The Roar
The Roar

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Fantasy football: A season's odyssey among mates

Gary Ablett is back in Round 15, and ready to play his 300th AFL game (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Expert
16th March, 2016
3

Vietnamese tucker and VB tins. Swathes of abuse. Swearing, laughing, despair, elation and then more abuse.

A group of thirty-somethings, scattered across the country and around the world, my mates and I will log on come Sunday night to compete in the only pre-season draft that matters.

It will be a familiar scenario for the million-odd people who dabble one way or another in the land of fantasy football.

Our competition started a dozen years ago from a model lifted from a 1991 edition of Inside Football magazine. We each have lists of 20, from which teams of eight are selected. A position-based game, the margin for error is slight – rubbers are routinely won at selection. Hours are sunk into deliberations week to week in a delicate exercise studying form and coupling it with gut feel.

As coaches, we crave success and invest accordingly.

But like all the best bits about any sort of footy, the joy is found in the traditions. From the draft – that we describe as “the most important night on the calendar” – through each weekend of the season proper that prompts torrents of texts between coaches from the moment the first ball is bounced each weekend; robust to the last.

For those of us left in Melbourne standing together at the footy, conversations are dominated by the permutations of our spreadsheet square-offs as much as who our boys are playing in front of us.

Sure, there’s an inherent nerdiness to all this, but it has never bothered us, the origins of our friendships through online forums regularly coming up at any major event that brings us together. Our league is but an extension of this.

It isn’t expressly voiced, but each of us knows that the reason we care so much is that staying in touch gets harder each year as we stumble further into legitimate adulthood. While communication has never been easier, it’s not as simple as going to the pub at a moment’s notice as it once was.

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We form but a cog of the massive fantasy football explosion this last decade. From humble origins of mail-in coupons from the paper, now every masthead has a sophisticated online version of the numbers game to indulge in.

In turn, the way football is consumed has fundamentally evolved for participants, especially when a coach’s real-life team isn’t on the park. Watching a couple of cellar-dwellers kicking around on Sunday afternoon in the middle of winter now has a much wider relevance.

There’s nothing quite like hanging tough through a last quarter in one of these irrelevant fixtures knowing the performance of your last remaining player will dictate success or defeat for the weekend of anguish and constant monitoring of stats.

The evolution also means there is a disconnect between what we know to be good footy and good fantasy footy. Objectively, the crude measure of possessions means less by the year. We all know this. But it doesn’t mean our fantasy-accumulators aren’t special to their long-suffering online coaches.

I wonder if I should tell James McDonald how much joy he brought to me when leading me into my first (and I’ll be honest, only) finals campaign. By contrast, I adore Cyril Rioli, but he’ll never get a game for me again. Kick more goals or get more kicks! One or the other!

Heath Shaw is a perennial SuperCoach villain while Gary Ablett should one day be inducted to the Dream Team Hall of Fame via a 3D print out, such is the esteem in which he’s held. The conspiracy theory about one full-forward letting his direct opponent play on from kick outs to earn a stat because he had him in his team is the stuff of fantasy folklore.

The point of this is that an expressly numerical following of the game for fantasy purposes is building its own bank of history and culture. It may be kind of odd, but it’s happening.

The fact that kids used to learn the game from footy cards and now learn from spreadsheets – so what? Much like T20 cricket, if this provides another gateway to a lifelong love, then it is to be embraced all the way.

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As for me and my lot, if it means we’ll grow older knowing that the strength of our friendships will always be underpinned by healthy sledging and laughing at each other, then who could complain.

Happy drafting.