CALM’s fundraisers come up with all sorts of interesting ways to raise money for our helpline and other services, but we think this is the first time a fictional footballer has been brought to life to support our work. Here, supporter Jonny Sharples explains how it came about…
“Always buy Chris Bart-Williams.”
Those were the words of wisdom passed onto me by my older brother when I was just ten years old.
“Always buy Chris Bart-Williams, and always play direct.”
The day was finally here; I sat patiently next to him, but inside I was filled with a bubbling excitement. We were in the bedroom we shared together, making our way through the three floppy disks you needed to load Championship Manager ‘93 on the Atari. That day our bedroom was transformed into a classroom and my brother, Simon, was teaching me one of the most important lessons I would ever learn: I was finally being allowed to have my own try at the game that I’d watched Simon play so many times before. I was going to be in control of those men who were nothing more than statistics; I was going to experience the thrill of the flashing text for myself; I was going to cheat my way into signing Alan Shearer for Newcastle United when they were still in Division One. And I was definitely going to buy Chris Bart-Williams.
Over the years the game changed, it became more complicated and even changed its name to Football Manager. The players changed too, from Chris Bart-Williams to Ibrahima Bakayoko, Kerlon to Wesley Ngo Baheng. And then came Ivica Strok.
You may have heard of Ivica Strok; he’s Celtic’s record goalscorer, a four time Champions League winner, he has an ego that would put even Cristiano Ronaldo to shame. Then again, you may not have heard of Ivica Strok; he’s entirely fictional, one of Football Manager’s new-gen players which the game creates itself. He’s also the most important football player in the world, to me at least.
Playing Football Manager has helped me make friends and meet new people; say “Tonton Zola Moukoko” to the right person and you’ll have yourself a companion for life. Football Manager has also helped me get through some difficult periods of my life, like beginning university, my parents moving away, relationships breaking down.
But the most difficult period of all that it helped me get through was when, shortly before Christmas last year, Simon took his own life. And that’s where Ivica Strok enters and the importance of Football Manager magnifies.
The aftermath of my brother’s death was devastating for all those who knew him. The memory of his warm smile and sharp humour continually seemed at odds with how he came to pass. His death also left a huge hole in my life. Away from work and from home for the holidays, and with no desire to celebrate the festive period, I turned to the greatest lesson the finest teacher I’ve ever had taught me: I played Football Manager.
The escapism helped; I sat in the bedroom at my sister’s house I was occupying for the Christmas break, and did what my brother and I did almost two decades earlier. I entered a world where I was taking Europe by storm with a plucky Celtic side led by a Croatian striker called Ivica Strok. Strok was a goalscoring machine, he was a global superstar, he was somebody I could get behind and he could fire me to success.
I played whenever I had a spare minute, between helping my parents pick music for Simon’s funeral and collecting photographs of him from over the years with my sister. In each goal that Ivica Strok scored (and by the end there were over 800 for Celtic alone), I could, for a few minutes, escape the reality of the loss of the man who first introduced me to this world and gave me that piece of knowledge about Chris Bart-Williams.
Chris Bart-Williams, the man you must always buy. And why was he a purchase you just had to make? Because he was versatile, because he could do a lot of different jobs.
That’s when it struck me: Ivica Strok could be just as versatile. Okay, maybe not in the game where he was just a goalscorer but away from the game, away from Football Manager, in the real world.
I went to Twitter and using my (somewhat questionable) skills in Photoshop, I brought him to life like Dr Frankenstein and his monster.
But why? It’s a question that I’ve been asked many times since @IvicaStrok10 appeared at the beginning of this year. Well, according to YouGov, the main demographic of Football Manager players is men aged 25-39, which fits exactly within the age bracket of those at risk of the single biggest killer of men in the UK: Suicide.
So, Ivica Strok became a self-appointed supporter of CALM. He has posed with their logo; his story was sold to VICE magazine in exchange for a contribution to the charity; he’s mentioned CALM in online interviews; most recently, his testimonial programme from 2042 has been located and republished, with all sales going to help ‘Save The Male’.
Shortly before my brother passed away, I was invited to contribute to a documentary about the impact Football Manager has had on my life. In a scene that unfortunately didn’t make the final cut, I told the tale of the first time I saw the game and the introduction given to me by my brother. My brother did not get to see that, but he did see the rest of the film and he will have known the importance of what he taught me that night nearly 20 years ago. Those lessons have extra significance now.
Ivica Strok is not real, but the work he supports by CALM is very real. Hopefully, by the time Ivica retires in 2042 the stigma of suicide will have ended and everyone will be able to seek the help they need. Until then, both he and I will continue to support CALM.
You can follow fictional football superstar, Ivica Strok, on Twitter @IvicaStrok10.
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