Is This Just Fantasy?

Addiction, fantasy football, Football

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.

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He’s not the Messiah…

AA, Addiction, Nigel Farage, Religion, Revolution, Richard Dawkins, Russell Brand, Spirituality

There are few nobler exploits than a genuine attempt to improve society. For this, Russell Brand should be congratulated. Whereas many may use radicalism as a method to garner attention, fame and money, he already has these by the bucket load, and there is little reason to believe his motives are not honourable.

However, Brand currently presents a threat. As Farage is to the right, Brand is to the populists, a foghorn of haphazard ideas and loosely constructed whims, berating problems that we know exist with no actual solution. His Newsnight interview, when he was questioned by economist Evan Davis, was telling. Davis did not leap on his victim like Paxman may have done, instead choosing to circumnavigate, stealthily stalking his prey before going in for the kill. Brand had the problems, he had the rant ready but, when pressed for alternatives, he was sorely lacking, and his comments on a possible 9/11 conspiracy were ill-judged. Inspiring a revolution may be enticing to Brand, but he should perhaps study past uprisings before lunging into this one. Yes, the figures that he chastises are dangerous, but so is Brand himself. Anyone looking to embark on such a history lesson could do worse than look at previous examples of the disenfranchised masses latching onto radical figures. It may be bad now, but it could be worse.

Do not get me wrong, it is excellent that Brand is generating this discussion at all, but the worry is that people, particularly Brand’s loyal fans, will see this not as a conversation starter, but as a viable political movement. He is eloquent (if a little wordy and Will Self-lite), intelligent and, in my opinion, a talented comedian, but his radical ideas evoke those that would be thrown around the Sixth Form Common Room. Unless he can devise a few solutions, they should be taken with a handful of salt.

Brand advocates spirituality and religion as a cornerstone for this “free-thinking” movement. There are few things I can bring to mind that are less free-thinking than religion, and any notion that uses it as a foundation is a worrying one. He accuses Richard Dawkins of “atheistic tyranny”, and while he may have a point to an extent, this does not mean that a society founded on pantheism is the way forward (do I even need to explain why?)

Atheistic tyranny may not be ideal, but religion should not be off limits. Blasphemy does not exist if there is no God and, frankly, it deserves to be ridiculed because it is moronic, and deserves to be condemned because it is extremely dangerous. Brand claims that religion is not at all homophobic, and simply endorses the “union of all mankind”. Well, Russell, that simply isn’t true is it? Religious people do tend to pick and choose scripture to support their arguments, but this is either completely ignorant or a bare faced lie. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them” (and believe me, that is one of many, many examples from religious texts). I refuse to accept that dangerous figures simply distort religion to suit their needs – religion in and of itself is an ugly, ugly thing. Brand can accuse Dawkins of tyranny, but he propagates his own views through a self-help style outlook, describing his own battle with narcotics as a starting point for this wider fight, and one cannot help but be concerned by the AA type stance. The AA is a cult, and I don’t use the word lightly, masquerading as a support group, where the only salvation is to relinquish all power to a superior being (a method with a 5-10% success rate). Religion should be the basis for nothing that even wants to pertain to logic and reason, let alone progress.

Then again, spirituality and religion is quite an apt cornerstone for Brand’s ideology. It has the odd nice, idyllic element, but it is pie in the sky, extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence and, beneath the hopeful, positive exterior, could actually prove tremendously perilous.

Hi I’m John, and I’m an addict

Addiction, Arsenal, Football, Football Manager, London, Yaya Sanogo

Where can one turn with an addiction? Hallucinations form, images appear where there is nothing, thoughts drift rapidly, inexorably, back to the same place. One’s mind cannot focus on anything, anything other than where the next fix is coming from. I have suffered. I have suffered greatly. Not heroin, not cocaine, not Toblerone. My hands shake as I unwrap the packaging, press the button on the side of the laptop and try to insert the disc. The disc, that thin sliver of joy and despair, slips. I gasp, but eventually it’s in. Load. Load, God damn you, load. I am, of course, talking about Football Manager addiction, and as a new version is imminent, it is a problem more prominent than ever.

Those who have not tried it will never understand. “It’s just a game, it’s stupid, you don’t even do anything, you just click buttons, the computer does most of it”. How I laugh. They have not felt its grasp; the cold, clammy hand that greets your every move. You kick the addiction for a few months, then names come flooding back. Cherno Samba, Tonton Zolo Moukoko, To Madeira, Yaya Sanogo, Khouma Babacar. Legends to a man. Oh the halcyon days. You wonder where they are now. Plumbing the depths of the lower leagues, retired, working in Lidl, fictional, sitting on the Arsenal bench? It does not matter. They are immortal.

Just one quick game. Half an hour, maybe an hour, before bed. You get through the opening transfer window. What’s the time; 10/10:30pm? It is 4am. No point stopping now, just plough through until tomorrow. No sleep? It doesn’t matter, you have signed Bojan. That’s what counts.

There are others out there. You may not see them; they are shamed into retreating under bridges, in alleyways, away from the glare of the real world. They are not helped, they are scorned. I have sought help, but members of Narcotics Anonymous do not take kindly to one’s presence. I tried to explain to them how my addiction was just as damaging as theirs, but if anything that just made the situation worse. They did not listen. I will not hide any more.

There are others who have it worse. There are stories of players dressing in suits for matches, playing the Champions League theme before those big European nights, shaking hands with the opposing manager – the doorknob. Football Manager has been cited in more than 35 divorce cases. My proudest moment was not my graduation; it was an incident a few weeks prior, when Everton renamed Goodison Park ‘The O’Connor Stadium’, having seen their team win 3 consecutive Champions League titles.

I have grown since my younger days. That’s what I tell myself. At 23, my Football Manager time is restricted to playing the Kindle version while travelling. I am currently in my 5th season and on the verge of the title with Leicester City, having brought them up from the Championship. The board have been patient and they are reaping the rewards. They are in the Quarter Final of the Champions League, and have a manager with a proven track record. The Leicester City faithful have never seen 5 in midfield, 2 deep lying midfielders dictating play, a fluid front line, out and out wingers one game, inside forwards the next, one ball playing centre back, wing backs bursting down the flanks, a deep lying forward bringing others into play, crisp, short tiki-taka passing. This isn’t your average side – we are building something special here.

Since I have moved to London and, most importantly, been living with my girlfriend (I have learned something from those divorce cases, and she has been a rock through my battle with addiction), Football Manager has taken something of a back seat. It is secondary now, but nothing can take away those memories. That 2011 Everton first team rolls off the tongue of every football fan on the planet: Areola (not only was he the best keeper in the world, but his name allowed for lots of comedy “Areola makes a tit of himself/boobs it up” remarks on the very few occasions that he made an error), Azpilicueta, Chiellini, Otamendi, Criscito, Hamsik, Sanchez, Pastore, Ozil, Babacar, Sanogo. The heroes.

Yes, my life has progressed, as have theirs. We have gone our separate ways. I have faced my addiction, and Football Manager no longer controls my mind as it once did. Now I can go for hours, even days, without needing my next fix.

As I walk down the streets of London with my girlfriend, hand in hand, in love, the sun shining, I think of all of the beauty that the real world has to offer. We may nip into a pub for quick refreshment on our jaunt around the city. There is football on the screen. Arsenal are playing. I hear the team sheet, and my heart flutters. Yaya Sanogo. I bow my head and a smile creeps across my face. 52 goals in a season. I can feel the glint in my eye, tears welling, my bottom lip trembling. Yaya Sanogo. An idol.