Big Lang Theory: In praise of fantasy football



Good news, everyone: football is back. While this Olympic summer has brought more than its fair share of thrills and spills, the return of the Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday grind will be welcomed by the vast majority of right-minded people up and down the country.

The glad tidings don't stop with there, however. The new season brings with it a host of attendant cultural phenomena: the Monday newspaper pullouts, the feverish radio phone-ins and, most importantly of all, fantasy football. Far from being the mindless, luck-driven enterprise that it may appear at first glance, fantasy football is, in fact, the perfect storm, combining amateur player scouting, friendly rivalry and implicit (yet complex) calculations of risk and reward.

The game has its own internal logic, which doesn't always bear much resemblance to that which governs football proper. So while most sides would be delighted to have both Martin Skrtel and Jose Enrique in their backlines, a seasoned fantasy football player will likely avoid 'doubling up' on one club's defenders. As someone who spent a number of Saturday afternoons sweating on a Ben Foster-Steven Carr-Liam Ridgewell axis of idiocy, I can tell you that putting all your eggs on one basket (especially a basket managed by Alex McLeish) is never a good idea.

Strange moral tropes can also develop. I know someone who, as a Spurs fan, refuses not only to pick Arsenal or Chelsea stars, but even players who have, at some stage in their lives, had vague associations with those clubs. Yohan Cabaye has a cousin who goes out with a girl who works at the Chelsea gift store? See you later, mon ami. Abiding by such stolid rules is laudable, particularly because, more often than not, it works the other way: fantasy football encourages you to temporarily abandon your allegiances, prompting you to celebrate goals scored by rival teams or players you dislike. I never have been able to reconcile the conflicting feelings I get when Steven Gerrard earns me points, for instance.

Yes, fantasy football does strange things to a football fan. It makes you care about last-minute consolation goals, which so cruelly deny you four much-needed clean sheet points. It makes you fret over whether Franco Di Santo's value is going to decline by £0.1 or £0.2 million before you have the chance to ship him out of your squad. It makes you wonder why some past version of yourself had the ridiculous idea of signing Franco Di Santo in the first place. (He had a double gameweek against Norwich and Reading! Woe is me!)

Take Manchester United's 8-2 win over Arsenal last year. My enjoyment of one of the strangest games of the (or, indeed, any) season was improved immeasureably due to my fantasy football selections. Nestling in my side was Ashley Young, who aside from scoring a goal (five points, thank you very much) also received TWO SETS of assist points for steadying the ball on Wayne Rooney free-kicks. The points taste better when they've barely been earnt. And while Sir Alex Ferguson probably didn't mind too much that his side conceded twice, I did. My decision to drop Phil Jones had proven more than justified. I cared.

So while you're casually checking scores on Teletext (that's still A Thing, right?) at 7:27 this evening, spare a thought for those of us who spent the afternoon hunched over our laptops, desperately trying to ascertain whether Yaya Toure's average position warrants his £8million fee in the fantasy game. Truly, this is a gruelling labour of love for millions of football fans. Once you've felt the pull, however, your weekends will never be the same without it.