Field of dreams

Reckon you've got what it takes to be the manager of a championship-winning football team, and raise your maths scores to boot? Well now's your chance to find out, as Schools Fantasy League prepares to kick off in October.

Harvey McGavin provides a commentary.

Imagine you're the manager of a Premiership football team. One day, the chairman walks into your office with a cheque for pound;50 million. "I want you to build me me a championship winning side," he says. "Buy any player you like - you're the boss. And don't worry if things go badly - there's no relegation and I won't sack you."

It's a fantasy that appeals to the armchair manager in all of us. In fantasy football, there are no frosty mornings on the training ground, no nailbiting 90 minutes spent shouting from the dugout, and no post-match press conferences. It's just a game, with some of the glory and none of the job insecurity of the real thing.

Since it was invented in 1991, fantasy football has become a phenomenon involving hundreds of thousands of players, and the simulated game of team selection and transfers has spread into other sports, including cricket and rugby. Two years ago Fantasy League Limited - the company founded by the inventors of the original game - realised that as well as being a bit of fun, fantasy football could do a lot to help children with their maths. So after a successful pilot competition for schools in Manchester and Hertfordshire, last season more than 270 schools and 24,000 players - pupils and teachers - took part in a fantasy football competition set up especially for schools.

"We fully expect Schools Fantasy League to get 50 or 60,000 players for next season," says Charles Marks of FLL. "In the competition, everyone is equal - whether you are seven or 17, you have just as much chance of being top at some point because there is an element of luck involved. It's a great leveller." Even with expert knowledge of how the game works, Charles and his colleagues usually end up in mid-table obscurity. But, he says, the feedback from schools shows that teachers rate it highly. "They have found it a great way of interesting disenchanted kids by, for example, getting them to work out the number of points their team has scored that week on a Monday before the results come in."

Several celebrities, including Education Secretary David Blunkett, took part last season, but the Sheffield Wednesday-supporting minister found himself well down the league table at the season's end - in 20,637th place. "If I was as poor at my job as I am at fantasy football, I would have to sack myself," he confessed. But the game's educational goals - and its appeal to underachieving boys in particular - have earned it a call-up as part of the government's Maths Year 2000 strategy.

Last year's overall winning school - calculated from their 20 top-scoring teams - was St Thomas More RC High School in North Tyneside, and five of the top 10 schools were from north-east England. David Watson, the maths teacher who organised St Thomas's league, says it reflects the area's passion for football ("up here everybody's into it - girls and boys"). But a little local knowledge helped - quicksilver Sunderland striker Kevin Phillips, who ended the season with 30 goals, was a popular choice.

David Watson found the worksheets supplied by the league useful for integrating the game into schoolwork and getting the interest of boys who are sometimes reluctant to learn. He says: "If the activity is based around football it tends to grab their attention, and you can go from there."

Neil McGarry, a maths teacher from Northallerton school in north Yorkshire was the best placed teacher, at eighth overall. "I was surprised to do so well because I had never playd fantasy football before," he says.

He admits his subject helped. "I looked at the figures after the first few weeks and made some transfers on that basis. At the end of the first term I was about 56th in the school and 5,000th in the country. The sort of players you want to look out for are creative midfielders who set up a lot of goals and take a lot of free kicks and corners. Paolo Di Canio set up or scored 50 per cent of West Ham's goals last season."

Of the pupils who took the first seven places in last season's competition, the top managerwas Jazz Rai, a Year 9 pupil from Bitterne Park High School in Southampton. Even though he's a "big Man United fan" he could only find room for David Beckham from their team in his line-up. "I thought the defence looked a bit dodgy," he says. He was neck and neck in the national league with another pupil at the school, Michael Cross, for long periods of the season, but pulled away to win the title in the final few weeks. He says the competition with schoolmates is one of the fun aspects of the game and being "pretty good" at maths helps, especially when totting up the transfer fees.

And his tips for a championship-winning side? Just like a real manager, he says, you need "a defence that doesn't let in a lot of goals, a midfield that will give passes to the strikers just before they score and strikers with a clinical finish".


Managers choose their team from real Premiership players, who are given valuations based on their likely price on the transfer market. They cannot spend more than pound;50 million, and only two players are allowed from each Premiership club, so you can't pack your side with Manchester United or Arsenal stars.

The best managers must buy shrewdly and combine a few star players with some unsung heroes if they are to do well. There are two chances to transfer up to four players - just before and after Christmas - to improve your team's performance.

Players score points for goals or assists, while defenders and goalkeepers can pick up extra points for keeping a clean sheet. Each week schools are sent a league table with details of their teams' performances in that week's fixtures. Regional and interschool knockout competitions could also feature next season. Schools send a pound;15 registration fee (returnable when more than 70 teams enter) and each manager pays pound;3.50 to enter - 20 pence of which goes to children's charity Barnardo's. Every school receives an information pack for the administrating teacher, 15 medals for the managers of the best teams and a trophy for the overall winner. Managers also get wallets in which to keep their team details, and a free sports bag. Schools receive materials with advice on how to incorporate the game into the curriculum. Each school goes into a draw to win the use of an LDV 17-seater van for a year.

Website: www.fantasyleague.comEmail:

Jazz Rai's team:

Jazz's Dream Team

E de Goey (Chelsea) pound;3.1m

I Harte (Leeds) pound;3.7m

C Ziege (Middlesbrough) pound;2.9m

M Elliott (Leicester) pound;3.3m

S Hyppia (Liverpool) pound;3.1m

P Berger (Liverpool) pound;4.6m

D Hutchison (Everton) pound;4.4m

G Poyet (Chelsea) pound;5.8m

D Beckham (Man Utd) pound;6.0m

K Phillips (Sunderland) pound;7.2m

M Bridges (Leeds) pound;5.9m

Total pound;50m

Neil McGarry's team:

1The Luton Town Wannabes

N Martyn (Leeds) pound;3.0m

I Harte (Leeds) pound;3.7m

S Henchoz (Liverpool) pound;3.0m

S Hyppia (Liverpool) pound;3.1m

C Ziege (Middlesbrough) pound;2.9m

D Beckham (Man Utd) pound;6.0m

M Overmars (Arsenal) pound;5.5m

S Guppy (Leicester) pound;4.5m

M Hadji (Coventry) pound;4.0m

P Di Canio (West Ham) pound;7.0m

K Phillips (Sunderland) pound;7.2m

Total pound;49.9m

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