1 February ~ Never mind the allegations of adultery, sleeping with your best mate’s partner, taking cash backhanders for showing people around Chelsea’s training ground, and looking like a big Mary Jane in front of an audience of millions for crying after he missed a penalty. I think we can all agree that on Saturday Big John Terry answered his critics with his head. 2-1 to the Chelsea, three vital points in the bag for the league-leading lads from west London, and firm proof that Terry puts football first, well ahead of prurient tabloid headlines.
I raised a fist and saluted both his aerial powers and the endurance of his character. For although I sort of hate his guts, John Terry is in my Premier League Fantasy Team. When a defender scores, it’s worth six extra points. And what about charming Nic Anelka? The well-travelled Frenchman has, it is true, failed to warm the hearts of numerous fan groups as he’s moved around the league and the continent. It might be said that, like Terry, he typifies the aloof, arrogant, out-of-touch and thoroughly overpaid professional of the modern era. But never mind all that. Anelka is a team-mate of Terry’s not just at Chelsea but also in my fantasy line-up, and he too scored on Saturday. Not only that, but he was my captain for the day, meaning his points tally for the weekend will be doubled.
This is the only way for many fans to cope with their alienation from top-flight football. Like millions of other boys 30 or more years ago, the pictures on my walls torn from Shoot! featured players from a variety of clubs. You liked players for what they did on the field. Now you tend to dislike them largely for what they do and say off it. Your only consolation for their ongoing success is to pick them for your online XI in the vaguely sad, parallel universe where middle-aged people sit at their keyboards fretting over Vassiriki Diaby’s calf injury. A Chelsea win hurts so much less when it helps propel you up to number 165,657 in the rankings (that’s out of 2.25 million players, so I’m verging on the mathematical equivalent of a hypothetical Champions League place, even if you allow for the fact that probably a million of those players gave up three weeks in to the season).
This explains how I might spend a Saturday afternoon cheering on the endeavours of one-time England prospect Lee Bowyer. The Birmingham midfielder complained recently that he harbours no hope of an England recall because he’s damned by past misdeeds, even though he’s apparently matured in the interim. He’s right – in the real world, I’d no more want him to score than I’d want to see Frank Lampard pulling up in front of my house to take my daughters to a tea dance. But thanks to the realms of fantasy, I can give little Lee some of the love that he feels he deserves. I can roar on plucky Paddy Evra as he marauds down the left for the reigning league champions. Modest Argentine Carlos Tevez notches again for future European Cup holders Man City and runs straight into my arms. I will, however, draw the line at forking out good fake money for Ashley Cole.
Fantasy Football is a canny by-product of the real thing at a time when there are just too many players and teams to dislike. It’s hard to maintain interest in the Premier League now that the same results seem to be pretty much repeated season after season. In Fantasy world, the odds of winning any of the paltry handful of prizes on offer are tiny, though still higher than the chances of Hull or Burnley taking the actual title. But for once this isn’t about the exploitation of dumb hope. The league I’m in, after all, is free. It’s more like a perk for the cynical, jaded fan. You can’t get into debt, and the focus is on nothing but the on-field performance. For that opportunity I’m grateful at least, even if it means a half-hearted, half-guilty cheer when John Terry scores a late winner to keep the odious Chelsea well clear at the top. Ian Plenderleith