I never got the credit I feel I deserved over Ryan Shawcross. It was not until after I picked him that he found the form to usher himself upwards into the England squad, but amid the disappointment in a lack of personal recognition there remains the satisfaction that once he was one of mine. We have gone our separate ways yet still when I catch sight of another clean sheet for Stoke on Match of the Day or one of those occasional thunderous scoring headers from a corner, there is a flicker of fondness.
I thought of Shawcross again when Tony Pulis added Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate to Stoke's central defensive options during the summer. How will Ryan handle this latest challenge? You have to move on, though, and Shawsy is someone else's problem (or solution) as I missed out on him in the office fantasy football draft. This is The Independent sports desk's dirty secret, although it's less hackgate more sad-hacks-gate. We still have a highly competitive, much pored-over fantasy football league. It's so cut-throat that there is one manager who sets an alarm to ring at one minute before the weekly transfer deadline so nobody else will know his business plan until too late. That is except when he forgets to set the alarm. He would probably do well on The Apprentice.
Do you know your Mark Wilsons from your Andy Wilkinsons? Is Kaspars Gorkss just a man with a spare "s" in his name, or will he feature regularly for QPR? It gives the season a personal narrative all of its own. Every word Paul Merson utters on Soccer Saturday, even if most of them make no sense, could deliver news of a yellow card and subsequent loss of points for one of your golden XI. Suddenly a goalless draw between Fulham and Aston Villa is laden with meaning. Yet try explaining to the non-partisan why you are so excited over snatching Ji Dong-Won from leftfield (in a 3-4-3 formation) having discovered that he has an enviable goals-per-game ratio in his fledgling international career for South Korea. It's almost as socially alienating as a single mother with a hooded top and a brand new pair of trainers at a Bullingdon Club reunion.
Fantasy football is certainly a man's game. It is only men who take part and I suspect we are in Hornby territory here; lists, statistics, football and above all fantasy. To a greater or lesser extent there is something of the football fantasist in all Sport Attentive Males, or Sams. There was a woman, called Sheila I think, who used to sit near the press box at Essex's Chelmsford ground and score ball by ball each game. That's not unusual, there are plenty doing the same around the county grounds, it's just that the rest are men. Women do go and watch – the bedrock of county cricket's audience always seems to be retired couples – only they do not obsessively record the minute detail of the day.
There is a natural progression from having posters of Charlie Nicholas on your bedroom wall to recording the appearance details of your club's players over the season (carefully colour coded of course) to wondering whether Dean Whitehead – it always seems to come back to Stoke – will take enough set-pieces to prove his worth. I had a female friend who used to religiously record the Top 10 each Sunday evening in a school notebook, but never felt that was in the same league. That was just odd.
Fantasy sports games have been around since the late 1950s. The concept was developed by Wilfred Winkenbach, an Oakland businessman with a name surely dreamt up by PG Wodehouse. Fantasy football began here in the early 90s through newspapers and, coinciding with the expansion of the internet, it soon exploded in popularity. The sense is that it's waned recently – and whether that's numerically true or not there is certainly more elbow room around the fantasy water cooler.
Sport as a whole has simultaneously become more statistical, a trait that also crept across the Atlantic having first calculated the shortest and best-value route with the quickest recovery plan. From spurious world rankings to percentage of passes successfully completed in the opponents' half, sport has become as much about figures on the pitch as off it; they are all numbers games now.
Premier League clubs do not contemplate signing a player until the vital statistics have been exhaustively explored via ProZone. The example of a DJ Campbell, who earned a transfer into the Premier League on the back of a couple of goals live on TV in the FA Cup, becomes ever rarer.
It may be a stretch to say fantasy football killed the fantasy of footballers but it might have given them a dead leg; the secret that dares speak its name, transfer value and number of assists last season. I feel I should apologise for my willing part in it all but then I already have enough on my plate, with Gervinho getting himself sent off to ruin my first weekend.Reuse content