We caught up with Ben to find out more about his rollercoaster of emotions on the final day, his key strategies for success and how his loyalty to Everton almost cost him the crown.
Congratulations on becoming FPL champion. How did you spend the final day? Where were you and did you have friends and family around you?
I woke up at 7am – earlier than I had hoped. I had some sort of dream about Christian Eriksen and a PlayStation, so the day ahead was clearly on my mind. It meant that the morning was all about killing time. The whole week had been a countdown and I was desperate to get through the day.
I went to the gym, did a food shop, put up a mirror in the bathroom – I’d put that off for six weeks but that morning just seemed like a good time to do it, just as a distraction. I was just trying to keep my mind off Fantasy Football until closer to the teamsheets and kick-off.
I was at home for the day. I live with my girlfriend, Pauline, but she could see I was tense, so she stayed with me until the game started and then went out into the garden; she could see how I was and just didn’t want to sit with me. I was quite happy to be on my own, though. I had the BBC updates on my phone and I was pacing around the house.
You had the two free transfers and drafted in Diego Costa and Junior Stanislas. Meanwhile, Uwais backed a Liverpool victory and signed both Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho. How did you feel when the early Stanislas goal went it in and what was going through your mind during some of the key moments?
That first goal was a sign that it was going to be a hectic day. I didn’t celebrate at all, I just knew that it was just the start and that it was all going to kick off from there.
Throughout the day I was worried that I’d get to the point where I would think it was in the bag, only to suffer the huge disappointment of letting it slip. So I tried to keep it calm when I got those early points.
I was very close to signing Kevin De Bruyne, and when he got a couple of assists, I was starting to think I had made a big mistake. Then Diego Costa almost saw red, but ended up just getting booked. That made me realise that, at any moment, things could go disastrously wrong.
It looked like it would be a good first half for me, but when Georginio Wijnaldum scored for Liverpool in the 45th minute, it turned things around. I really thought that, as soon as the first goal went in, the floodgates could open. Uwais had that Lallana and Coutinho combination which could have easily delivered big points. I feared that the most – it would have been a double whammy of him beating me and Liverpool inflicting the damage.
At 4:30 it was very tense. I just wanted all the games to end at that point. Each time I heard of another goal and we went to the ground I feared the worst, especially as some of my key players, like Leroy Sane and Costa, had been subbed off and Lallana and Coutinho were still on the pitch.
Uwais had more players towards the end, so my hopes were pinned on Christian Eriksen to get assists and more points. At that stage, I felt like second favourite.
Then, near the final whistle, Ben Davies got me a goal. That was the only time all day that I actually allowed myself to celebrate. I thought that it was the clincher, but when I refreshed Uwais’ team he had a Fabregas assist appear. And then he got another. I reckoned if he got bonus points from those events then the Davies goal would be wiped out and I’d be falling behind.
At what stage did you realise that victory would be dependent on bonus points. And when did you finally know you had won and how did you react?
When the final whistle came, it seemed like it was all coming down to bonus points.
Stanislas dropped in the Bonus Point System (BPS), though I still felt I was just ahead. But then I was concerned that Uwais would get maximum bonus points for Coutinho and two for Lallana. When I realised that Wijnaldum would be a factor in the BPS, I started to feel that I might have edged it.
There was lots of adding up and checking back and forth. It was maybe 15 minutes after the whistle when I started to think that I might have it by one or two points.
I never experienced a final whistle celebration. It was a drawn out ‘I think I’ve won, but I’m not sure’ kind of thing.
Pauline had been in and out. She came in at half-time with a couple of brews and came in at the end of the game and asked ‘what’s happened then?’. I said ‘I don’t know if I’ve won or not’. She stayed and suffered in limbo with me.
Even when the bonus points were updated, I was still waiting for the Stanislas score to come in and I was also worried there may be some last minute revision of an assist.
I didn’t feel like I’d actually won until the tables updated and it showed me at the top.
Did you get inundated with texts and messages at that point?
I got a lot of messages just after the games finished, when folk were texting me what they thought – some people had it level, some had me just ahead.
Despite the fact that Uwais clawed back the gap prior to the final day and also had his All Out Attack chip, many in our community thought you would win it. Did you feel that you had the momentum and were in a good position?
In the build-up, I was feeling that, if I could be within ten points on the final day, I would have a chance.
When it was down to two points, even though he had gained so much ground on Thursday, I still felt that a slim lead going into Sunday was a strong position. Looking at our teams, I thought I could just edge it.
However, I really felt that Uwais was going to do just one transfer – perhaps Dele Alli to Coutinho. Then again, I always felt he was going to captain Harry Kane because of his Gameweek 37 points. If he hadn’t done so well at Leicester City, I felt that Uwais may well have captained Coutinho, in order to get the full whack of his differential.
Uwais clearly noticed that you had gone without Liverpool players all season. You’re an Everton fan, so that presumably is the reason behind it. Is that something you’ve always done and how has that worked out over the season – have you been tempted to sway?
A ‘no Liverpool policy’ is something that myself and one of my best mates discussed a lot. Normally, you’re only looking at your mini-league and so having such a policy was workable. So having gone so far with that, even with Coutinho the obvious pick, I felt that, if I was going to win it, I wanted to do it sticking to the way I’ve decided to play the game from the start.
It seemed that Uwais transfers were targeted to exploit it by getting both Coutinho and Lallana in. What was going through your mind when you saw that?
I was a little surprised that he had sold Leroy Sane but, overall, I just felt that I needed Liverpool to start slowly. If they scored early on and ended up producing a 6-0, I knew that Uwais would come out of it with a big score. I did suspect that, if he was going to spend four points, Uwais may have gone the Sturridge route, but obviously that was trickier with his budget. I was just relieved that Liverpool didn’t end up punishing me – a few Liverpool fans I know would have been quite happy to rub that in for quite a while.
You’ve been playing for many seasons and had a top 1,000 finish, so what does winning mean to you?
It feels like a really big achievement. I’ve put a lot of time into it – I love watching football and it feels that all the hundreds and thousands of decisions I’ve made have built up to this conclusion. As it was so close at the end, to go through the pain of the two or three hours of the build-up and matches, I’m obviously delighted to come out of the day having won. But I feel for Uwais because he doubtless went through the same agony.
Over the seasons, have you imagined yourself being in top spot?
Not really – it’s always been about mini-leagues. The overall ranking has only really become a priority once I’m top of my leagues. But at the start of the season, my aims never include winning overall and I only ever really looked at the big picture at about Gameweek 26, when I first looked at who was top and the gap involved.
In terms of the way this season has panned out, have you had to change tactics or alter the way you normally play?
I don’t believe so. I think I just honed the general ideas and strategies that I’ve used for several years. In the past, I tended to make too many transfers and move players out that have then gone on to score heavily, so over the last few seasons, I’ve made fewer but “better” transfers. I now try to keep the faith for seven or eight matches – if a player blanks for a couple of games, I hold them a bit longer rather than just getting rid.
Theo Walcott at the start of the season would be an example – he wasn’t particularly favoured but I stuck with him and then he started to get a few goals and assists. It’s easy to start to become afraid of players dropping in value and sell them on. But I kept the faith in Walcott at the start and he brought me a decent amount of points.
In terms of the chips, you definitely played it by the book. You used a Wildcard in Gameweek 6 and your remaining chips to focus on the double Gameweeks. Is it usual for you to use your first Wildcard that early in the campaign?
Normally I save the first Wildcard until I’m going to lose it and then end up being forced to use it when I really don’t need to. So this time, I wanted to play it earlier and used it to get Sergio Aguero back in after his early ban. He was coming back and so, with his price, the Wildcard seemed to be the best method to work him back into my squad.
Looking at the few weeks after the Wildcard, you slipped back in ranks. So, on the face of it, the Wildcard doesn’t look that successful, or do you think you would have done even worse without it?
I think I would have been worse off. It did feel that I needed to stop saving it and that I had to use it earlier. I think the blip after the Wildcard was because it was so early in the season – when 20 points can equate to ten thousand places. It didn’t feel at the time like I’d made a mistake.
In terms of your remaining chips – you captained Aguero around Gameweek 27 and then you used the Wildcard and Bench Boost strategy for 36 and 37, so what is your attitude to the chips? Do you think they’ve been a welcome addition? And are you settled on that strategy when it comes to timing their use?
Yeah, with the Bench Boost I just feel that, ideally, you want 15 players playing twice, although there’s generally a few that play just once who are worth retaining.
Last season I did the same, but I played the chips in the wrong Gameweeks – I played the Bench Boost in Gameweek 34, which meant I took my Spurs players out and they punished me – I should have Bench Boosted in Gameweek 37.
I was very surprised that Uwais used his Wildcard a week or two weeks before mine because Hebknut – who was top at the time – had used his Wildcard earlier still. I wanted to leave mine until Gameweek 36 so I had the maximum amount of information to set it up as perfectly as possible for the big Double Gameweek 37 and the Bench Boost.
I was sceptical about the chips at first, but I do generally think they have been a good thing. But I’m a little worried that, if these are seen as a success, there might be a temptation to tinker a little bit more and start throwing in multiple Triple Captains, which would make the game just a little too random.
Looking back, do you think that things have been different this season? We’ve seen the proliferation of midfielders being fielded as strikers and wing-backs introduced, plus we seem to have seen more activity in the transfer market. Do you think that this season has felt different?
I think it has definitely been different to the last campaign because Leicester City gave us the chance to have three players who were on course to win the Premier League for such a cheap price. So the key last season was to get on those assets as quickly as possible.
This season it felt that there were a lot more big hitters – for forwards we had Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kane, Costa, Aguero and Romelu Lukaku – and you can only have three. It meant that we were always going to have Gameweeks where we got burned.
You spent four points or more on seven occasions. How does this compare to previous seasons and, what did it take for you to spend transfer points? What conditions prompted it and were you more or less cautious with them this season?
I’ve definitely changed my policy on hits. Initially, I would never take one and then I moved to making two transfers per week as my standard approach. But a lot of the time I actually would have been better off not making any transfers.
The last three or four seasons, I normally made around 40 – 45 transfers in total but I’m only really content taking a hit if it’s for a long-term player or if there is a double Gameweek.
I also like to bank transfers and feel that, in any given Gameweek, having two free transfers puts me in a strong position. I can make three transfers and spend four points, which can significantly change my team, therefore giving the greatest value out of the hit.
I generally try to avoid bandwagons and keep a watchlist of players to monitor. If someone hits a big score and I wasn’t interested in them before, then I’m unlikely to change my mind and bring them in.
At the start of the season, there is a lot more price change pressure and keeping the faith can mean losing 0.1 or 0.2. It can be difficult not to be tempted to knee-jerk. A lot of random players score in the first week or two and then only score another one or two goals in the rest of the season. Keeping a cool head in the early Gameweeks is definitely tricky but, as a rule, I set my team up for the first two or three sets of fixtures and then plan my first two or three changes.
There has been a lot of chatter about a five-man midfield and a 3-5-2 being the more advantageous formation, but you’ve mainly stuck with 3-4-3 throughout the season – playing it 29 times. So do you think it’s still the case that forwards are key to success in the game and who have been your third strikers?
I still feel that the 3-4-3 remains the generic Fantasy Football formation, just because you want as many attackers fielded as possible. In terms of third strikers, Charlie Austin was probably my most successful – I had him over a short spell, but he got me two or three double-figure scores. Of the others, I started with Andre Gray, who did just about okay. He had quite a few two-point matches, but then there’s only so much you can expect for the price you pay.
I also remember having Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho, who was a bit of a disaster. Aguero was out and I was hoping that he was going to get a run of games, but he was getting one-point returns and being subbed off at half-time. So the third striker was definitely a mixed bag for me. I was certainly most comfortable when I had big hitters up front – at one point I had Kane, Lukaku and Costa.
You mentioned Andre Gray, who claimed a place in your front three alongside Ibrahimovic and Aguero in Gameweek 1. The Burnley striker was the top scorer in pre-season with nine goals – was his selection merely coincidental or do you monitor the summer friendlies to gauge form when constructing your squad?
Andre Gray was in my initial squad to balance out the heavy investment in Aguero and Ibrahimovic. I was aware he’d done well pre-season, but also he’d scored a lot of goals in the Championship. I do keep an eye on friendly scorers but what it’s worth varies from team to team – a Chelsea youngster doing well in pre-season wouldn’t put them on my radar.
Also, when it comes to piecing together your initial 15-man selection, do you have a template in terms of money allocated per position and the number of big hitters? Or do you pinpoint your targets and work around them?
My initial squad normally follows a similar pattern – 8.5 to 9m on keepers, a 4.0 and a 4.5m in defence, and a 4.5 – 5m midfielder.
These cheap players enable me to maximise the potential price for the rest of my squad. The rest is normally selected by picking out two or three big-hitters – last season it was Aguero, Ibrahimovic and Hazard, and I combined these with players I saw as good value or potentially underpriced.
A favourite example of underpricing was a couple of seasons ago when Seamus Coleman started at 5.0 and other Everton defenders were 5.5 – I knew he was one of the best value picks. This season, Stones and Walcott were two players that I thought needed to be in because they could potentially hit the kind of output you’d expect from much more expensive players. I see Walcott as being a success for me at 7.5m, but Stones certainly wasn’t.
Once I have all of these players selected, it’s about filling the gaps. Generally, my first draft is extremely different from my Gameweek 1 team as it’s just about feeling out what’s possible. More transfers have happened and information from pre-season has come in by kick-off. Over the weeks, a few players start cementing themselves and then I’m just left with the fillers near the end.
As a general rule, I don’t like to take risks with my initial squad. One rotation risk is okay if I think they could score big, but I don’t want five. Everton’s Gerard Deulofeu is probably the best example of a risk from my initial squad last season – it didn’t pay off, but after realising that, I only needed to make one transfer to correct it.
Fixtures also play a part. I normally look at the first five or six games. It is nice if everyone in Gameweek 1 has an easy home fixture, but the results are very unpredictable at the start of the season so it’s best not to get too carried away.
You opted for just two summer signings that were new to the Premier League – Ibrahimovic and Middlesbrough’s Viktor Fischer – in your initial squad. Do you make a point of limiting the new faces and mainly sticking with proven top-flight experience from the off?
It’s not something I have as a rigid rule, it’s more to do with the risks. Ibrahimovic didn’t feel like a risk, so I didn’t have a problem putting him in. I was close to having Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but at 9.5 it looked too much for someone unproven and not guaranteed pitch time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if again next season I only have two or three players making their Premier League debuts, but if there’s an influx of exciting options who look assured of starts, then I won’t have a problem increasing that amount.
With the captaincy, Aguero was certainly your main man. How do you go about choosing your captain? Also, are you driven by statistics and where do you lie when it comes to form and fixtures?
In the past, it’s been a case of, if Aguero’s fit and looks remotely on form, then he’s the captain. Harry Kane is moving slightly into that realm – or has moved into to it to be fair. But generally, it’s a mixture of form and fixtures that help to make the call. If a player has got a nice home fixture, then that would be the first consideration, but the capability of getting a double-figure score is, of course, vital.
At one time over Christmas, I did choose to captain Leighton Baines, which actually paid off nicely. It was a week when there was some fixture congestion and Everton had Southampton at home who were struggling for goals. Baines looked good for six points, maybe bonus points as well, and he’s always got the chance of assists and takes penalties. He ended up with 15 points, so the one time I captained a defender, it really paid off.
If there’s one single tip that you’d give to a new FPL manager, what would it be?
I think it would be to guard against thinking long or short term. Try to make decisions based on the medium term – don’t worry about who is going to have a good season, because it’s unlikely you’ll have that player for the whole campaign.
You only really need to think about who is going to start well and take it from there. Equally, though, don’t think too short-term – don’t get a player in and bank on transferring him out in two or three weeks. If that’s the case, there’s probably no point in getting him in.
Review your squad and give players enough time. I’ve often been close to taking someone out, only to give them one more week and watch them score double-figures. You need to have a little patience with players and remember that, if you brought them in due to a good run of fixtures, if they blank for two matches, they still likely have a good run of fixtures. Always try to remember why you put them in your squad in the first place.
Who is the first name on next season’s teamsheet?
I think it could be Kane for the obvious reasons. But his price is surely going to be pretty hefty and he normally doesn’t start the season well. So, at the moment, Gabriel Jesus is interesting, or maybe Leroy Sane. He’s likely to be a mid-price midfielder and could have produced a lot more points towards the end of the season.
So now you’ve won it, you’re presumably going to play again next season – what will be your approach?
I suppose in a way, I will start to look at the overall rank a bit earlier. I’d ideally like to do things exactly the same because the problem with looking at overall rank too early is that there’s the temptation to start chasing and taking risks.
One of the things I got right this time was that, when I was behind, I didn’t go looking for differentials, I just made good transfers rather than trying to build a unique team.
Have you got your eye on any particular fixtures for your prize?
As an Everton fan, I want to go to Everton matches, but as it includes accommodation and because I already live in Liverpool, I’ll probably look at Everton away games. I think Arsenal away looks a tempting option, then maybe Chelsea, maybe Newcastle United.
I think it’s likely to be a London trip. I think we will very likely get beat, but it’s more for the stadium and the experience.
Our congratulations go to Ben who will doubtless feature on these pages again over the pre-season.