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It is a journey that begins around a dinner table in Preston. The year is 1996 and after a long day at school, the latest edition of Championship Manager brings an argument to the home of Shadab Iftikhar. His brother has refused to let him play, so a well-timed tantrum is thrown and mum intervenes.
For the first time in his young life, eight-year-old Shadab has the virtual football world at his fingertips.
"I can even remember my first game," he tells SPORTbible. "I was Liverpool and John Barnes scored twice against Manchester United. Ever since then, Championship Manager, or Football Manager, has become the norm. That was my education. And I loved every minute of it."
It was an early introduction to the dizzying highs and agonising lows of management but from that moment on, Shadab knew this is what he wanted to do more than anything in the world. "I was born to manage," he says with a big grin on his face. "It's as simple as that."
Those in the playground dreamt of becoming Premier League footballers - not Shadab.
In year 11 he was tasked with taking over the school team, although nothing compared to the experience of experimenting with tactics and spending millions in the transfer market from his bedroom. A thick notebook containing a detailed scout report for every team he played against on the game showcased his level of commitment.
When a fixture was right around the corner, Shadab was prepared for every possible outcome. "It probably sounds sad but that's how I did things," he says. "It went on to play a massive role in my future. The best apprenticeship you can possibly get is FM. I took it very seriously, too."
At 17, he produced a dossier on how to beat Pep Guardiola's Barcelona; one of the best teams in football history. Fast forward 14 years and Iftikhar has been appointed the first-team manager of Scottish Highland Football League side Fort William following several fascinating roles in football.
He has worked as a scout for Roberto Martinez's Belgium at the European Championships after turning up unannounced outside Wigan's training ground in his early 20's, and has since impressed in a coaching role with Mongolia's national team.
This, however, is his biggest and most challenging project to date. The 31-year-old is about to take on what is regarded by many as the toughest job in Scotland but it's safe to say this hard-working and diligent manager is the ideal candidate for what lies ahead. Just ask Roberto Martinez... and the 2002/03 Valencia squad.
We are delighted to announce the appointment of Shadab Ifitkhar as our new manager until the end of the season with an option to extend by a further year.
- Fort William FC (@FortWilliamFC) November 30, 2021
Football Manager, or Championship Manager as it was known back then, played a vital role in the early stages of Shadab's life. At college he would sink at least several hours a day into making Rafael Benitez's Valencia side a force to be reckoned with.
It was a save that would become active shortly after he finished college at 4pm. Argentina's finest Pablo Aimar pulled the strings from midfield while the likes of Mista and Vincente scored for fun up top. To this day, he calls it a brilliant period in his life.
Shadab was also juggling a part-time job while studying for a business management degree. One week, in particular, puts his Football Manager addiction into perspective.
"My mum and dad had gone away," he recalls. "I rang up college and said I was going to be under the weather this week. I then called work at the time and said: 'Listen, I'm not well.' I took the whole week off to make sure my Valencia side ended that first season well. It was a crunch period and we were competing for the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. We were also fighting for the La Liga title so I had to give 100% to it.
"That week was just focused on Football Manager. It was the best week. I woke up every morning and turned on FM. Goodness knows what time I finished. Was I addicted to Football Manager? 100%. Oh, yeah, I was."
Shadab, who was also managing his own eight-a-side team at Hesketh Bank, would write up detailed notes on all of his in-game opponents to further prepare himself for a coaching role in the real world. It would come in handy when he decided to turn up outside Wigan's training ground on a cold, rainy morning in the North West.
Armed with a CV and cover letter, as well as a dossier on how to beat Pep Guardiola's famous Barcelona team, Shadab had always been a huge admirer of Roberto Martinez's work so he thought he'd chance his luck and wait for him outside the club's training complex.
It was mid-week and Wigan were in the Premier League at the time, preparing for a clash against title-chasing Liverpool. From the outside looking in, a meeting with the boss would have been difficult, to say the least. Twenty minutes went by and things weren't looking great until he bumped into Colin; somebody he recognised from his days' training for a Level Two coaching badge.
As he imagined, Colin said it would be difficult to arrange a meeting without an appointment but he grabbed Shadab's notes and gave them to Martinez, who wanted to give the man who waited hours to meet him a chance to prove his worth. "I don't think he had a choice really!" Shadab remembers.
The rookie manager, who owned a UEFA "B" licence at the time, went on to have a conversation with Martinez.
After chatting about his previous work, the Wigan manager, impressed by what he'd just seen, asked the Football Manager fanatic to go and watch their next opponents and create a scout report. It was voluntary rather than paid work but ultimately it was a money can't buy experience.
From that moment on, he would spend two years at Wigan, covering the opposition's strengths and weaknesses through online platform Wyscout. It was a huge turning point in Shadab's career.
Roberto Martinez placed his trust in someone who was trying to make it in the game.
"He gave a 22-year-old time, in the middle of a season, and without even knowing me," he says. "This is a Premier League manager we're speaking about as well. It was also midweek and they had a game on Saturday. Looking back, it was probably the worst time possible. But he gave me time. He didn't have to.
"It just speaks volumes of the man. He's the type of person that has got time for everybody. He's such a genuine person. Honestly, he's just got this way about him. When you go and speak to him, you come out feeling massive. You feel eight feet tall, and you feel great about yourself. He just knows what to say at exactly the right time."
Shadab would follow Martinez to Everton following his appointment in 2013, and would spend a further two years working under the Spaniard at Goodison Park.
Martinez was very clear throughout. He wanted Shadab to produce scout reports on upcoming opponents but throughout the role, he was given the freedom to try new things and as a result, he improved massively. In fact, when speaking to him years later in a meeting, Martinez pointed out the difference between his first report and one he'd handed over that day.
"He asked if I could see the development," Shadab says. "I said I'd never looked at it like that. He gave me the freedom to go out and experiment - to find out who I was as a manager. Obviously when you're young, you're always learning, always experimenting. So sometimes they were really big dossiers, sometimes they would be shorter.
"I was just trying to find my feet. He knew that I was young and very raw and he understood I was just a very, very young manager."
That relationship would provide Shadab with the opportunity of a lifetime at Euro 2020 but before that, a chance to manage in the Mongolian Premier League with Bayangol FC emerged after a call in Preston's finest ASDA supermarket took place with former co-owner Paul Watson.
Shadab applied for the position as first-team manager and well, the rest is history. Watson was blown away by his attention to detail and preparation - something he had fine-tuned during those days playing Football Manager while at college.
"Amongst the applicants was one that stood out head and shoulders above the rest," Watson wrote on Twitter earlier this year. "His reference was Roberto Martinez for one. He was Shadab Iftikhar. I called him while he was in Asda in Preston on a Friday and he was in Ulan Bator the following Wednesday.
"I've never seen anyone work like Shadab. By the time he got to Mongolia he knew our opponents better than their coaches knew them. I'd wake up to messages from him at 3 a.m. telling me which Khoromkhon right-back we should pressure in possession.
"Better than that he was totally unfazed by the mountain of obstacles we faced. We had no training pitch so we brokered a deal to share Erchim's - the champions - they tried to back out so Shadab threw their first team off their own pitch without knowing a word of Mongolian."
He was unable to keep Bayangol FC in the top tier of Mongolian football. They had a tiny budget compared to other teams in the league but still, the Preston-born coach made a huge impression. "Shadab out-thought every team there and ended up coaching with the Mongolia national team," Watson added.
Amongst the applicants was one that stood out head and shoulders above the rest, his reference was Roberto Martinez for one thing! He was Shadab Iftikhar. I called him while he was in Asda in Preston on a Friday, he was in Ulan Bator the following Wednesday. pic.twitter.com/2w0dSYUlXA
- Paul Watson (@paul_c_watson) April 15, 2021
In the coming months, he would go on to serve as Mongolia's assistant manager but would return to England not long after to work as an academy coach at League One side Accrington Stanley.
Things then took another turn when Belgium manager Martinez gave Shadab the chance to produce scout reports for his team at Euro 2020; a tournament that would end at the quarter-final stage after The Red Devils lost to eventual winners Italy.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him. It's as simple as that," he says about Martinez. "He's taught me so much. It's unbelievable. And like I say, if you spend five minutes talking to him, you become a 60/70% better manager. That's all it is - a five-minute conversation. And every time we have a meeting, you come out smarter.
"I cannot thank him enough for what he's done for me. You've got to remember one thing about myself is that I have not been able to bring a great deal to the gaffer. When I look back at my work at Wigan or Everton, my reports weren't great but he still had the decency to speak to me and he's kept in touch.
"To give a young kid he didn't know an opportunity like that was just unbelievable. I am where I am today because of him."
Today, the 31-year-old has shelved writing scout reports and is preparing to take charge of his first game as manager of Fort William FC; a club that currently sits bottom of the Breedon Highland Football League with a single point from 18 games.
The Fort have conceded 89 goals so far this season, with their last two results featuring a 10-0 defeat to Deveronvale and a 12-0 loss against league leaders Fraserburgh FC. On January 3rd, Shadab will begin his project with another tough clash against Brora Rangers.
He knows it's going to be a big challenge. "We've got to embrace the history," he told us. "We can't do anything about it. We can't change it. Every club has a history but we can learn from it. We have to look to the future. We have a new chairman and a new direction. This is a fresh start for us - a clean slate.
"I think we need to come together and build a more positive future.
Shadab will also become the first manager of South Asian heritage to take charge of a senior game in Scottish football when he takes charge at Dudgeon Park on Monday night; a fact that surprised the former Wigan, Everton and Belgium scout.
"When I heard about the statistic, I was shocked. In fact, I'm still in shock," he said. "I think it's something that we need to see more of in the game. We need to see change. I think football has to reflect society. I'm very proud to be opening the doors for others and showing that it is possible.
"Hopefully, I can do a good job and it leads to more people coming into the game."
So why it is so rare to see a British-Pakistani on the touchline? "I think it's so difficult to get into interviews, for one," he said.
"It's so difficult. We know what football can be like sometimes but there's a lot of good people in the game, a lot of good people trying to change things. Over the last five years, I have seen change. I'm optimistic that in five years time, things will be better. I'm 100% sure about that.
"Hopefully, we are on the right path and things are going to progress. This can be the start of something and hopefully, we can see a true reflection of what the beautiful game should look like."
Shadab Iftikhar is appointed as the new manager of Fort William FC.
Shadab boasts an impressive CV, gaining his UEFA A-License aged 22. Working for Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic, Everton and at Euro 2020 with Belgium. pic.twitter.com/6JJ1AUySn7
- Islam Channel (@Islamchannel) December 14, 2021
As we wrap up our lengthy chat, the conversation inevitably turns back to Championship Manager. In fact, I'll leave you with our parting conversation, featuring two legendary figures of the popular series. Tonton Zola Moukoko to Fort William?
Me: "You have to sign some wonderkids for Fort William, surely?"
Shadab: "I want Tonton Zola Moukoko. He was brilliant. I wonder if I could get Taribo West on a free as well? If I could get them two, that would be ideal!"
Me:: "I've got Tonton's number. I'll drop him a text."
Shadab: "Happy days!"
Featured Image Credit: Fort William FC/Twitter
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