Month: August 2014

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.

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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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Week 1 – The promise of the dawn

The start of a new season always brings false optimism, the hubris brought on by a Fantasy Manager’s selective memory. Somehow, like compulsive gamblers we always feel that this time we have cracked the system, found the perfect squad that will only require minor tweaks, the point scoring machine with cogs drawn from the best (for under £50m, of course), dug up the seeds that are just about to sprout. However, we all know that come Saturday at 11:29am, we will be in a cold sweat desperately trying to swap out players, throwing all our hunches to the wind.

I was no exception. For the past 3 seasons I have laboured under the extra restriction of not picking players from the previous year’s top 4 teams. This started off as an act of pure cockiness, a self handicap after winning an office league one year, akin to Ronnie O’Sullivan announcing that playing  is not enough, he would now only play with the tiny, half-length cue used for playing by the awkwardly placed wall in my garage. It was also a way to take my Fantasy Football playing to new levels of geekdom, scouring the newly promoted teams for rough diamonds and journeymen who could still knee one in after a goalmouth scramble. The short flowering success of the likes of Loic Remy had been a god send, defenders of Liam Ridgewell’s ilk were always in my thoughts. Somehow, it seemed to mean more when a less obvious choice scored and I had dreams of these unorthodox players, that only I would have, catapulting me to the top of the league. However, what I called a ‘moral principle’ also rapidly became my ready-made excuse for finishing near the bottom each year.

This year, after finishing rock bottom in one of my leagues, I shook off the shackles and allowed myself to feast at the top table. I felt like a newly divorced man, now free to try his luck with the nubile nine out of tens from the trendy bars. I could get the slightly dirty feeling of a Liverpool fan celebrating a Rooney goal and stick my head out of the window to enjoy the breeze on board the Man City juggernaut. However, on the Saturday morning like that same divorced man texting his ex wife in tears after striking out down at the T Bar, I found that I couldn’t go all the way and pick a team of galacticos. I couldn’t carry on without the doomed optimism of throwing my support behind Danny Ings and his brave Burnley cohorts, or taking the chance that Bojan Krkic may just find the Britannia Stadium a more inspiring theatre than the Nou Camp. So, at the last-minute I ripped away the decadence of my first team picks, eschewing Ramsay, Rooney and Ivanovic, like a Puritan grabbing a rogue comic from his child’s hands.

Every Fantasy Football player knows what it is like to feel like a bomb disposal expert as the last seconds tick down until the transfer window shuts at 11:30, desperately trying to get online along with thousands of other panic-stricken players clogging up the internet like Glastonbury ticket chasers. As I clung onto one bar of 3G from a clogged A44 I frantically jabbed at the screen to make any changes I could. I was left with a starting 11 of Begovic/Lovren, Debuchy, Caulker/Sterling, Adam Johnson, Ashley Young, Cazorla/Sturridge, Ings, Bojan. Still including some illicit treats from Arsenal, Man Utd and my beloved Liverpool but only minor stars and eschewing the fatty delights of Chelsea and Man City.

Of course, it only took a few minutes into the new season starting for the feelings of buyer’s remorse and regret to hit me. Of course, the players that I felt I had been a whisker away from picking scored immediately, with their celebrations appearing to mock me to the tune of the Bullseye music and ‘look what you could have won’. Of course I felt that Ki and Sigurdsson were dead certs in my team at the start of the week despite them only making it onto my first long list, which included 90% of the players in the league. The weekend went on to rub salt in the wound, with Aaron Ramsay proving what an obvious choice he should have been then David Silva and Sergio Aguero showing that Man City players cannot be ignored. Sturridge and Sterling would have given me some comfort with their goals had they not been fixed in almost every other player’s team as well.

Monday Night Football (Sorry, MNF as it now has to be known), as always offered a tantalising last throw of the dice, a forlorn hope that Danny Ings could rescue my week on his own. Instead, Costa and Ivanovic proved that this was a week for the favourites, the dead certs to canter through and please the bookies. All that I could do was lick my wounds as I saw myself placed 1,056th out of the Guardian’s 1,057 pedants league and try to hold my nerve to give my selection another week to prove themselves. Of course, I knew very well that a hungover 11:29 fire sale beckoned on Saturday.

Hail to the dreamers

For a certain type of person, the early days of August can only mean one thing. Not frolicking through the long days, squeezing the last drops of our too-short summer but the stirring once more of an obsession. You will find us hunched over Opta stats, bathed in blue light waiting until the early hours when the hallowed BBC Sport gossip column refreshes, surrounded by fixture tables and form sheets plastered so far round every wall that A Beautiful Mind looks like a study of a passing hobby compared to our fanaticism. Yes, the Fantasy Football season is here.

For us, the first teasing hands of Autumn can’t creep up our thighs soon enough. As soon as the curtain closed on the Premier League circus, after a the last pub debate on what might have been died away with wistful whisperings of the missed bandwagon here, the defender not substituted there, our eyes turned to scattered glimpses of pre-season form and the wild chirping of the transfer window. After the extravagant, glorified scouting trip that was the World Cup, we are back to business, back to the game that ruins Britain’s productivity every Friday as we scour the injury lists and make rash, last-minute transfers. Our weekends have a structure again, our partners’ tongues can start clicking impatiently as we desperately search for score updates in the garden lighting aisle of Homebase or at group gatherings we find the one fellow player with wifi and huddle round them, like smokers on a blustery day round the one working lighter.

The Fantasy Football player sometimes takes an egalitarian, loftier view of the weekend’s football delights, where a gritty clean sheet ground out by an unloved Crystal Palace on a misty evening in Hull can be celebrated as if our team has won the league and a clichéd shinned in equalizer at a rainy Stoke can look as beautiful as a sumptuous chip at the Emirates. However, underneath our usual tribal allegiances there is a selfishness that runs thicker than blood and shows a darker side. We find ourselves feeling the illicit thrill of silently urging on a player against our childhood team, or greeting a popular player hobbling off with glee if we have resisted the temptation to add him to our own ranks.

Every true Fantasy Football player knows the moment when we our paths have crossed with a fellow obsessive. Someone who has seen this light and dark side of the beautiful game. There is no secret handshake, just a shared misty eyed look at the merest mention of Ian Harte, a chuckle about the rare jewel of a David Unsworth missed penalty and story of regret about bringing in Van Persie just one game too late. Together, our memories of seasons past are held more vivid through our personal highs and lows, every player remembered even as just one action shot and a number gained for assists.

So, here’s to the Fantasy Football players, our time has come at last.