I wrote an article a few months ago about my addiction to Football Manager. Those of you who read that brave, inspiring piece will know that, after years of struggle, I have largely managed to kick the habit. As heart-warming as that is, I did not tell the full story. For, you see, as one addiction faded into the past, another similar vice took its place. Much like the heroin addict who becomes hooked on methadone, I weaned myself off Football Manager…and onto Fantasy Football.
If the love of Football Manager is a mystery to the uninitiated, then Fantasy Football is an unsolvable conundrum.
“Do you have a hobby?”
“Yes, a very important one”.
“Ooo what does it entail? The reading of a great work of Russian literature, an exercise that expands the mind, revealing numerous philosophical notions and passages of thought? A sport that keeps you healthy and active, where you may compete for awards and meet other like-minded people? A love of travel, visiting far-flung places of the globe, interacting with new cultures and broadening your wealth of experience?”
“Sort of. It primarily consists of statistical analysis of, say, the West Brom or Sunderland defence, or the comparison of Danny Ings and Saido Berahino. I’m currently devising a table to assess Aston Villa’s prowess from corners”.
It’s ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous. And yet…
I will sit in the pub with my fiancée, or my friends, perhaps basking in a summery beer garden, enjoying the conversation and the drinks. What a glorious Saturday afternoon. Wait – Saturday afternoon. Oh my God. It’s 3:20pm. Have Southampton conceded yet? Gylfi Sigurdsson could have an assist or two. Theo Walcott could have gone ballistic. Oh God, I didn’t captain Aguero. Oh God, oh sweet Jesus.
I will covertly check my phone. “Just checking the football scores”. That is an anti-social act in itself, certain to get a hostile response, but the truth is worse. It must be hidden. A scowl is etched on my face. I say it’s because Everton are losing. A half-truth, but there’s more to it than that. A lot more. The double West Brom defence, that one that was such a good idea because of Tony Pulis? Andre Wisdom has conceded a penalty, and Boaz Myhill hasn’t kept it out. George Boyd has scored for Burnley, but where is he? He’s sat on your bench. How can you ever recover from this?
You see other addicts online; some of them don’t even know they’re junkies yet. You weep for them. You are more realistic, you know that this is not normal behaviour. “It’s fine, it’s perfectly common to be asking a group of strangers whether I should transfer in Hector Bellerin at 3am”. Your heart bleeds; they can’t see the truth. You want them to get out now, to tell them there’s still a chance, but you know it’s too late. They have been bitten, and you are a Fantasy Football zombie watching them transform.
The uninitiated are probably thinking “well, it must enhance your enjoyment of football? Like betting – it matters more when there’s money on it”. I shake my head and chuckle. You do not know what it’s like. I have watched Everton games and seen us take the lead through a Romelu Lukaku penalty. I leap for joy, my team is winning, but in the back of my mind it’s there. It’s niggling. “Real football matters more, real football matters more”. I keep telling myself that, but I know it. I have Leighton Baines in my team. Leighton Baines, the reliable penalty taker. I spent a chunk of my budget on that man for his set pieces, and now? That is 6 points gone. And the bonus points. Think of the bonus points.
A player scores a wonder goal, picking the ball up 40 yards out before beating 6 men and chipping the goalkeeper. The pub erupts. “Get in!” “What a goal!” “YESSSSSSS!!!!!” A lone cry can be heard over the noise. “Did anyone see who got the assist? Was it Dusan Tadic?”
Last season, I witnessed a vintage Arsenal performance, where they put 4 past Liverpool in a display of slick, balletic, technically wonderful football, and what was my main feeling during the game? Overwhelming disappointment. I had decided against bringing Mesut Ozil into my team.
Each season, a year of exciting, rollercoaster football is transformed into a desperate quest to win your mini-league (the one with 6 people and a grand total of £5 for the winner), or to finish in the top 1,000. The reward for that? Nothing. Well, nothing tangible. Just as I took great pride in the renaming of Goodison Park after my multiple Champions League victories on Football Manager, I have seldom been as smug as when informing people that, in 2013, I finished 296th in Fantasy Premier League. Yes, that’s 296th out of 3.5 million. Just email me for an autograph.
It is enjoyable for a while, “I won’t take it seriously, it’s just a game” you say. We’ve all heard it before: “it’s just one drink on my own”, “I’m only a social smoker”. Step away from the computer. In a few years, this will be you. Entering a Fantasy Football tournament based on the U21 Championships, as you frantically try to research 20 year old Swedish players to see who may give you the best hope of an assist. If it was a full-time career, you would be promoted at an alarming rate. The work ethic, attention to detail and investigative prowess you are displaying is remarkable.
I lie here now, surrounded by cigarette butts, scrawling the 2015/16 fixtures and the predicted player prices on receipts and old tissues. The game opens for the new season soon you see. Here I lie, soaked in cheap wine and my own tears. I have been thinking about the week that I took the captaincy off Charlie Austin on the Saturday morning of his hat trick. I am too far gone, but you, you go on without me. You can save yourself, I know you can. Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead.