Is this the real life or is this just fantasy?

I have been drawn back to the world of fantasy football and this time the stakes are way bigger than ever before, for this time I am playing against my sons!

I suppose in these strange times we are all looking for distractions from the daily update of covid cases and fantasy sport has provided one such outlet. For those of you unaware of the concept, it generally follows the same format whether it be football, golf, american football or whatever is your sport / poison of choice. You are granted an initial budget with which to buy players, the better the player the more expensive he is. Often the key is to unearth the jewel in the rough, that player who is about to outperform all expectations. Each week your players will earn points based on their performances which gives you a team total. Your team can compete in public leagues where prizes can be quite substantial (the winner of the official premier league fantasy football with over 7 million teams gets a 7 day break in the UK including tickets to two matches, assuming that is possible, amongst other things) or simply just the pride of beating your friends and / or relatives in a private league.

Now my initial dalliance with fantasy football harks back over a decade ago to simpler times when I was a young, single man with plenty of time on his hands. A man who thought nothing of switching on his TV and lap-top simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon and waiting to hear who had scored the goals and provided those all important goal assists. Then I became embroiled in romance and property, and children followed. Suddenly spending all of Saturday afternoon glued to multiple screens became frowned upon! But then last year I realised something very interesting. My two eldest boys were listening out for the football scores the way I used to when it was Des Lynam on Grandstand, I had a lightbulb moment and casually mentioned to them the concept of fantasy football weaving in tales of the delights of the triple captain and the clean sheet bonus.

Let’s say it didn’t take much persuading to get them on board and I quickly got them set up in a private league with their aunt and cousin as rivals. Initially I didn’t enter a team as I knew that I would be too busy to spend all the required hours doing the necessary and extensive research! I limited my role to that of advisor / troubleshooter for when things got tricky. It’s safe to say that the boys took to it like ducks to water, there were a few anomalies when in particular Lochlan (9) would go with some daring transfer strategies or choose his goalkeeper as captain, but in general they kept within the top 10% of players which was quite an achievement for rookies.

Then back in March lockdown happened, causing a general hiatus and a fixture pile-up. When football finally returned, everything seemed a bit disjointed and that included fantasy football where things (results, player form, goal scorers) got a bit more unpredictable. Aaron (11) made the wise choice to bring Danny Ings (his jewel in the rough) into his team and he promptly scored a bundle of goals allowing Aaron to ride that particular wave to private league glory. Then the bragging started about the depth of his football knowledge and his Mourinho-like understanding of tactics and formations! Of course this was like a red rag to a bull so that when Fantasy Football 2020-21 rolled around there was a new player on the field, Eoghan Doyle (or Daddy Doyle as he is known in Fantasy Football circles) made his long awaited return to reclaim the crown.

I rubbed my hands with relish as I surveyed the options before me using my c. 40 years of footballing knowledge to assemble a crack team of elite players at reasonable prices. No Manchester teams playing for the first week made player choices that bit easier and I promptly rushed into an early lead. Move the clock forward 6 weeks and I am a broken man, continuously banging his fist at Aubameyang’s complete lack of form and cursing my lack of faith in everything Everton. Worst of all is my dismissal of Kane and Son (the two highest scoring players so far) as nothing but makeweights in Mourinho’s defensive system. Needless to say I am now fourth in a league of four, with my sons and sister-in-law all peering down on me from above.

Everyday I scour the football press for tidbits that might improve my chances, I listen to podcasts endlessly trying to ascertain the best strategy not just for the coming gameweek but also for the next month and even beyond. Every week I am closer to playing my wildcard (the ability to swap your entire team for a new one of equal value) but so far I keep on holding off for another week. In fairness I did come out on top in the latest gameweek but only by a small margin and definitely not enough to get me out of my rut!

I like to imagine that my subconscious has deliberately sabotaged my initial selection (who knew that 3 of my original 15 players would have yet to play a single minute) to pile pressure on myself and in this heightened environment I will thrive. But in fact I’d much rather have the league wrapped up already and be able to coast towards the title in a Liverpool-esque fashion. Unfortunately it looks likely that I will be more like Burnley scraping for points than anything else but at least it takes my mind off other things! Not quite the fantasy I had hoped for but beggars can’t be choosers!

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