Then that it finally clicked, like The Narrator finally realising that he is Tyler Durden: Ivica Strok wasn't real. Ivica Strok was me.
I want to talk to you about Ivica Strok.
What do you mean you don't know who he is? He's Ivica Strok, Celtic's record goal scorer, four times Champions League winner. He came second in the Ballon d'Or voting in 2032...
Oh, wait, Ivica Strok isn't real.
I like Football Manager. I've been in a book written about it. I was in a film about it. I've played every version of the game from my brother introducing me to Championship Manager '93 on the Atari through to Sports Interactive giving me a free copy of Football Manager 2015. I really like Football Manager.
And I've been here before. I've had obsessions with players before: from signing John Fashanu for Newcastle because he presented Gladiators, to Wesley Ngo Baheng scoring for Gateshead in every division from the Conference to the Premier League, via Freddy Adu, Kerlon, and Kennedy Bakircioglü. But at least those people were real, with their own personalities.
But none of those players were as good as Ivica Strok.
I signed him from NK Zagreb, a team I didn't even know existed, for £5m in January 2020. He'd had good reports, potentially a good Scottish Premier League player no less. That may sound decent, but when you consider Georgios Samaras scored a goal every three games in that division, it's less of an accolade. I pressed ahead with the deal anyway. Sometimes I wish I hadn't.
And not because he wasn't a good player because, bloody hell, he was a good player. It was more because of everything that happened over the next 22 seasons, until he hung up his boots in the summer of 2042. By that time he had a Twitter account, a personality, and I was discussing him with my pension-age mother like he was a real person.
Everything was fine for his first couple of seasons at Celtic Park. I'd not been at the club long myself after moving from Hearts, and this was just a normal game of Football Manager. I'd open the game up on my laptop after a hard day at work, while away a few hours pressing the spacebar, and sweeping all that came before me in Scotland because that's just what Celtic do. Then, two years into Strok's time at the club, we reached the Champions League final. That's when things began to change for Celtic, for Ivica Strok, and for me.
I couldn't bring myself to do it. I'd not been at the club long, but those little 2D dots on a pitch made of pixels already meant so much to me. What if I lost to Chelsea? What would 6'10" goalkeeping giant Raymond Dekker think of me? What would my captain and former Blues defender Nathaniel Chalobah think of me? What would Ivica think of me? I couldn't do it.
I saved the game, shut down the laptop and left a note on top of it to my girlfriend: "I COULDN'T DO IT, I WILL PLAY THE FINAL ANOTHER TIME." That "ANOTHER TIME" would come 22 hours later, when I had to be sat down in front of the computer and forced to play the final. Strok scored, Dekker saved an Eden Hazard penalty, and I won by two goals as Portuguese international José Ribeiro added a second late on. I hated José Ribeiro. I hated him the minute he took that shot to double Celtic's lead. Why? Because he was two-on-one against Thibaut Courtois and didn't square the ball for Ivica Strok to score.
José Ribeiro had to go. The final whistle went and he was on the transfer list before he'd even collected his winner's medal.
From that day onwards Ivica Strok ruled the roost at Celtic Park. The team was set up to get the best out of him, coaches were brought in specifically to work alongside him, and everything that happened at the club was for him. José Ribeiro was just the first to feel the wrath of Strok; Valentino Pirsic and Alan García were shipped out for suggesting they deserved to be Celtic's starting striker, and Noé Rojas was sold for not providing enough assists to increase Ivica's goal tally. But this wasn't really down to the feeling of the team's star player – after all, he was just a random assortment of statistics and pixels. This was my vexation.
With each goal, and there was 836 of them by the end, Ivica Strok became that bit more arrogant, and I became that bit more involved, always falling further into this twisted alternate reality. Using my limited Photoshop skills I brought him to life, he Pinocchio and I Geppetto, his head put onto a variety of bodies: Gareth Bale celebrating a Champions League victory, Fernando Torres lifting the European Championship trophy, Scott Brown captaining Celtic to the league title. Strok's head even made it onto two separate pictures of Serge Pizzorno from Kasabian. If this was just the tip of the iceberg then my mind was the Titanic, heading straight for it.
By the time Christmas 2014 rolled around I'd spent nearly 750 hours of my life making sure Ivica Strok kept scoring, kept taking Celtic to new heights, and trying my best not to let this take over my life completely. I failed. As a teenage schoolboy I spent many lessons drawing Football Manager tactics into the back of books, but as a civil servant in his late 20s I was spending days in the office perfecting Strok's autograph onto official documents. I would sit at my laptop and sing "Rock Around the Strok" to the tune of Bill Haley's biggest hit. I printed one of the many pictures I'd created of him, now housed in their own folder on my computer, and put it on top of the Christmas tree ahead of an angel or a star, and one of the presents under that tree was a Celtic shirt, complete with his name and number printed on its back. This had become more than a game now – this really was my life.
And then my brother committed suicide.
The man that first introduced me to this game, this obsession, took his own life. Christmas became a non-event, replaced with mourning, and plenty of time to do nothing. Nothing but play more Football Manager, nothing but create more images of Ivica Strok, nothing but open his own Twitter account.
It took my mind off things as best it possibly could, and he developed more of a personality. He got more and more arrogant. He mocked opponents, he mocked his followers, and he mocked his teammates. He posted photographs of himself with his friends, and Nike adverts he was appearing in. But he didn't – I did. This was all me. I was living my life as if I was Ivica Strok, a world record holding Croatian international footballer. I answered questions people sent to the account in a Q&A, unsure if me answering the questions was worse than people actually asking them in the first place.
I knew that this would come to an end at some point, and soon enough Strok wasn't the 60-plus-per-season man he once was. But his birthdays went by (the 20th of October, if you ever want to send a card) and he didn't show any signs of wanting to retire. He played through his 30s, now captaining the side, but this was beginning to drain me now. I was like a smoker whose cigarette patches weren't working, addicted to seeing how far Strok could go but that addiction coming at a price. I would discuss him with my mum, who would suggest that I intensify his training to cause him a career-ending injury. I introduced him to a new girlfriend with the same hesitancy you'd exhibit when telling a new partner that you had a four-year-old son.
But then the day finally came: he announced he would retire. I headed straight to Photoshop to mock up news stories, press releases and records of his achievements. The final step was to write his biography, to put the story of Ivica Strok down in his own words. In my words. I listed his trophies, his goals and appearances, and let the world know all about the arrogant personality of this prodigious talent.
It was then that it finally clicked, like The Narrator finally realising that he is Tyler Durden: Ivica Strok wasn't arrogant. Ivica Strok wasn't real. The personality of Ivica Strok was me. He was me if I was rich. He was me if I had talent. But "Where Is My Mind?" didn't start playing, no explosives went off, and no buildings fell. My life is still intertwined with Ivica Strok.
Images provided by the author, pictured above with his creation. Jonny Sharples is donating his fee for this article to CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which exists to help prevent male suicide in the UK. For more information, visit the charity's official website.
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