Percentages are a major aspect of what makes today’s game so intriguing. Statistics engines, cultivated by teams of data-crunching analysts, power the biggest match-days of our time and provide us with the context, intrigue and colourful information that really hammer home the fine margins of professional football.
There was once a time when densely populated databases were a thing of imagination. Luminous green texts shining brightly against the deep black of a clunky, boxy computer screen were right at home in the spinning minds of science fiction novelists, but the notion of anything resembling it being put to use in soccer was as close to ludicrous as possible.
Nowadays, though, the tech-savvy are deeply entrenched in the game and the decimal points, expected goals average, a multitude of possession calculation systems, and so much more besides, rule the day in reality.
In football, at least, the real has been colliding ever more frequently with the previously invisible; our eyes are open like never before to the game’s alluring subtleties.
Perhaps no-one could better embody this notion than the path-beating Vugar Huseynzade who did what so many computer geeks have only ever dreamed about when he snagged himself a fairytale job with Azerbaijani outfit FC Baku in 2012 and was given the chance to bring some of his fanatical Football Manager skills to the fore.
Successfully swapping his daydream for a day job, Huseynzade had been playing the famous video-game series since he was very young and, having pushed all the right buttons in a non-football related capacity prior to his appointment and not long out of college, he was readily given the chance to shine in a high-pressure role, as he tells These Football Times in an exclusive interview.
“I’ve been playing Football Manager since I was a kid. I always dreamed to find a job in football, but I never saw it as a possibility, especially when I would be only 21.
“After a couple of months, I showed my potential, I showed what I could do. I showed my will and my passion for the game and at the end they gave me a chance as general manager of the club. It was great, I had a crazy experience. I had a contract for two seasons, so it was basically for 18 months and yeah, that was it,” he explains.
When Huseynzade’s story first hit the headlines some years ago, he was widely mislabeled as the club’s coach or reserve team boss but he was actually in a more assistive role, although he certainly had his fair share of authority and control and was very clued into the dynamics of the club.
“The football structure in Azerbaijan is actually quite similar to Italian clubs where you have a general manager who’s responsible for transfers, planning budgetary means; anything and everything besides what the head coach has to do,” he informs me. “It’s like a manager in an English Premier League club besides coaching and choosing the squad for the game.
“That’s one of the problems I encounter all the time where people actually thought that I [was] a coach too. That’s where you had the difference. I was not a coach. I had nothing to do with training, I had nothing to do with what the coach did. I had more control over the scouting system, transfers, buying and selling players, marketing – everything to do with the team aside from coaching. I was more in an advisory role for the head coach.”
It was a huge responsibility for such a young man not long out of college but he took it in his stride and became the envy of every FM enthusiast the world over as a result.
Football has often been touted as the everyman’s sport. Streets can become stadiums, local greens that dot suburban estates shape-shift into roaring arenas pulsating with the fury and intensity of a top-flight match and local derbies watched with a keen eye from the crowded terraces fuel work banter, excitement and friendly conversations that segue into rip-roaring debates.
Not all sport is created equal – there is simply nothing quite like football because it is arguably more accessible than most, and Huseynzade certainly benefitted from that aspect of it with what he achieved, but he undoubtedly brought it to a whole other level with his hobby-fueled pursuits.
He wasn’t just there to make up the numbers, though, and as he says himself he was proud of what he helped the club achieve before eventually departing in late 2014: “The highlight was probably the results that we showed with the group that we had. We had a very young club. It’s a club created in 1997 with a short history but it was very fun to be a part of. I really felt that everything that we were doing was being written into the history of the club. It was fun, you know?
“It was very busy and a lot of stuff happened all the time. We had a very good group of people around the club, the players were amazing, the coach was good and I got the support of everybody. I had a very good connection with the coach, the head coach and the team. It was really fun. It was a crazy good experience that I still have with me.”
Indeed, although he had nothing to do with tactics or coaching, he was an integral part of the team behind the scenes as FC Baku held their own in the Azerbaijani Premier League with fifth and sixth-place finishes while managing to earn a crack at qualifying for the Europa League group stage.
Managerial instability certainly did a lot to hamper their chances at building on the two league titles which sit proudly in their trophy cabinet as there were two different coaches in charge of the first team throughout Huseynzade’s 18-month stay. Indeed, it says much about the youngster’s excellent performance in his role that he was able to stay on for longer than either of them (Božidar Bandović and Milinko Pantić) ultimately did.
However, it certainly wasn’t without its stumbling blocks and as he tells me himself, it took him a little bit of time to adjust from the virtual world of his PC to the rough and tumble of real-world football professionalism: “Of course, I had issues and problems at the beginning. I knew the game, I knew the rules,” he says
“The biggest problems I had at the beginning was to try to get everybody together. That was actually my biggest role so that everybody feels part of the team, everybody feels comfortable and nobody has other thoughts other than the game, than the training and the club.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his time at the club, however, was the fact that he was in charge of setting up and monitoring a sprawling scouting system that was intended to feed some top-quality players into Baku’s senior squad.
Indeed, Huseynzade unearthed his fair share of talented performers from all over, including Romania, Argentina and the Balkans. However, it was his discovery of a young Azerbaijani starlet that he feels most proud of today and when I asked him about who we should all be looking out for today, he didn’t hesitate in pinpointing a certain rising go-getter, identified as Namiq Ələsgərov.
“We had a guy who I presented to the head coach, to give him a chance as an 18-year-old.
“He had great physicality and I knew he was a great talent. He played with the A team for a couple of games already in his first season at 18. Now he plays for another Azerbaijani club called Qarabag who had some good, successful seasons these last three, four years.
“They were very close to getting into the group stage of the Champions League this year but they played a 0-0 in the Czech Republic and a 1-1 at home so it was a bit unlucky. He’s building up his career now, I think he has a very nice future if he continues working hard so I would probably headline this player.”
Again, the contrast between scouring the Football Manager index for bargains and doing likewise with real money to spend, real pressure on one’s shoulders and an unmistakable expectation from those around him was stark indeed. He might not have had the chance to spot so-called “newgens” but he did prove his capacity for unearthing next-generation legends with bags of potential. From our frank conversation, I get the impression that Huseynzade was unfazed by the challenge presented to him and seemed to relish it.
And why not? After all, there are countless others who would have loved to have earned the opportunity he did. On that note, I’m interested to find out if he still loads up his copy of the cult classic game and to hear what advice he might offer those dying to emulate his experience.
“I think I’m going to play Football Manager until I’m very old – so, of course, I’m playing,” he jokes. “Try hard. Put realistic goals in front of yourself. Take everything step-by-step and try to never rush because it’s very easy to appear in situations where you’re really not ready.
“You must take your time to learn and never rush it. Patience is a very big part of it. I think everything should be by plan. If you plan well, if you think realistic, if you really put your thoughts ahead, I think you can be sure of whatever you want.”
It would be difficult to quantify how slim the chances of the now 24-year-old succeeding following such a whirlwind appointment after only a few months out of college really were, but Huseynzade clearly didn’t allow that to get in his way.
Football might well be a stat-heavy game more than ever before where results are often the most important upshot, but Huseynzade’s stint in the Eastern European top flight has proven something else.
It’s that the right percentages of determination, perseverance and love for the calling still mean a heck of a lot and that with them, even the most romantic of dreams are possible.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90