Ah, the unmistakably sweet embrace of Football Manager. The nights draw in yet you're staying up later, getting up earlier and resenting time spent with friends and loved ones because you could be consolidating that last play-off position. It's back, and despite following its predecessor in a bit under a year, its numerous small improvements - plus an enhanced control system - mean it's as essential as ever.
FEATURE PACKED FOOTBALL
This year there's over 100 new features crammed in by Sports Interactive which see it inch further along the line towards perfect football management simulation. Without the bungs, obviously. We revealed way back when that, internally, SI weren't all that satisfied with their 360 debut's control system and the result now includes new dropdown tabs.
They're not the most beautiful looking things, but then Football Manager's aesthetics have never been anything but utilitarian. However, what it does do is make navigation both quicker and more logical. While it by no means approaches the intuitive, reflex action offered by mouse control, we found ourselves flying through the menus able to do the major tasks we wanted at ease, especially in conjunction with quick menus on the triggers. Having fed the results into a giant supercomputer, we reckon you'll be imposing your management will onto screen approximately 29.5% faster than on FM2006 (note: super-computer may be a random guess after a couple of pints). Whatever - it's quicker and that's crucial.
The only areas where the control scheme really feels like it holds you back is in some of the more random links. Alex enquired as to how Notts County were doing in mid- November 2008 and, after fiddling about fruitlessly for approximately five minutes and discovering navigating our way down to League Two a task on a par with completing a Rubik's cube while riding on a North Korean nuke, we decided on the not unreasonable assumption that they were "probably struggling." Nonetheless, they've done well to make the negotiation of the most complex database in gaming history impressively sharp, so we can forgive them.
MANAGING YOUR LIFE
Making the game quicker to use accentuates this awesome game experience - offering a tough but not insurmountable challenge for anyone to achieve their football dreams. Understandably we immediately set about the task of getting Birmingham back to where they belong - the Premiership. Romping the league in a manner that Steve Bruce can only dream of (and sending out a firm message that he should step aside for a man quite clearly more capable for the job) it was the second season where Football Manager comes into its own: rebuilding. With a small budget and a team of largely journeymen players, it was a case of having to decide who could make the step up, bringing in a few shrewd free transfers, picking up a couple of misfits who hadn't quite performed last season and spunking the remainder of our budget on an expensive South American striker on whom we'd lump all our hopes, pressures and expectations: Mr Chevanton, welcome to Small Heath.
And then that season was a glorious grind. Securing Arturo Lupoli on loan and inviting Jaap Staam and Christian Vieri to realise their lifelong ambition of finishing their careers at St Andrews gave the fans hope, but it would prove to be a long season. After two defeats on the spin, we finally took Reading 2-1 with an injury time winner that gifted us a sweet gaming moment up there with any other of life's supposed 'highs'. The season was a slog, but the satisfaction of tinkering with the improved tactics, grinding out a draw with Man Utd away, holding Newcastle 0-0 to stop a dismal run, and finish sixteenth might seem a little lame but it was unbelievably satisfying. And with our enhanced rep as A Premiership Club, it was back into the Bosmans and the transfer market again as we targeted a top ten finish for the next season. We were hooked. Again.