Football Manager: 10 of the game's greatest cult heroes

Football Manager
(Image credit: Football Manager)

Ask any Football Manager addict – or anyone who loved the old Championship Manager games – about their greatest memories of playing and it won’t be long before a few familiar names start cropping up. 

Since its inception back in 1993, the football management simulator series has hidden a few gems in its virtual world; players who could single-handedly drive a team to success, regardless of budget. They aren’t always the best players in the game, but they are the ones who could be bought for a song before quickly turning your squad into world-beaters. 

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Many of these cult heroes went on to achieve almost nothing in the real world, much to the chagrin of the creators. But to us, they’ll always have a place in the pantheons of the beautiful game.

1. Dionisis Chiotis (GK) Championship Manager 01/02

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

Where better to start than between the sticks? Dionisis Chiotis achieved more in real life than many on this list, even winning a cap for Greece in a friendly against the Republic of Ireland in 2002. His reality never lived up to his virtual potential, however. The real-life shot-stopper played for a long list of Greek clubs, up and down the divisions, and never really hit the big time. 

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In the game though, Chiotis could be bought for peanuts from AEK Athens and was willing to join virtually any top-flight club in England. Once on board, you had a young and hugely talented ‘keeper with massive scores for anticipation, agility, bravery, work rate, determination, jumping and several other attributes. An absolute cat between the posts. 

2. Anthony Vanden Borre (RB) Football Manager 07/08

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

Available for a nominal fee from Anderlecht at the start of Football Manager 07/08, Anthony Vanden Borre soon evolved into the greatest right-back ever to grace a pixelated grass pitch. The Belgian teenager had the potential to become the creative hub - yes, from right-back - of any Champions League club.

Within a few years, Vanden Borre would score perfect 20s for his first touch, technique, passing, off the ball movement, composure and dribbling, while also scoring high for  his physicality. He was like Trent Alexander-Arnold, Cafu and Lillian Thuram rolled into one.

Vanden Borre is one of the few players on this list still playing. At 34, and with 29 Belgium caps under his belt, he’s back where it all started, at Anderlecht. He has six Belgian league championships and a cup win under his belt, so not a bad career by any means. But not anywhere close to what he was able to achieve in Football Manager. 

3. Taribo West (LB) Championship Manager 01/02

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

Nigerian Taribo West was a versatile left back who was available for free at the start of Championship Manager 01/02. West had a maximum score of 20 for strength, aggression and bravery, meaning he was a total warrior in defence and could mark even the best players out of the game. He also had high scores for stamina, speed and heading and was decent enough on the ball too, meaning he was a handful going forward. 

His real-life counterpart had a half-decent career, playing for Inter and AC Milan, as well as enjoying a short spell on loan at Derby County. But the virtual West was on another level. A towering presence on the left side of defence. 

4. Nii Lamptey (CM) Championship Manager 93/94

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

So exotic, so mysterious, so early on in the days of football management sims, CM 93/94 actually had Lamptey’s name wrong when he first featured. Listed as Nil instead of Nii, Lamptey was a Ghanian attacking midfielder that could be bought for pocket change from Anderlecht at the start of the game.

He soon acquired the passing range, flair and speed of a young George Weah, and could propel your team into the Champions League in no time at all. Any time he got on the ball, it was a matter of moments before the text commentary bar started blinking like strobe light in a Berlin techno club. 

Of course, the real Lamptey failed to cause the same breathless excitement. Unsuccessful spells at PSV, Villa, Coventry and a host of little known clubs on the continent were proof of his misguided virtual brilliance. 

5. Freddy Adu (LW) Football Manager 03/04

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

Oh what could have been. Freddy Adu remains the poster boy for unfulfilled dreams;  a player against whom all other dashed hopes are measured. In real life, Adu earned a million-dollar Nike contract at the age of just 13 and appeared destined for superstardom as a kid breaking through at DC United in the MLS.

That promise was reflected on Football Manager 03/04, with creators blessing his 15-year-old virtual counterpart with near-perfect scores for pace, acceleration, dribbling and determination, as well as a maximum potential forecast. He was easily lured to the Premier League early in the game and he soon developed into the best there ever was. Seriously, FM Adu made real-life Lionel Messi look like Ali Dia.

The man himself never hit those heights though. Adu is currently plying his trade in Sweden after representing no fewer than 13 professional clubs in a journeyman career that was extinguished before it ever got going.  

6. Ibrahima Bakayoko (AM/CF) Championship Manager 97/98

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

Rapidly becoming the standout attacking midfielder or forward on Championship Manager 97/98, Bakayoko could be bought for a pretty low sum from Montpellier at the start of the game and was willing to join any Premier League side. The Ivorian scored 18 for both pace and shooting, meaning he was devastating on the counter-attack and, at just 20-years-old, had massive room for improvement. If you looked after him, he would become a goalscoring/assisting machine within a few seasons; an unstoppable force of nature. 

The real Bakayoko had a half-decent career as a Ligue 1 forward, as well as a short-lived spell at Everton in 1998/99. He was excellent for his country though, notching 20 times in just 45 appearances for the Ivory Coast. 

7. Yaya Sanogo (CF) Football Manager 11

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

Available to purchase for a small sum from French outfit Auxerre on Football Manager 2011, Yaya Sanogo was a young striker who quickly developed into a world class target man. 

His physicality made him pretty much unstoppable, with near-perfect stats for strength, speed, agility, jumping, balance and stamina. He could beat a defender in the air or he could skip past his marker at lightning speed. His finishing, movement, dribbling and composure were all of the highest order too, making him a sort of hybrid of Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry. Just incredible. 

Premier League fans may remember the real-life Sanogo as one of Arsene Wenger's late-career flops at Arsenal. The rangy Frenchman was mostly used as an impact sub at the Emirates but did find himself thrown into the first XI on the rare occasion - including a crucial Champions League last-16 clash with Bayern Munich in 2014. He left the club in 2017 after scoring just a solitary goal for the Gunners in a disappointing five-year spell. 

But the fact Sanogo had been nominated for the Golden Boy in 2013 proves it wasn’t only the Football Manager scouts that got this one wrong. We all make mistakes. 

8. Cherno Samba (CF) Championship Manager 01/02

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

After coming through the Millwall youth ranks, real-life Cherno Samba found himself without a club in Championship Manager 01/02. That means you could sign the 22-year old striker for nothing - an absolute bargain. Over the next few seasons, Samba would rapidly transform into the game’s most feared target man.

Under the right tutelage, Samba developed perfect 20 out of 20 scores for finishing, strength, teamwork, stamina, heading, pace, acceleration and dribbling. A terrifying man-mountain of a centre-forward, and always the first player you’d sign when starting up a new game. No matter the level, Samba would deliver at least 25 goals a season for your club. 

Alas, in real life, Samba’s career amounted to fewer than 30 professional appearances, with just a single goal to show for it. He never cut the mustard at any club, with failed stints at Wrexham, Plymouth and lower league sides in Spain, Finland and Norway, among others. 

9. Maxim Tsigalko (CF) Championship Manager 01/02

Football Manager

(Image credit: Football Manager)

A couple of million would be enough to tempt Dinamo Minsk to sell you their teenage superstar in Championship Manager 01/02. Belarusian Tsigalko would score bucket loads of goals for your team thanks to his flawless finishing ability and high stats for pace, balance and determination. He was like a modern day Jamie Vardy, only in teenage form, and would chase every half chance down. A nightmare for defenders. 

Sadly, the real-life Tsigalko was forced to retire at a young age due to injury. He made just 74 professional appearances, scoring 22 goals. 

10. Luis Enrique (D/M/F RLC) Championship Manager 97/98

Championship Manager 97/98 Luis Enrique, Barcelona

(Image credit: Championship Manager)

Luis Enrique made over 150 appearances for Real Madrid and over 200 for Barcelona in his career; with the latter, he went on to become a Champions League-winning manager. 'Cult' hero might be stretching it a bit.

But on this early Championship Manager, Luis Enrique could play every position other than goalkeeper. And, as his real-life career proves, he was pretty good, so he really could play every position in the game. 

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Ed McCambridge
Staff Writer

Ed is a staff writer at FourFourTwo, working across the magazine and website. A German speaker, he’s been working as a football reporter in Berlin since 2015, predominantly covering the Bundesliga and Germany's national team. Favourite FFT features include an exclusive interview with Jude Bellingham following the youngster’s move to Borussia Dortmund in 2020, a history of the Berlin Derby since the fall of the Wall and a celebration of Kevin Keegan’s playing career.