Managers don Bob Stokoe's hat in fantasy land

KEITH ELLIOTT at large
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The Independent Online
Amid all the controversy about who will replace Terry Venables as the new England boss, one name has been curiously absent - that of Graham Down. He is, after all, the country's most in-form manager. Even fellow managers acknowledge that, when it comes to picking teams, Down has a record even Kevin Keegan can only dream about.

Sadly, that's all it is - only a dream. For Down, from Royston, Hertfordshire, is the man heading Fantasy League, a game (though few see it like that) where football fans get the chance to prove they can do better than Ramsey, Robson or Rioch. We're not talking about those newspaper-backed leagues here, either.

"People don't just take part in this: they organise their holidays and even their lives around it," says Andrew Wainstein, who started Fantasy League in the UK five years ago.

The basic concept has been hugely popular. As well as newspaper fantasy leagues, it has inspired all sorts of spin-offs, from motor racing to fishing, from soaps to doctors. There is even Fantasy Synagogue, invented by a London Jewish magazine, where you score points for events such as weddings and barmitzvahs. Then there is the hugely popular BBC2 series, which Wainstein licenses and was asked to be "Statto". But none attracts the fanatical following of the original game, even though the top manager from more than 1,500 leagues wins only glory.

"We are purist about it. You play for the love of the game, and there aren't any prizes." Wainstein says. "But it's astonishing the extent to which some leagues take their involvement." One particularly deranged manager, on receiving his FA Cup draw, plans out the imaginary route he would take to meet his rival manager, right down to working out where his team would stay the night.

Many leagues have their own newsletters and fanzines. One produced a video with commentary by Martin Tyler. They design their own replica FA Cups, or award sought-after mementoes such as a reproduction Bob Stokoe hat. City of London leagues gamble on it, with each player paying pounds 50 or pounds l00 into a pot that goes to the winner. There are even a couple of ad companies who run a league for clients. "It gives an excuse to call up, tell them how they are doing, then talk business," Wainstein says.

So what inspires such fanaticism? And why does his league score over its rivals? Wainstein, a 29-year-old computer programmer, says: "It's really about winning your league and beating your mates." But most enthusiasts cite the pre-season auction as one of the highlights. Rather than just picking from about 400 players, each manager has pounds 35m to spend on a pool of 16 and competes with others in the league for star names. Is it best to fork out a fortune on Shearer or choose a strong back four? Wainstein says: "One league spent 12 hours on their auction, while another held theirs in a synagogue. I don't think they ate pork scratchings, though."

The secret of managerial success, he says, is a combination of patience, luck and football knowledge. "The former is important because you can be sure that as soon as you drop a player, he will start scoring goals, so you need to have faith in your selections. And football knowledge ... "I had one phone call at 12.30am from a manager, asking if it was true that Juninho was going back to Brazil. In cup matches, managers will change their teams around when they find out their opponent's squad, To do well at Fantasy League, you need to know who is suspended, who is injured and who is playing well; all that anal stuff."

Wainstein picked up the idea from a similar scheme run in the US for basketball and baseball. He spent several months writing a program to calculate what would happen if Cantona scored twice, Schmeichel let in three goals, Vinnie Jones was sent off, and they all played for the same team. He started by running the league from his parents' front room. Now a staff of seven monitor every Premier League game from an office in Camden Town, north London. "I have seen every goal scored in every Premier league match for the past five seasons, and I know who provided the assist [crucial for extra points] too," he admits.

Leagues pay pounds 15 a team (pounds 5 if you want to join now), and for that they can make several team changes. After that they pay a nominal fee. Because team news often comes in late, Wainstein and his staff have frantic Fridays as managers make late changes. "We have one manager who now owns about 23 teams, who sends in cheques of pounds 60 a time because he makes so many changes. But he never wins anything." A lesson there for some real Premiership managers, perhaps.

Running Fantasy League is now Wainstein's full-time job. "I am constantly playing with the computer, looking at better ways of working out the positions. And sadly, I still enjoy it," he confesses. He is also fascinated at how Fantasy League has changed fans' perceptions of other sides. "You start to see good in other teams. I like to feel that I am massively unfair to other sides, and can't see any good in them. But Fantasy League makes you interested in Spurs' midfield, or United's back four. I think that's awful!"

An ardent Arsenal fan, he is having a bad Fantasy League season after winning in its first year. "I chose my squad - Bergkamp, Platt, Beresford - with my heart rather than my head," he admits. So maybe Graham Down, from the Where Is Bobby Mimms Now? League, would prefer to hang on to his day job in a bank, and avoid the hassles of media scrutiny, fans' displeasure and petulant players. And anyway, you'd never get the chance to win a repro Bob Stokoe hat as England manager. Fantasy League can be contacted on 0171 383 0088.

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