In the mid ’90s, when I was around 14 or so, I developed an obsession with a play-by-mail game called ‘Pure Fantasy Football’. Each week, you had to fill in a form to pick your team, and send it off in the post. The actual post. With stamps, and paper, and envelopes and that.
The way it worked was, you sent in your managerial selections, and each week you’d be sent back your team’s result for that week. All the teams in your league were managed by other people around the country, and if you wanted to make transfers you had to contact other managers… ON THE PHONE. So there was a good two-year period of my house being called by random kids (and sometimes even adults) who would ask my parents to speak to me so that they could made bids for Bryan Roy or Gordon Durie.
Personally I wasn’t brave enough to pick up the phone and call complete strangers, so I used to write letters to other managers with my transfer offers. I’d then have a nervy week or so of waiting for them to reply (and they often didn’t bother).
But, I found a play-by-mail loophole. In the small print it said that if there were footballers who weren’t already assigned to a team in the game, you could have them added to your team, as long as you sent in evidence of their existence and how good they were so that they could be rated. And so began my project of buying World Soccer magazine each month, scouring obscure leagues for potential world-beaters, and compiling dossiers to send in to the mysterious faceless overlords at PFF.
Over time, this gradually resulted in my squad becoming packed with players who had superstar ratings but who no one had heard of – such as the striker Tulio who was a goal machine in Brazilian football, and Mohamed Kallon who was starring in the Sierra Leone Premier League at the age of 15 (in real life he went on to play for Inter Milan and Monaco, but I like to think I spotted him first). My team became so strong that other kids started phoning me up just to ask “how did you get all these players?”… but I wouldn’t tell. Oh no. I hadn’t done all that paperwork just to share the glory.
My love affair with play-by-mail ended following “The Incident”. It still hurts now to think about it. One dark, dark week, there was a mix-up at PFF HQ and some other kid was accidentally sent my team, while I was sent his. While I did the right thing and posted it back, explaining the error, the other kid decided to tamper with my team and meddle with my masterplan. I called PFF and they said they were sorry but there was nothing they could do to put things right, because the game’s timeline had already moved on. Devastated, I then badgered my Dad into calling them and trying to talk sense into them on my behalf. Cue my very confused Dad, who had no idea how the game actually worked, having a very lengthy phone call with PFF in which he eventually convinced them to re-set my team back to how it had been.
But the damage had been done, the bubble had been burst, and I quickly lost interest in play-by-mail. Still, there was always Championship Manager (as Football Manager was known at the time), but it never seemed quite the same. It was sort of like play-by-mail, but without the use of stamps.