Where FPL Began

It’s difficult to conceive of any fantasy sport successfully functioning offline. As David Wardale explains, however, the original innovators of the game would go to extreme lengths to satisfy their fantasy football cravings; sacrificing time, money and a huge amount of paper in the process

Summer is the ultimate fantasy vacuum. It is a wasteland bereft of footballing meaning beyond the occasional international tournament and, for the truly hardcore, Fantasy Eliteserien – the Norwegian version of our beloved FPL. I’ve been lucky enough to have my void filled, so to speak, by work on a book about fantasy football. That and a truly extraordinary summer of political shenanigans here in the UK.

I am not, by nature, a political animal and I think I share this state of mind with the majority of the population. Politics is a messy business in which operators offer black and white solutions to any number of shades of grey. The whole shabby process is usually as attractive as a Chuckle Brother and considerably less amusing. Not this summer.

For a country cosily wedded to the notion of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – except when it snows, the sun shines or Katie Hopkins tweets – this has been a time of unprecedented turmoil.

Researching the origins of fantasy football – and by that, I mean real football, not the steroidal shoulder pad-fest that is gridiron – has at least kept some of that turmoil at bay.

When it dies, swap them all.

A Labour of Love.

It is true that the game was popularised and, to a degree, monetised by British pioneer Andrew Wainstein, founder of Fantasy League Ltd and the administrative power behind the country’s first mass-market game at the Daily Telegraph in 1994.

Andrew’s early feats were Herculean – this was the age, remember, when there was no internet, so disseminating scores and standings involved using the postal service – as he explained in an excellent 2014 interview with the Fanfeud blog.

“I wrote a program to crunch the scores, but there was a report program that printed everything off at about 7pm after the last games. It took over 12 hours to look through all the leagues. Eventually my body clock was set to wake up every three hours, because that was how long it took for the printer to run out of paper.

“In the morning I’d pack a bunch of envelopes and take it to the local sorting office.” Andrew readily admitted that the inspiration for his game came from America, where they’d been creating and tinkering with fantasy sports since the late 1950s.

Fantacalcio

Andrew was not the first to adopt the American model for the truly global game that is football. That honour goes to Italian tech journalist Riccardo Albini, who dreamt up ‘Fantacalcio’ in the mid-1980s.

I am currently working on an interview with Signor Albini, so you’ll have to make do with excerpts from an online chat he did which is confused and improved in equal measure by the fact that it had to go through Google Translate to make it vaguely English.

THE PAPA OF ALL THE FANTALENATORS GETS GENESIS AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE GAMING GAME blasts the headline, followed by this intro:

“Meet Riccardo Albini for me who, like you, I grew up in bread and Fanta calcio is an unforgettable experience. The intuition of this genuinely playful mind has influenced the history of a lot of calciofile fans over the past twenty years and it is undeniable that both the supply and the use of the calcium product have had to take account and adapt to this phenomenon extraordinarily national popular and disruptive such as ‘Fanta calcio’.”

Things continue in this understandablish vein for a while, peaking at:

“So can we say that Fanta footballer is a better sportsman? Your Fantabomber piercings your heart’s team: exult, cheat or anything else?”

“Let’s say that he exults under the table and I hope that Milan will win the same. Certainly the Fanta footballer knows soccer much more than others because it is Also known for minor players who would not have noticed before.”

‘Exults under the table’ is a perfect way of describing many of our Fantasy experiences. I mean, who aside from a diehard Chelsea fan has ever truly delighted in the existence, let alone performance, of John Terry. But stick the old race-baiting Englishman in your team and his every point has you exulting under the table for gameweeks ad infinitum.

So the roots of today’s fantasy boom rest in 1980s Italy. But it’s true genesis came more than a decade before even that in the Garden of Eden that is the Merseyside borough of Knowsley.

He devised the game in school having been inspired by England's World Cup triumph. Fifty years later, unlike the England team, it's still going strong

50 Years of Joy

Bernie Donnelly – labour councillor and retired economics teacher – is our Fantasy God, creating His game in 1966 and rolling it out to the world, or more accurately seven of His mates, in 1971.

Bernie’s game is simple and complex all at once. Each team has a squad of 15 players from which just five score each week. Managers go head-to-head, with only goals scoring fantasy points.

The complexity lies in the set-up. Managers come and go, but the teams remain regardless. So a new boss can take over at a club, inheriting all the players and the budget their predecessor had built up. They can stick with the squad already in place or twist and haggle with their rivals to bring in fresh blood.

The league has just eight teams and, according to Bernie, a long waiting list of people wanting to come in and take over management of each club. As a result, should a manager finish bottom of the league, they face a good old fashioned re-election to remain in the league.

“If you’ve done nothing and sat on your arse for the season you’ll be sacked. But if you’ve tried your best you’ll probably survive,” explains Bernie.

“We could have 16 teams no problem. We could have a second division there’s that much demand. If you want to be involved, you become aN assistant manager and wait your turn.” Bernie expresses surprise that his game has endured for so long and bewilderment that some of the players take things so seriously that ‘they offer each other outside, that’s happened once or twice’.

So we salute you, Bernie Donnelly – fantasy football pioneer. Unless, of course, someone else has a tale to tell.