Back in the day, when only Manchester United and Arsenal had the financial clout to contest the Premiership title and Leeds had just started on the slippery slope to near-meltdown, there was only one football management game worth buying to emulate these ups and downs. And, no, it wasn't LMA Manager.
Since then, of course, there's been a power shift of Chelsea-like proportions, with LMA Manager now top dog and Championship Manager dragged through the relegation mire following original developer Sports Interactive's split with Eidos. While SI has gone on to greater things with the Football Manager series, last season's Championship Manager 5 was the biggest let-down since Harry Kewell pulled on a Liverpool shirt.
But like the overpaid Aussie (minus the girlie haircut), there are definite signs of a return to form. It isn't quite back to its best just yet, but a bit of extra work on the training ground between now and next season should see it recapture the sparkling consistency it once showed.
Key to this is a huge reduction in the number of terrible bugs and inconsistencies that plagued the last game. Gone are the ridiculous scorelines that would embarrass even Sunderland's piss-poor defence this season; basic spelling errors on player names have been corrected; players now get tired after returning from international duty; and wages are consistently set at a realistic value, even for the big star strikers. If you played Championship Manager 5, you'll get the general idea. Overall this new version feels like it's had more care and attention lavished on it in the fundamental areas.
If you discount the mid-season downloadable data update for LMA Manager 2006, Championship Manager 2006 is also the most up-to-date footy management game out of the box. Basically, when the transfer window closed on 31 January, that's what made it into the player database. So if you're looking for Samaras to be in the blue of Man City, Ashton to be banging in the goals at West Ham, Walcott to be stuck in the reserves at Arsenal, or Agger to be trying to break up the Hypia/Carragher defensive partnership at Liverpool, you'll find them all present and correct.
Still the most controversial feature, however, is the 2D match engine. It's definitely improved from last year's version, with the new isometric camera giving you a closer view of what's happening on the pitch. There are also more individual and team instructions to dish out, along with more options for set-pieces. Certainly, you'll never get fidgety from a lack of buttons to click through or stat-filled screens to pore over in order to get the best out of your players.
What's questionable is how far the multitude of options and visible footy action actually goes towards determining the result at the end of 90 minutes. You always like to think that shock 1-0 away win at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge is purely down to the fact that you're a 'special one', but there's a constant nagging doubt over whether setting a centre midfielder to make defence-splitting passes, time-waste and mainly cross balls to the far post actually has any real impact.
The 3D match engine doesn't really offer much help in this respect - which is why we'd always question favouring it over text-based commentary. In every single one of the Premiership matches we watched, players just didn't behave as you'd expect them to in real life. For instance, while managing Liverpool we instructed John Arne Riise to power down the left wing and throw in high balls for Crouch and Morientes - a pretty sound tactic when you've got two big men up front.