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.