The awkward futility of traditional Fantasy Football


So, the season is beginning and this weekend will mark the departure from relevance of hundreds of thousands of Fantasy Football teams.  All the plotting, the second-guessing and the last-minute tweaks will be proven to have been a waste of your time and, though you will labour on admirably for the rest of the season, you will really only be playing with the vague ambition of breaking into the top-500,000.

The Premier League’s official game is great; the format is nice, you get a tiny graphic of your chosen player’s shirt, and the ‘wildcard’ utility allows all of those rash pre-season selections - which were obviously terribly, terribly clever at the time - to be undone and replaced with form players.

Fantasy Football is now effortless; the internet allows users to pick, select and enter their team within minutes, and to spend countless hours over the course of the season tracking his or her squad’s performance.  There are graphs, trend maps and there are even websites and Twitter accounts dedicated to providing Fantasy managers with injury updates and sneaky mid-season bargains.

It’s fun and addictive in a secondary-entertainments sort of way, but it hasn’t always been like this.

Fantasy Football used to be very crude.  Rather than simply going online and completing your team, you first had to find a newspaper carrying the game.  From the middle of July onwards, you would snake your hand into any broadsheet you could find until one day, finally, your would find the fantasy pull-out.  I

And so it began: instead of neat drop-down menus and a mouse-cursor, you would wrestle with an enormous broadsheet page which documented every player in the division.  Set-piece experts were circled, goal-scorers were underlined and attacking full-backs were asterisked.

You had your budget, your pen and your cut-out team-sheet.

One of the game’s forgotten challenges was its tiny margin for practical error.  A mistake on the entry form - one which couldn’t be corrected with inventive annotation - was fatal and would delay your entry by at least another day.  And mistakes were easy to make, too, because the submission procedure was genuinely a trial: there were no pop-up caveats to prevent you from falling foul of any rules and players used to be designated preposterously long and complicated codes.

Schmeichel, Peter - 120493753MUN.  Whether entering by phone or post, a mis-step had serious, Les Sealey-sized consequences.

Phone entry was barbaric.  While we complain today about paying our utility bills through automated services, that was really nothing on the Hell of entering a fourteen-man fantasy team.  It was a trial, a test, an examination of your concentration - a confusing web of instructions issued by an electronic, mid-Atlantic-accented robot voice.

More so then than now, fantasy football was really just a pre-season ritual.  In 2015, participants’ teams remain fully visible throughout the season and no matter how well or badly they perform, they retain some degree of fascination until the end of May.

Before the internet, the entry of a team was the beginning, middle and end of the process.  Successful managers would have their name and scores printed in the paper but everybody’s else’s team would just disappear into the ether.

From my first moments of footballing consciousness to the dawn of the digital age, I played fantasy football religiously every season - and yet I have no idea what happened to any of those sides.  I would post the form, talk about it at school for a couple of days and then, probably by early September, have completely forgotten who I had picked.

And, unless you were in the habit of pinning a photocopy of your entry form to your desk or wall - and what kind of OCD monster did that? - there was no way of reminding yourself of who was actually in your team.

Yes, there would be the occasional flash of recognition and an Andy Hinchcliffe free-kick might stir some inner sense of significance on a cold night in November, but weeks and months would typically pass without you giving your team a second’s thought.

Articles like this usually conclude by - rather over-romantically - claiming that all these archaic idiosyncrasies were rather charming and that this was some sort of golden age of fantasy sports.

Nonsense - it was hopeless.  It was a convoluted exercise in enormous futility and fantasy football really just occupied the space that modern day pre-season tournaments do now.  You did it because you had spent your entire Summer staring sadly into the distance and because it gently exercised the emotional muscles that waste away during June and July.

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