The Offline Era: The History of Fantasy Football (Part 1)

May 30, 2023 | History of FPL

It’s difficult to conceive of any fantasy sport successfully functioning offline. However, the original innovators of the game would go to extreme lengths to satisfy their fantasy football cravings; sacrificing time, money and a huge amount of paper in the process.

This article was originally featured in FFMAG Edition 2 written by David Wardale.


The Origin’s of FPL

Summer is the ultimate fantasy vacuum.

It is a wasteland bereft of footballing meaning beyond the occasional international tournament and, for the truly hardcore, Fantasy Eliteserien – the Norwegian version of our beloved FPL.

I’ve been lucky enough to have my void filled, so to speak, by work on a book about fantasy football.

Researching the origins of fantasy football – and by that I mean real football, not the steroidal shoulder pad-fest that is gridiron – has at least kept some of that turmoil at bay.

A Labour of Love

It is true that the game was popularised and, to a degree, monetised by British pioneer Andrew Wainstein, founder of Fantasy League Ltd and the administrative power behind the country’s first mass market game at the Daily Telegraph in 1994.

Leading managers, player statistics, etc printed in the Telegraph newspaper.

Andrew’s early feats were Herculean – this was the age, remember, when there was no internet, so disseminating scores and standings involved using the postal service – as he explained in an excellent 2014 interview with the Fanfeud blog. 

“I wrote a program to crunch the scores, but there was a report program that printed everything off at about 7pm after the last games. It took over 12 hours to look through all the leagues. Eventually my body clock was set to wake up every three hours, because that was how long it took for the printer to run out of paper.

“In the morning I’d pack a bunch of envelopes and take it to the local sorting office.”

Andrew readily admitted that the inspiration for his game came from America, where they’d been creating and tinkering with fantasy sports since the late 1950s.

Fantacalcio

Andrew was not the first to adapt the American model for the truly global game that is football. That honour goes to Italian tech journalist Riccardo Albini, who dreamt up ‘Fantacalcio’ in the mid-1980s.

In the 80s, Albini was in Chicago for the CES (Consumer Electronic Show), a trade fair that he attended as the director of “Video Games.” During this visit he purchased Cliff Charpentier’s 1987 book titled Fantasy Football Digest.

During his spare time, Albini would frequent the book and slowly work to develop a football version of the book. Trying, trying again, studying the best formula, doing and redoing calculations and other types of operations.

The first dress rehearsal of Albini’s game was for the 1988 European Championships. A year later he published the Italian Fantacalcio manual in 1989. A year after the release, the game had an estimated 15,000 fantasy managers.

The first edition of Riccardo Albini’s Serie A Fantacalcio

The game would later go on to partner with Gazzetta dello Sport for the 1994/95 Championship, which led to an addition 70,000 players. Before eventually going online and gaining in popularity as the years pass, similar to the progression of the aforementioned Telegraph game.

The inaugural season’s Dream Team. Including legends such as Maradona, Van Basten & Baggio!

But its true genesis came more than a decade before even that – in the Garden of Eden that is the Merseyside borough of Knowsley.

50 Years of Joy

Bernie Donnelly – labour councillor and retired economics teacher – is our Fantasy God, creating His game in 1966 and rolling it out to the world, or more accurately seven of his mates, in 1971.

Bernie’s game is simple and complex all at once. Each team has a squad of 15 players from which just five score each week. Managers go head-to-head, with only goals scoring fantasy points.

The complexity lies in the set-up. Managers come and go, but the teams remain regardless. So a new boss can take over at a club, inheriting all the players and the budget their predecessor had built up. They can stick with the squad already in place or twist and haggle with their rivals to bring in fresh blood.

The league has just eight teams and, according to Bernie, a long waiting list of people wanting to come in and take over management of each club. As a result, should a manager finish bottom of the league, they face a good old fashioned re-election to remain in the league.

“If you’ve done nothing and sat on your arse for the season you’ll be sacked. But if you’ve tried your best you’ll probably survive,” explains Bernie.

“We could have 16 teams no problem. We could have a second division there’s that much demand. If you want to be involved, you become an assistant manager and wait your turn.”

Bernie expresses surprise that his game has endured for so long and bewilderment that some of the players take things so seriously that ‘they offer each other outside, that’s happened once or twice’.

So we salute you, Bernie Donnelly – fantasy football pioneer.

Jamie Reeves
Written By Jamie Reeves

Portsmouth fan. Been playing FPL (to varying success) since 2009 & Sorare since 2020. Five top 20k finishes.

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