Fantasy football: A simple and deeply stupid obsession for so many
Malachy Clerkin: Here we go again as teams are picked and inevitable hours are wasted
Fantasy football is a PacMan, chomping away at the finite number of dots of leisure time you are able to box off from the regular world.
Scenes from a car journey on a random Saturday between now and next May. We will be out for a drive in the mid-afternoon, the three of us heading somewhere to do something, like families do on Saturdays. The radio will be on, low but not too low, like a conversation going on in another room. High enough at least to catch the presenter saying there’s been a goal at Goodison.
I’ll flick my thumb a couple of times on the volume control on the steering wheel and the 30-second clip will come in with John Keith describing a header from a corner by, say, Michael Keane that beat the keeper in his bottom corner. I’ll listen all the way to the end to catch every word, like it’s a presidential address announcing our gameplan for fighting off an alien attack.
And when it’s over, I’ll turn the volume back down low, muttering and chuntering away to myself, annoyed that the reporter hasn’t mentioned who took the corner. Was it Sigurdsson? Digne? Bernard? Come on, John. Who got the assist? Help us out here, man.
From the passenger seat, my wife will notice this tiny change in my bearing, a slight tensing of the shoulders, a hardening of the set of my jaw. “Who are they playing today?” she’ll ask, assuming with reason and logic that Manchester United, the team to whom I have a kind of lapsed-Catholic attachment, must have featured in the just turned-down radio clip.
And in the half a second of hesitation I offer up before answering, she will know. She will instantly recognise the passing - yet genuine - sense of shame all fantasy football players feel when they explain themselves to a real person. I won’t even have to spell it out. “Ah right,” she will go, remembering. “Your team.”
I never feel less impressive than when fantasy football comes up in the company of people who don’t play fantasy football. I can see the wheels turning in their heads. “This guy watches sport for work,” they’re thinking. “But for fun, he . . . let me see if I have this correct . . . he pretends to manage a football team that doesn’t exist, made up of players from teams that do exist, pitted against other teams that don’t exist, pretend-managed by other football fans who may or may not be into their actual team anymore but like to keep an eye on their imaginary team. Is that about right?”
Working from home?
Yup. That’s just about how small we are. And if anything, it gives us a bit too much credit. No guess from an outsider as to how much time in a week the average FF player spends fiddling about with their fantasy team will come close to being right. Especially now, since nobody has an office to go to anymore. Working from home? Like you wouldn’t believe, boss.
Here follows a list of places on the internet I have been in the past week as the new season has loomed. The Carlisle News & Star, to find out about budding Everton centre-half Jarrad Branthwaite (and to discover he was born a few weeks after Saipan). The statistics page of FantasyLigue1.com to check how new Wolves signing Marcal did for Lyon last season. I know he played in the Champions League semi-final but is he any good, fantasy-wise? A site called HITC.com which seemed to have exclusive info on why somebody called Jed Steer is set to be Aston Villa’s goalkeeper for the first few games at least.
This was all just in the space of an hour on Wednesday afternoon. There was a draft for our head-to-head league on Tuesday night, in which 14 of us took turns in making our picks and I somehow used my last one to panic buy Callum Robinson. The following day, West Brom did the same thing in real life, taking him from Sheffield United on a five-year contract. After watching him make a hero of the Finnish keeper from six yards out last Sunday, I’m not sure which of us got the better deal.
Fantasy football is a PacMan, chomping away at the finite number of dots of leisure time you are able to box off from the regular world. There are podcasts to listen to, Twitter accounts to follow, websites with Premium Members’ Areas into which you can pay for access to even more arcane knowledge. There are stats sites that keep track of touches in the box and pre-assists and expected goals and clearances and a thousand other pieces of ephemera. It has no outer boundaries. You can keep gulping down information and there will always be more.
All of this, and you still have to watch the football. There’s Match Of The Day, obviously - I favour recording Saturday night and watching Sunday morning while forwarding through Big Al and Wrighty. There’s the lunchtime game on Saturday, Super Sunday, Monday Night Football, maybe a bit of midweek, even the odd Friday night.
And of course there’s Soccer Saturday, which is watching people watching football. Although there will be less of that in the immediate future with only one three o’clock Saturday game per weekend until they get the fans back into grounds. Which is a shame, because among Jeff Stelling’s many gifts is the sense that he always knows the importance of mentioning who gave the last pass for a goal. He might not call it an assist but Jeff knows his audience.
We are, at heart, an inglorious tribe. It’s not that we’re particularly nerdy - actual nerds would roll their eyes at our dubious efforts to manhandle the level of data that floats around the game. It’s not that we’re completely football-obsessed either - it’s perfectly possible to set your team for the week without having watched very much of the previous weekend’s action. You will find yourself slipping in your league if you make a habit of it but if it’s only an occasional thing, you’ll be fine.
So who are we? Well, first off, it has to be said that we’re mostly male. The Fantasy Premier League (FPL), with its six million-plus entrants each season, generally has around a five per cent female playing population. This is far lower than the equivalent figure for Fantasy NFL in the US, where women habitually make up around 20 per cent of the entrants.
The gap is possibly explained by the fact that fantasy is much more embedded in NFL culture and in American sports culture generally. There was even a sitcom, The League, which ran for seven seasons and guest-starred actual NFL players. To this day, the avatar for our FPL WhatsApp group is Rafi from The League. It’s a very niche, very fantasy football kind of in-joke.
We are not our best selves, is what I’m getting around to saying here. Fantasy football tends to a patch of our garden that would look so much better if we left it to be grown over naturally. It appeals to the know-it-all side of the psyche, the bit of ourselves that looks around a room of football people and goes, ‘Yeah. I know what’s what.’ Literally nobody in the world would be worse off if that bit of ourselves disappeared from view. Least of all us, the gobshites who know the truth.
Because here’s what it is: most of us are really, gnawingly, pathetically bad at it. You would think by now, as the FPL heads into its 19th season, we would have some level of expertise. We don’t. We make the same mistakes, pick the same players, captain the same hopeless wretches year after year expecting a different result. And when we change it up, we make a balls of that too.
A prince among my peers
I am the worst kind of Fantasy Football player in that I was good at it once. Or I thought I was. I won The Irish Times league one year, surfing a wave of Luis Suarez goals to the title. I strolled around with my chest out, a prince among my peers. Oh yeah, I know football. I know its depths and intricacies to such a granular extent that I’m able to see that Luis Suarez is good at it.
In the seven seasons since, I have never been above mid-table. Each season has been the same - I start slowly, I try to get too cute too early, I’m shark bait by Halloween. I haven’t a clue what I’m doing and I spend endless hours doing it.
There are times when I hate it. Genuinely and viscerally. I’ll hang on to a player two weeks too long and then finally get rid of him the week before he scores a hat-trick. I’ll spot a defender playing as a wing-back for some mid-table team and decide to wait a week to bring him in because of a tricky fixture, only to see him rack up a clean sheet bonus against a big team whose star striker I have as captain. I will habitually leave a dozen points on the bench.
It is a deeply, deeply stupid game that makes me feel small and dumb in a way that actual sport can never do, in a way that nothing else in my life has ever done.
I can’t wait for it to start again.