Kevin Toms: the return of Britain’s longest serving Football Manager

Interview Barry Collins 13 May 2014 - 06:05

32 years after he first released Football Manager, Kevin Toms is back with a new football management sim for the iPhone

When Sir Alex Ferguson trotted down the tunnel for the final time last season, people thought the longest running career in football management had come to an end. Not so. Four years before Sir Alex set about transforming Ron Atkinson’s expensively assembled pub team into a trophy photocopier, Kevin Toms released a pioneering game that made Fergusons out of all of us: Football Manager.

Now, more than 30 years since he released what became the blueprint for every football management sim that followed – including the huge franchise that bears the Football Manager name today – Kevin Toms is set to release his new football management game for the iPhone.

Toms, although he perhaps won’t thank me for saying it, is the forefather of football management sims; the Bill Shankly of a genre that has now spawned hundreds of different titles and laid waste to the spare time of generations. Toms proved there was a market – and a sizeable one – for (predominantly) boys to sit in their bedrooms, pretending to lead Mansfield to the FA Cup Final. That boyhood fantasy has continued into adulthood, as millions of middle-aged men stare at the bedroom ceiling at nights, hoping their wives don’t notice as they hold a press conference in their head for their upcoming Football Manager fixture.

Toms isn’t giving too much away about his forthcoming game just yet, not even its name – suffice to say it won’t be called Football Manager because he no longer owns the rights. Aside from a fairly stark screenshot, showing his beloved Torquay United stuffing Oxford 4-0, Toms has revealed little about his new title. We’ll be revealing more about the game in a series of interviews in the coming weeks, but for now Toms has given us some clues about what we can expect from his return to the virtual dugout.

New game, retro feel

Toms’ new game won’t be called Football Manager and it won’t be a replica of his multi-million selling series from the 1980s, either. “It’s a completely new design,” says Toms. “I never draw on an old design, I never reuse code.”

While that may disappoint gamers of a certain vintage, hoping to relive the days of revamping Hartlepool’s forward line with a partnership of Gary Lineker and Ian Rush, there will be some nods to the past. “There is a retro feel to it,” Toms concedes. “I deliberately left that in there.”

The game will have match highlights, although we’ll have to see if the graphics have evolved from the stick men and square “ball” that helped make Football Manager a hit on the Spectrum and Commodore 64 in the eighties. There certainly won’t be any FIFA-style 3D graphics where you can tell it’s Wayne Rooney just by his gait and polygonal bald spot. That’s not Toms’ style. “The game is played in your head,” he says. “That’s where you’re trying to make things happen. You’re doing entertainment by proxy, in a way.”

Taking inspiration

If Toms’ new game isn’t a revamped version of his 1980s classic, it won’t take inspiration from Sports Interactive’s Football Manager or any of its contemporaries, either, because Toms hasn’t played them. “I look at virtually nothing else, because I know what I want to do myself,” he says.

He has written the new game single-handedly, eschewing the modern trend for teams of designers working on a title. Indeed, that’s what attracted him to writing an iPhone game in the first place: the opportunity to recreate that bedroom coder feel of the 1980s, where an individual can create the concept, write the game and publish it themselves. He wants the game to have his personality, to be recognisably his. “That doesn’t happen so much when there’s a whole team of people putting it together,” he says. “I write it, I make it happen, I modify it. If you put someone else into it, you have communication issues to deal with.”

It’s clearly a labour of love for Toms, who has spent four years working on this game in the spare time afforded by his day job – leading the software development for Philips’ smart lighting system, Hue, in the Netherlands. “I really enjoy doing this,” says the 57-year-old, whose enthusiasm is evident, even from the other end of a ropey Skype connection. “It’s creative, it’s satisfying.”

“I’ll do another game immediately after doing this one,” he adds. “The next one won’t take so long!”

Finishing touches

In the meantime, he’s putting the finishing touches to the football title. “The game is functionally complete,” he says. “All the pieces are in there. It’s mainly fixing bugs and tuning - that’s what brings the realism up. It gets better all the time.”

He expects to launch a beta test in the next few weeks, and have the game in the App Store later this summer. Football might not be coming home from Brazil, but the Football Manager is very much back.

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