Our series of summer interviews kicks off with Simon March, aka “Dufflinks”, who was crowned the overall winner of the Fantasy Premier League (FPL) game last Sunday.
A long-standing member of the Fantasy Football Scout community, Simon clinched the title by 21 points, pipping fellow community member, “Jinswick”, who staged a dramatic late surge to push for the crown having finished in the top 6k in each of the final three Gameweeks.
Simon talks us through his highs, lows and the tactics used in a season that saw him replace Tom Fenley as the reigning FPL champion.
Congratulations on your victory. After going into the final day with a 34-point lead, did you really expect the final day to be as tense?
I expected it to be tense but probably not as tense as it eventually was. The rational part of me was thinking; “34 points is surely too much to make up in one Gameweek…” but the FPL manager in me knew that anything can happen, especially on the final day! So, even with a solid point buffer and having been number one for 14 weeks, I wasn’t taking anything for granted. There was always a fear that somebody could ‘Whigfield’ me. And they nearly did!
Where did you spend the final fateful hours? What kind of emotions were you going through as the matches unfolded?
The plan right up until Sunday had been to watch the final matches in the pub but, as it got closer and the tension grew, that felt like tempting fate. I ended up watching at home, glued to FFS and the live text and experiencing probably every emotion you could imagine! Looking back, I think if I’d gone through that in a crowded pub with a sketchy internet connection… I might actually have lost it! I’d love to say I was totally cool about the whole thing, but I wasn’t.
The next day was, of course, a different story and it was time to celebrate! Now also armed with “a lifetime supply of pub banter” as one friend described it!
What made you decide on drafting in Yannick Bolasie as your final transfer of the season? Did you even consider Theo Walcott as a threat?
That was actually one of the hardest transfers of the season. I had originally planned to bring Hazard back in but, with the “wisdom-teeth saga” ongoing, I decided instead to add some depth to my attack. I needed a nailed-on, low/mid-priced midfielder, on form and ideally playing at home. Bolasie ticked all those boxes and the fact that my nearest competitor had him was ultimately the clincher. In the end, I think Bolasie might have scored the least out of anyone I’d considered. However, his inclusion meant that I’d finally owned a player from each Premier League team over the season. So there was that.
Embarrassingly, since I know all too well what Walcott is capable of, he hadn’t registered with me as a major threat. After all, he hadn’t been starting and had shown no real FPL form. I should have known better.
The “danger men” in my mind were Hazard, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and Jamie Vardy. Looking back, Walcott was an inspired differential punt by both Jinswick and Stuart Greenacre, and one that very nearly paid off.
At what point did you begin to realise that the title could be at risk?
As soon as that first Walcott goal went in on four minutes I started to think; “Uh-oh…”. Then, all within the few minutes just before half time, Walcott completed his hat-trick. With Diego Costa and Marc Albrighton both also scoring for Jinswick and a Jeffrey Schlupp assist thrown in for good measure, I knew then that I was definitely in trouble. It was the nightmare scenario playing out in front of me. And there was still the second half to go.
Fortunately for me, things then started to swing back in my favour, with Wes Morgan fetching an unlikely assist, Charlie Austin scoring to wipe out Jinswick’s double Leicester clean sheet and then, finally, my captain Sergio Aguero scoring a late goal. That’s when I knew I’d probably won it. I don’t think anyone in the world celebrated that goal like I did.
You were sitting on top spot since Gameweek 24 – do you think that was an advantage? How did being out in front hinder or benefit your methods?
I think it probably seemed like more of an advantage than it actually was. There’s a perception that, if you have a decent lead, then you can just “play it safe” while others have to take risks to catch you. The latter part is true but, with a few Gameweeks to go, there are no real “safe” moves available. In fact, it feels like the advantage shifts to the chasers, if not individually then collectively. Chasing managers can differentiate their teams specifically against yours whereas it’s impossible for you to cover all the potentially explosive differentials featured among the 100-odd teams that could theoretically catch you in the run-in. You basically watch every match from behind the sofa.
All you can really do in that position is to try and minimise the risks where possible and hope that the most objectively “sensible” options pay off consistently enough. The longer your lead, the greater the risks people seem willing to take to catch you, so I assumed that there would be something to play for right up until the end. For that reason, I avoided the temptation to try and “kill it off” in the final weeks with one massive differential Captaincy punt or by going too heavy with my Wildcard for double Gameweek 34. I wasn’t looking to break any points records, I just wanted to make sure I was set up for the long-haul.
We noticed in the opening Gameweek, you left Gylfi Sigurdsson on the bench and watched him score 13 points. Do you remember that opening week? You surely could not have envisaged how things would pan out from that point?
Yes, I benched him for Bojan! I guess that goes to show that you can make costly mistakes and still recover from them. Traditionally I have a poor first Gameweek so I was just glad to get a respectable 65 points. And, for anyone who believes in omens, 65 was my exact average score over the season…
Did memories of that Sigurdsson bench haul guide your decision in Gameweek 20, when you played him over 18-point Harry Kane? It almost seems that the Swansea man was determined to break your season!
It was even worse than that, as in Gameweek 19, I’d played Kane ahead of Sigurdsson. Kane blanked and Sigurdsson scored a goal! It did feel like a conspiracy at the time…
I’d gone into that Christmas period thinking that “strength in depth” was the way to go with all the uncertainty that the fixture congestion creates. It ended up not paying off at all but it had worked at other unpredictable points in the season such as around international breaks when I received some valuable auto-sub points.
It’s painful to have points on the bench but, in my view, it’s still better than not having had that player at all. Though it rarely feels that way at the time.
You had as many United players as your beloved Chelsea over the season. You also backed Wayne Rooney with the captaincy in five of the first six Gameweeks – a soft spot for United? Are you sure you’re not Granville in disguise?
I was surprised to read that actually. I think United had a seemingly good run of fixtures to start the season and Rooney is, of course, a proven Fantasy asset so that was probably me “channelling my inner casual”. Looking back he didn’t do too badly for me.
I suppose it helps to underline how, if you want your FPL team to be successful, you have to check your real-world allegiances at the door.
One unique aspect of your campaign is that you seem determined not to take point hits for transfers. Presumably, that was a strict policy – can you explain that? Have you applied the same tactic in previous seasons?
Yes I’ve taken about four hits in all the six seasons I’ve been playing. I’m not totally against them, there are times when a hit is necessary or potentially advantageous such as when you need to get in a vital player immediately, can’t field a full team or around double Gameweeks. Some players seem to have a real skill around taking hits.
Personally, I find it very easy to talk myself out of taking point hits, so generally don’t go through with them even when I am considering one. A potential benefit of that mindset is that it forces me into a more measured approach to transfers, so I don’t suffer too many knee-jerk transfer disasters.
How did your Wildcard strategy differ this season? You played it very late in the season – do you think that proved pivotal to your victory?
I think this is the first time my Wildcard has made it past Gameweek 4. Historically my initial team selections have often been too imbalanced or inflexible to take advantage of form players or to adapt to shifts in fixture difficulty so Wildcarding early became a necessity. Other times I used it tactically to build team value.
This season my initial team was well-balanced and, with price-rises slower than in the past, I didn’t see an advantage in wildcarding early. Wherever possible, I banked my free transfers and, since I was doing quite well, I sometimes found myself struggling to even use those.
In the end, keeping the Wildcard did prove crucial not, as it turned out, because it was a massive points success when I used it in double Gameweek 34 (thanks Raheem…), but mainly because it forced many rivals to spend four, eight or even 12 points on hits to get a team that I was able get for free. It also helped me set my team up for the run-in, including the double Gameweek 37.
The best time to use your Wildcard is, of course, whenever you need it most, but I think there’s definitely an advantage to keeping it late.
You’ve had strong FPL campaigns before, finishing 3833 in 2012/13 but you then slipped to 114293 the season after. What were the factors that made the difference to your hike in rank this season?
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was a huge amount of luck involved. I think you need a certain degree in order to win this game.
In terms of what I did do, the key single principle I worked towards throughout the season was to maintain flexibility. In my initial selection I made sure that I chose players with a range of prices so that I could easily swap in any form players that emerged without the need for major surgery.
I carried over my free transfer wherever possible because you can make a far bigger difference to your team using two transfers compared to just one and I made transfers as late as possible to take into account as much team news as I could.
With the slower price rises, this was a more viable tactic this season, but I was still ready to trade team value for flexibility in most instances.
Finally, I kept both my Wildcards as late as possible which, as mentioned, allowed me to take advantage of double Gameweeks and set up my team for the run-in.
What was your best decision made over the course of season? And what was your worst? Were there any unsung heroes?
The worst was definitely the decision to bench Harry Kane in Gameweek 20. I can laugh about it now but it was so hard to take at the time that I think my girlfriend actually had to console me. Oh, and then there was Loic Remy…
I think all my best decisions involved keeping faith with players a little bit longer than their FPL form at the time perhaps merited. This was definitely true of Dusan Tadic ahead of his 23 points in Gameweek 8 and, later on in the season, of Alexis Sanchez, David Silva and even Aguero. It’s surprising how quickly these proven players can become differentials if you remain patient.
I think bringing in John Terry, who wasn’t very widely-owned at the time, for his three goals in four matches over Christmas was vital for climbing the rankings, as was getting onto the Kane and Charlie Austin bandwagons quickly. The Terry transfer was a classic FPL manager; “Well, he’s due…” selection!
I’ll also happily buy my new cult heroes Wes Morgan and Paul McShane pints should I ever run into them!
You’ve been contributing to the Fantasy Football Scout since 2011. How difficult was it to participate in the community while you were contesting for the top ranks?
Very difficult. I knew that some rivals were following my posts so getting a “Rate My Team” was obviously out of the question. I realised though that I couldn’t even offer views or advice without potentially giving away clues to my own plans. So I more or less went quiet for the last few weeks. I’m looking forward to getting involved again next season now I have nothing to hide and, hopefully, some good experience to share.
Like the previous winner, Tom Fenley, you were signed up as one of our members. Did you use any of the tools to guide your progress over the season?
Yes, definitely. I used the Season Ticker, Comparison Tool and Rate My Team in particular throughout the season and especially to guide my initial selection and Wildcards. The Comparison Tool is a great arbiter for choosing between players and the Rate My Team tool came in very handy when trying to identify the relative strengths and weaknesses of my team when compared to those of my rivals.
Unlike Tom, you watched very few live matches, why do you think this worked for you when, for Tom, watching matches proved so important to his win?
Yes, largely due to the time zone here in Singapore, which is seven-to-eight hours ahead of the UK, I saw maybe four live matches over the course of the season. If there is any advantage to this, then it’s that good performances in the real world don’t always translate into FPL points. I’ve often watched matches in the past and thought that a certain player looked good and transferred them in on that basis, only for them to do nothing except waste another transfer when I had to get them back out. Meanwhile, players that seem to barely touch the ball are somehow racking up the points.
There obviously are advantages to watching matches, though, but not being able to can force you to think about players differently and, perhaps, in terms closer to how FPL is scored. And adopting that mindset can definitely work to your favour.
How did being in a different timezone affect your season. Did you really sleep whilst matches were being played and tables calculated? Surely that must have been tortuous at times?
Early on, I slept through the evening kick-offs no problem but, towards the end, I would often wake up in the middle of the night knowing that a crucial match was going on and I’d have no choice but to check the scores. If I was lucky, the match was almost over but I remember for the recent Arsenal vs Swansea match, I was sat up in bed at about 3am following the live text from about 20 minutes in. So much was riding on that match that there was no chance of going back to sleep until it was over. It was ‘refresh… refresh… refresh’ for what seemed like an eternity.
The time difference did have some advantages though. The biggest, I think, was that, with prices changes happening at about 9:40am / 10:40am Singapore time, I usually had until the very last moment to make transfer decisions where price was a factor. A ‘Deadzone privilege’ perhaps!
Can you describe how your season has affected your relationship with friends and family? To what extent did your campaign take over your life?
My friends and family have been amazingly supportive throughout, I honestly can’t thank them enough. It was obviously never far from my thoughts but, towards the end, I think FPL started to take over their lives a bit too and they were kicking every ball along with me. Literally the first thing friends would ask me when I saw them would be; “How’s your Fantasy team doing?”.
I think my family knew my team about as well as I did as I’d often get random texts like; “Hazard penalty!” from them. A couple of friends told me that, at their workplaces, people I hadn’t even met were following my progress and cheering me on. It was the most humbling but surreal thing I think I’ll ever experience.
How do you approach next season? Do you still have Fantasy Football ambitions? Will you now consider some of the “money games”?
Right now I’m just thrilled to have won it and relieved that I can go back to following football like a normal person without constantly thinking things like; “Okay, well, I need Terry to score but Ivanovic to blank. How could that work…?”. Going forward, I’ll still try and be competitive with FPL but also have a bit more fun with it. And I’m looking forward to being able to discuss ideas and strategies with the FFS community again.
That said, there is still the league and cup double left to win….
Finally, do you have any shout-outs to any of the FFS or Fantasy Football Community?
I was honestly blown away by the huge level of support I received from the FFS community. Their reaction when I was climbing the ranks and when I finally won it was, again, truly humbling. I’m so, so grateful for it all. Thanks to all of them for this and for all their advice, this season and in seasons past.
Thanks to all those players who were in or around the top 10 over the last few weeks for making it such a great competition and well played to Jinswick especially for making me a nervous wreck with some legendary final Gameweek punts.
Of course, huge thanks to Mark, Jonty, Paul, Granville and the whole team of contributors at Fantasy Football Scout. I sincerely couldn’t have done it without this site and the excellent resources and community you’ve built.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate this win to the memory of Simon Humber aka “Absinthe”; a much-missed member of the FFS community who many will know passed away recently after a long and brave battle with cancer. A too-small gesture for a real champion.