Football is back! But it's not the Premier League that unites the masses, it's fantasy football time

The game that brings work-places and offices together to compete for 10 months of the year

Finally, the time is almost upon us again. After all those mindless, empty, soul-numbing days of summer, all those hours of pretending Andy Murray’s quest for another Wimbledon title meant something, of convincing oneself of the merits of the Commonwealth Games – how many medals DID Germany get, exactly? – football is back. No, not that over-exposed flight of fancy that is the Premier League, I’m on about Fantasy Football. The real McCoy. The make-believe competition that brings many an office, playground or building site together every week for 10 months.

The crushing realisation that one is not going to make it as a professional sportsmen leads one to seek the nearest alternative possible. Managing your own fantasy team takes you as close as one can get without sitting in the dugout (barring an invite from Tim Sherwood, of course). You are in charge of a team of superstars, multi-million pound names that can be brought in and dropped at the click of your button. Luis Suarez? Pah, Cameron Jerome is due one this week. Kevin Nolan? Best years behind him, ditching him for Steven Pienaar will teach him a lesson. Testing your knowledge in this way against your mates brings a whole new competitiveness to work and school life, brightening up otherwise humdrum exchanges. Assembling that perfect squad and competing for money and bragging rights with peers.

Fantasy Football adds that competitive element to an office, bringing them closer together. Suddenly you have to know just why Cliff from accounts has brought in Ahmed Elmohamady over a Nacho Monreal who may have two matches that gameweek, what was Marcus thinking in picking Craig Gardner as captain, or exactly why Louise from features is keeping faith with Gabriel Agbonlahor, who hasn’t scored since that night in (that’s enough of that – Ed). Where once the weird Cornish man in the corner was ostracised, or the office Geordie struggled to join in with the conversation, now we have something to bring them altogether.

 

I have run the office Fantasy Football competition on our sports desk for the past seven years and, I can not lie, it has often been one of the best parts of my job. I delighted in the power I could wield with my weekly updates, with the supposed footy statto’s often found languishing near the bottom and the fly-by-nights sitting pretty at the top. The draft picks every summer quickly became an office tradition – the whole desk waiting to digest and dissect each and every pick, and work out just who they were going to opt for now that David Nugent had been taken, off limits for another year..

Of course, given my immense footballing knowledge, I only went and won the competition in the 2008/09 season. Rumours quickly abounded that I had somehow fixed the scoring – scurrilous rumours that to this day I detest. It was Andrei Arshavin’s four goals at Anfield in a rearranged match that swung it my way.

World Cup fantasy football filled a gap over the summer months but it’s not the Premier League, is it? Who needs Brazil and Argentina, when you have Burnley and Aston Villa? There’s nothing quite like that thrill of picking a Ricky van Wolfswinkel and having him when he scores HIS ONLY BLOODY GOAL all season, or transferring in that West Ham centre-back before everyone else had cottoned on this points potential (James Collins, I’m talking about you).

Perhaps one of Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky or Olivier Giroud tickle your fancy ahead of the new season? Perhaps one of Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky or Olivier Giroud tickle your fancy ahead of the new season? Such is the hold it takes over you and your life that it can even leave you feeling not so bad when your team loses or a certain player scores against your team. I have lost count of coming away from a Tottenham match feeling disgusted for attempting to subconsciously reason with myself that a loss to a certain team didn’t matter so much because a player from my fantasy team was the one that had done the damage. Standing there in the stands I have often hated myself after momentarily delighting in the fact that it was one of my fantasy players scoring against my real-life team. How could I? WHAT HAS THIS GAME DONE TO ME?

Fantasy football immerses, absorbs, takes over your whole weekend. Where once you had time for a walk in the park amongst the leaves, or had a spare few minutes to take the missus shopping, now your Saturday morning is taken up with that last minute worry over whether or not to go with three at the back, or bring in that Newcastle forward who has an easier match. And the weekly transfer deadline is not the end of it – oh no, not by a long chalk. This game dictates your whole weekend. As the goals go in, it’s not what does it mean for your actual team, it’s more how that strike ruins Joleon Lescott’s clean sheet, or takes away from the Julian Speroni bonus points that your brother was so relying on. And then there’s the interminable wait for the bonus points to be added – at least in the version that I play. What a way to make or break one’s Saturday night. And what of the shameful walk back into work after a bad weekend, or the added spring in your step that a Demba Ba hat-trick could give you and no-one else.

It is not just work-places and schoolyards that the game can bring together – families can also be reconnected across a keenly/bitterly contested Fantasy League. Sensing the competitiveness that my brother and I delighted in battling, cross-country, every weekend, my mother was keen to get involved. I am pleased to say I finished above her last season (if I have to explain who Vincent Kompany plays for one more time…), although the less said about my sister-in-law’s surprising second place finish the better – I’m sure my brother was picking her team for the last few gameweeks.. how else would she know about Dwight Gayle?!

Can Daniel Sturridge fill the void left by Luis Suarez? Can Daniel Sturridge fill the void left by Luis Suarez? One tip is to keep your eye on the rearranged matches, which are particularly more prominent from Christmas and towards the end of the season, when Cup replays and the weather can decimate league programmes. Some websites’ rules can differ, but you will often end up with some teams playing twice or even three times in a week, rendering their players a lot more valuable than someone playing just once or not at all. I’m shaking my head at the seeming obviousness of this, but you would be surprised at the amount of competitors who overlook this quirk/have fallen out of interest with the game by the time February or March rolls around.

Picking a captain is another crucial part of your team-choosing – which player are you so confident of doing well that you want his points doubled? Where once this would be a nailed on Cristiano Ronaldo or Frank Lampard, last season it was more Leighton Baines or Yaya Toure that came into their own – someone who would always play but also took their teams penalties, was always in the running for bonus points and popped up with their fair share of assists.

Now, enough of this chatter, does anyone know any players worth having from the QPR v Hull match this weekend? I was thinking Charlie Austin, but Hull’s defence was looking impressive during that Cup run at the end of last season…

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