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.