A New Chapter

Dear Loyal Readers,

I’m pleased to announce that I am joining the writing team at global Fantasy Football superpower, Fantasy Football First. I will be continuing with the odd muse on here but my main articles will exclusively appear on this site every Friday in a slot called ‘It’s a funny old game':

http://fantasyfootballfirst.co.uk/

Let’s hope the good people of Fantasy Football First have a better eye for talent than I do on the Fantasy Football pitch and I can keep the comedy flowing.

Scot free

It has of course been a week when Scotland decided that England has a heart of gold underneath so we can continue our broken relationship, like Coleen Rooney keeping her eye on the money and turning a blind eye to the grannies shimmying down their Cheshire mansion’s trellis in the dead of night. All the talk of Scotland over the past few weeks has led me to misty-eyed memories of my first ever Fantasy League season, led by that venerable local publication the North-West Evening Mail, which had the wonderful quirk of allowing managers to pick from Scottish as well as English clubs. What a glorious manifestation of the Union that was, giving me the pleasure or gorging myself on the Old Firm’s late nineties dominance. I fondly remember the must-have Peter Lovenkrands rampaging through the rag-tag defences of Patrick Thistle at will, giving a return on investment more guaranteed than any peddled by RBS.

In my younger days I reached the heights of my short playing career by leading the Dane Ghyll 2nd team. As one of few schools in Cumbria big enough to muster a second 11, we spent our afternoons taking on teams cobbled together from boys who couldn’t really venture far from their inhalers sitting on the touchline or the sons of families who lived too near to Iceland, enslaved by an addiction to 89p bags of potato smileys. Even my goal-hanging (does anyone remember ‘goal hanger’ being shouted as an insult in schoolyard games? I wonder if it is now seen as a compliment in these post-Costa days) accumulating 6 goals without getting my knees dirty – until I scrunched up a clod to rub on my knees whilst walking off of course, our teacher was a traditionalist when judging performances after all – could not compare to the ease with which I cantered to the mini-league title that season, borne on the back of Rod Wallace and the incomparable Celtic poo palace, Mark Viduka.

Now as I sift through the mysteries of an open, anything-goes Premier League, how I wish that the metronomic points scoring from North of the border was open to me, even in these less certain times with Celtic in 5th and Rangers still not even in the top flight. Perhaps to celebrate our intact union, Fantasy Managers should be allowed to take players from all corners of the United Kingdom for one week only. I would certainly relish grazing on the fresh statistical pastures of The New Saints, Airbus UK Broughton and Portadown. In fact, anything to level the playing field against those who have taken the obvious choice and picked Diego Costa for the past few weeks would be welcome.

Perhaps we should also regress for one glorious week to the method of transfers from those glorious days of local newspaper Fantasy Football too – phoning a premium rate phone line and using an over-sized plastic push-button phone to key in the code number for each player. For us early pioneers in Fantasy Football, it was not furtive calls to cigarette-starched sex line workers that we hid from our mothers, but the 40 minute battles with a Hal-like computer who, after 20 attempts, may finally allow us to swap Robbie Earle for Kevin Philipps. The fact that I am one of very few current managers to still possess the rare artifact of a push-button home phone so would find myself with a transfer monopoly is purely coincidental.

Loan sharks

After lying dormant but restless for one long week, the life of a Fantasy Football manager erupts into life today. As we throw ourselves once again into transfers, often making a simple financial transaction an angst-ridden rollercoaster of internal negotiation and buyer’s remorse, I for one am glad that we are spared the credit-crunch worthy machinations of loan deals to worry about as well.  I’m moved to muse on this by the recent revelation that Chelsea have 26 players out on loan, many of them young starlets who have been plucked from around the world only to be kept in glass-fronted stasis at their own clubs or faceless feeder teams. It is as if Roman Abramovich has recently seen ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and fancies himself as a real life ‘Collector’, sending mercenaries round the Cosmos to bring him mysterious artifacts and jewels. Not to use in a nefarious scheme, just to gaze on them and know that they are his.

It is the football equivalent of seducing another man’s wife, hanging an opulent necklace round her neck to flaunt your ownership then lending her back to the poor, broken cuckold for him to follow her round the house like a lost puppy so he can still make one-sided love to her every week but knows that each moment of pleasure is hollow, eating away at the finite number of days he has until he has to return her to the rich new owner’s yacht. Breathe. Breathe. It’s ok, she’s gone now.

Even my beloved Liverpool have got on the act, rolling the child snatcher’s cage round to Lille to lure Divock Origi with a handful of sweets then leaving him there to prance around French fields for another season. It must be confusing for the keen young colts who are thrown into this strange limbo –  funded by a strange, far off benefactor like a nutmegging David Copperfield. Packed off to boarding school away from their stepfather’s sight until they mature into men of use, not knowing how long they will have to wait until they are finally allowed to follow the other grown ups to the cigar room after dinner. Perhaps in the simple existence of today’s young superstars, they just run around in ignorant bliss, giving no more thought to who owns them than a prized thoroughbred does as long they are allowed to gallop along with their tongues out and are plied with regular hay and Bentleys.

I like to try the same trick at my local newsagent. Buying all of the best chocolate bars, which we all know means the Twixes and Kit Kats, but then allowing the long-suffering shopkeeper to place them back on the shelf next to the inferior Bounties and Double Deckers for others to stare at wistfully, even sniff the wrapping if they feel bold, but never fully enjoy. I like to sit in my palatial manager’s dugout warm with the knowledge that the finest products in the shop are mine, taking pleasure in the shopaholic rush of purchase without the less interesting after service of having to carry them home or find a space in the cupboard to put them in.

So, I am now offering the same service to my fellow fantasy managers. Through my pre-2013 Wenger tactics of putting false hope in inferior players and keeping my transfer purse closed tighter than an Italian waiter’s apron pulling his belly in, I have found myself with a surfeit of cash. So, I’m more than willing to give up this season as lost, claiming it as a development season as Ferrari’s spin doctors do in F1, and use my cash to buy up any starlets owned by other managers on the understanding that only I can come back and claim back my property in the future.

Of course when next season comes around, I will probably just invest in a new wave of short-term galactico investments which, shiny and new as Buzz Lightyears, will surely push last year’s Christmas presents behind the bed (an image comes to mind of John Guidetti lying forlorn next to Woody, covered in dust). Until, years later, I am only reminded that I happen to own them by finding a wad of contracts stuffed into an old photo album, like lost Premium Bonds bought for a child’s first birthday, found when they are 43. Enjoy the simple transfers while you can, because when Fantasy Premier League see the potential of this idea (sent to them as a suggestion form made with cut out letters from magazines as they demand), Fantasy loans are about to get real.

Hold your horses

Yes we can still enjoy musings on Fantasy Football even when there are no Premier League fixtures this week. As we know, the life of a Fantasy Manager never stops.

I’m sure at least some of you have had the experience of agonizing over transfers on a Friday as usual, finally gathering the courage to send them through, scrolling down in smug, premature satisfaction when – horror of horrors, you see that there are no games on this week. It is an easy mistake to make, once we are into the rhythm of weekly team changes the routine is set into auto pilot and nobody wants to accept a gaping hole in their early weekend plans. God forbid, we may have to do some work on a Friday afternoon. It is easy for the international breaks to pass by unnoticed when you are deep in the mire of an early Fantasy relegation fight, especially with the level of interest the England side stirs in us at the moment.

The immutable Sod’s Law of Fantasy Football dictates that whichever player you have picked, now a week early, will inevitably pull up like a lame horse in the first few minutes of his meaningless international friendly against St Kitts and Nevis (thinking about it, that level of opponent shows the type of player I’m usually drawn to take a transfer chance on), making a mockery of your hard earned choice by booking a return flight to the physio’s table for a good few weeks.

I often wonder if minor Premier League players have cottoned on to this trend and log onto fantasypremierleague.com to anxiously scan through their own ‘Selected by %’ stats, knowing that just a single decimal point change upwards before the international break makes them a marked man, doomed to injury. Even if they try to avoid this fate by catching a Blighty one in training, the forces of Fantasy Football destiny will track them down in ‘Final Destination’ style with an injury wherever they may be – a hamstring twang walking down the steps to the training ground, or an elaborate Mouse Trap chain of events ending with a jar of mayonnaise falling on their foot. Sadly, the same Sod’s Law fate also seems to follow me to betting on the Grand National. As soon as my pin sticking approach alights on a promising young filly, I sense a distant glue factory manager rubbing his hands with glee and priming the heaters. Whenever I have watched horse racing live, I’m sure I have seen the horses looking anxiously in my direction and putting on a stage limp.

So, as this week’s public service announcement for the benefit of Fantasy Managers and real-life footballers braving the international break, avoid Sod’s Law and remember that THERE ARE NO FANTASY FIXTURES THIS WEEK. So, farewell until next week when the stats battle can be rejoined.

 

Put an end to your cliffhangers

The Spartans in guilty-pleasure film 300 hold their children at arm’s length to decide if they should be allowed into the clan or tossed off a cliff. No, this is not a cheap attempt to shoehorn the words ‘children’, ‘tossed off’ and ‘Cliff’ into another wise dry Fantasy Football blog to engineer cheap hits through mistaken Google searches, this is the perfect analogy to describe how managers should use the build up to week 3 to take a cold, dispassionate look at their players to decide if they have what it takes for the long haul.

Week 3 is the perfect time to do this. Just as on a 3rd date, the initial hope and novelty of taking a chance on someone has worn off and you now have a sense of their character and foibles so you know if you should get down to business or move on. For me, Bojan Krkic arrived for his first two chances in my team as a fresh faced newbie, rich with the promise of youth, smelling faintly of new car and with a hint of exoticism from his glamorous past clubs. He was a hunch, a hope that a fragile orchid could thrive on the wind-blasted heath of The Britannia Stadium. Now though, the otherworldliness which drew me into picking him grates with me as I see him gamely toddling off down the channels, drifting mellifluous passes into the centre where he has been conditioned to expect flair players such as Xavi and Messi to be waiting, but instead he is left confused and pointless as he finds the rather blunter instrument of Steven N’Zonzi. His is a fish out of water comedy that will never end with a freeze frame punch of the air in victory. No, it’s time for him to bag his tiny bag of things and hit the road.

I had another hunch on Newcastle this year and a certain Yoan Gouffran. I picked him not just for the delightful rhythm and rhyme his name has when you say it slowly in a French accent, but because I believed that Pardew could forge his flighty French and Dutch imports into an impressive unit. I saw Gouffran continuing to play further forward than his position and price tag suggested and delivering a steady stream of points. Unfortunately, he has instead delivered a steady stream of disappointment and now finds himself playing way out of position on the Newcastle bench. So, he must shrug his shoulders and slope off my team sheet too.

Talking of hunches, among my premature advice to stake your house on such non starters as Rojo and Johnson last week (apologies to any now homeless readers for those), one of my randomly thrown recommendation darts hit Nikica Jelavic. Sure enough, this inspired the Crafty Croatian, as I hear he has embroidered on his short sleeved silk shirt playing for Robbie Brady’s pub darts team, to put a great shift in for Hull last week and score. Unfortunately I didn’t put my money where my mouth was so I missed out on those points but now his value has risen further I have not hesitated to pay an Ed Woodward ‘top price’ for him. He had shown since his Everton days that he is a confidence player who scores in batches so once again I’m backing him this week.

My other new transfer in is Dusan Tadic because, despite my scathing critique of Bojan, I just can’t resist a young winger with bags of potential and a name that is written correctly using extra squiggly symbols that no one can be bothered to insert when typing. And my auto correct keeps changing his name to Susan Tadic which brings to mind Susan Boyle marrying a waiter after a holiday romance and amuses me greatly. As a final bonus, his Wikipedia page describes him as being ‘known for his flamboyant dribbling skills’, which will be impressive as long as it refers to him on the pitch and not in an adult sized high chair. If internet research only is good enough for Alan Pardew and Alex Ferguson to make ill-fated signings then it is good enough for me.

Tomorrow I will be doing some proper scouting in person at Turf Moor, so I can see if Ashley Young really is as disappointing in the flesh as he has been on my team sheet and if Danny Ings can repay me keeping faith in him by pulling his finger out. If any of you see the game on BT Sport, try to stay awake through Michael Owen’s co-commentary to look for me in Row H shouting hopelessly at Ings and Young to shoot from anywhere. Until next week, hope your Fantasy Teams do better than mine.

Louis-ing my mind

You know that Fantasy Football has worked its way too far into the depths of your consciousness when it becomes the recurring theme of your dreams, especially when you begin to dream that you really are leading your squad of hopeless mercenaries through the toil of a Premiership season, not just clicking buttons once a week.  There have been several times when my subconscious has transported me to hours leading my imaginary squad through drills on the training pitch. Such is the lack of ambition and level of mundane detail in my FFL geekery that I dreamt myself into the position of a struggling manager at a cash-strapped club – collecting in the cones at the end of the bleep test, filling in paperwork for transfers and whole imaginary conversations with my backroom staff and players. The only detail that could remind me that this was all a dream was the fact that my feverish mind conjured up Alicia Silverstone as my head physio and Big Bird from Sesame Street as my assistant coach. Oh yes, and the fact that Liam Ridgewell won the bleep test and Bobby Zamora put a proper shift in.

Sometimes, after a particularly large cheeseboard, I would not be managing my own team of slump-shouldered mercenaries but seemingly transported into the life of a ‘real’ manager (as expressed in earlier posts, the stresses of a Fantasy Manager can be all too real). I spent many a happy hour dreaming I was Alan Irvine nervously dealing with the banter from my new West Brom squad like a child at his first day of school, or Brendan Rodgers flicking through an agent’s catalogue of overpriced strikers like a rich divorcee browsing for his mail order bride. You may have experienced the sensation of events that happened in your dream going on to happen when you wake. This happened to me with such alarming regularity that I often wondered if my obsession with virtual football management had given me some form of Quantum Leap or Being John Malkovich power to be transported into the bodies of managers in my dreams. It certainly made me feel guilty about the texts I sent when I spent a few weeks of last season as Malky Mackay when I felt I was in a dream world with no consequences. Not to mention the night I spent as Ronald Koeman when I spent £12m on Shane Long for a laugh.

So, onto this week and last night after a few too many slices of Red Leicester on Cornish Wafers, I found myself transported to a plush bedroom. From the opulent feel of the pillow against my face it could only be in the heart of Cheshire’s football millionaire’s row. I brought my hand to my face and found myself brushing away morsels of gouda and herring from my two-day stubble. I had an inkling of where fate had drawn me, only made stronger after I ran my fingers through my hair to feel a strange volumised curtains cut, like a child’s scrawl of a seagull in the sky – a haircut that permanently feigned trying to raise itself from my scalp in surprise, like a 1990s boy band style raised on a dolly. A glance down as my eyes accustomed to the light to see a monogrammed LVG on the lapel of my nightgown confirmed that this was a dream not a nightmare – I had been transported into the mind and body of Louis Van Gaal himself.

Once again I experienced the strange sensation of retaining knowledge of who I was but living the thoughts and emotions of Van Gaal at the same time. This was the only way to explain the cold sweats, the mumbled, fearful repetition of ‘Chris Smalling, Chris Smalling’ and the feeling of dread as my/Van Gaal’s eyes lingered on a scrunched up, scrawled note on the bedside cabinet with a 3-5-2 formation covered with arrows and one circle with the words ‘Ashley Young – left back’ ringed over and over with gouging pen marks as if carved by a mad man. The unearthly feeling of unease was made a thousand times worse by the ghostly refrain of ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ running through my/Van Gaal’s head, for reasons that would only later become clear.

I woke with a start and was happy to find myself back in the small, former walk-in wardrobe at my parent’s house that I call my room. Remembering the advice Leonardo Di Caprio gave in Inception I focused my mind on a reassuring object that would calm my fears and show I was back in reality – sure enough the feeling of my own monogrammed FFL Manager training puffa jacket that I always sleep in, and the welcome sight of my walls covered in the usual fixture lists reassured me. I was back in my own mind and thankfully only faced with the conundrum of whether to persevere with one Man Utd player in my starting line up this weekend, not the whole 11.

This takes me after only a small detour to the preview of game week number 2. As you can tell, the issue of Man Utd’s tricky trip to Sunderland is at the forefront of my thoughts. Wayne Rooney showed last week that he can be relied on to deliver regular points even when his teammates are running around like headless chickens, and Marcos Rojo is an interesting possible addition to add steel for possible clean sheets, as well as swashbuckling raids down the wings in the Duracell Bunny style of a young Gary Neville. For my money though, I’m backing Gus Poyet to at least conjure up a few goals while Man Utd are getting their defence in order, with Adam Johnson my top pick of this week in the hope that he rises to the big game with the effort he rarely brings out for just a rainy trip to Hull. Seb Larsson was one bandwagon I was tempted to jump on, so after resisting this urge I’m sure he will ping in a free kick from 30 yards. With the confidence of a 1995 Alan Hansen, I predict goals at either end as Wes Brown and John O’Shea oblige their former employers with a typically open display so attacking players from either side in this one are my pick of the week to be game for a laugh and a few points.

Across the other fixtures, game 2 is not the time for wholesale changes and panic buys. No, save them for week 3. So I’m giving one more week to the likes of Bojan and Stephen Caulker to redeem themselves. Although if I was the gambling type, I would have a punt on Jelavic to step up and bag a couple now his strike partner and my personal favourite player in the Premiership for having a name that belongs in the simpler time of 60’s football, Robert Snodgrass, is regrettably out for 6 months.

To end this week’s preview, I’m glad to say that when I woke up from my strange dream I remembered to scribble down the lyrics I heard to the song running through Louis Van Gaal’s head so I can now end with these haunting words:

(To the tune of ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’)

If you go down to Melwood today,

You’re sure of a big surprise,

For Louis’s watching the training drills,

With dismay in his blood shot eyes.

And no-0ne understands 3-5-2,

He just tells them to pass it to Roo,

Today’s the day poor Louis must have his team picked.

Fiver minutes of fame

 

Good to see that the good people at The Guardian’s Fiver have thrown their weight behind my plea for playing Fantasy Football the right way – principles not points. All I need now is for 1,056 members of the Fiver reader’s ‘1,057 Pedants’ league to get behind my campaign and I can enjoy the meaningless, prizeless thrill of victory.

In other news, to celebrate breaking the 500 reader barrier (definitely through word of mouth, not just through sneaking in a link to my blog onto the Fiver and hijacking their readership), I’m proud to announce the inaugural Fantasy Football Trials Fans league. Sign up on fantasy.premierleague.com using the code 1118173-609835 to be subjected to ridicule on these pages and be in with the chance of winning fantastic prizes – namely my respect and envy.

No time to rest on my laurels after this brief flash of fame, back to toiling through the preview to week 2. Just got off the phone with Steve Parish to reject his kind offer to transfer my skill at slavishly picking Jason Puncheon every week regardless of form to Selhurst Park. I can’t leave my post after all the work my Fantasy Players put into pre-season. No, it’s back to the Fantasy Manager stats grind for me.

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