to skip through things a little more rapidly (or even take advantage of the shorter Challenge mode), the faithful should be over the moon, Brian.
Sadly, the second reason for our delayed review – the interface – isn't as positive. At least ten per cent of our play time must have been frittered away getting to grips with it, and our first few attempts to navigate the hyperlink-strewn pages without a mouse were as frustrating as watching Lampard and Gerrard trying to play the same role in the England midfield. Whilst we did learn how to use shortcuts to ease this torment, the system (like Sven's formation) doesn't feel completely right.
The final reason for our tardiness? That's the trickiest. We've been reluctant to file our final review because we wanted to be sure how we felt.
In many ways, Championship Manager 2006 seems to have all the elements of a classic, but it just doesn't entirely convince us.
Principally this is down to the match engine, which can feel like it's trying to recreate pinball rather than football. Stray passes, interceptions and the inability to beat players or shoot on target are all part of the real game, but the frequency of these events here in comparison to moments of flowing football are rather soul destroying.
Worse, there's a distinct feeling that the result you get from watching a match is different to that from a quick result, with reported matches offering far more goals than games you play through. Extreme tactical tinkering can help alleviate the situation, but the base level of difficulty seems less forgiving than Alex Ferguson.
Add to this glitches such as substituted players seeming to reappear, goals being credited to the wrong player and the way certain teams (like Chelsea) seem unbeatable, and what could have been a life-consuming joy becomes an oddly addictive love-hate relationship, as your hopes are raised then dashed and still you come back for more (perhaps it should be called Football Fan Simulator?).
Ultimately, Championship Manager 2006 really is a game of two halves, one of which promises glory of Champions League proportions, while the other has a tendency to deliver conference fare. If next season's outing raises its game on the pitch, it really could be deserving of its 'championship' name. Right now, it remains a promising contender.