All over the world today, Fantasy Premier League managers will be frantically tweaking their squads ahead of Friday night's curtain raiser.
For the uninitiated - played by nearly 6 million football fans, FPL has become a global sensation as Roy Hodgson wannabes are tasked with selecting, tweaking and rotating a squad of 15 players within a £100m budget, with a maximum of three players from each club, over a 38 week campaign. Player prices fluctuate according to form and popularity, so to compete for honours – you need a healthy dose of knowledge, luck, and time on your hands.
Managers compete in global leagues, but also mini-leagues with friends and even fellow fans of their team. The top ranked Palace fan last season was Jamal Rice, a 33 year old from Barbados. He finished 34th in the world, and was rarely out of the top 100 throughout the entire campaign.
The game crept into all parts of Jamal's life. Speaking to Palace TV, Jamal said: "Sometimes I'll be at dinner with ladies, and the only thing I think about is football. I'll be looking right at them, and be thinking – who should I put as captain or are Palace going to win the next game?"
Reflecting on an impressive FPL performance for a relative newbie to the game (it was his second season playing), he said: "It was a lot of hard work. You need to know all the players from all the clubs, basically. That's the easiest way to put it." A typical Gameweek for Jamal amounted to an extraordinary commitment to the game, stating: "My week starts on Sunday – watching all the full highlights of all the games. Then Monday to Thursday, I read the news about who's injured, who's not injured. On Friday, I read all of the press conferences from all of the managers. I will then check if my players are injured and if I need to make changes or not. I try to watch all the games, and talk to my work friends on Whatsapp about how a person is playing."
A common mistake many FPL managers make is letting their heart rule their head, something Jamal benefitted from – given his relative distance from the tribal nature of football fans in England. "I have no bias towards players. The guy who won FPL two season ago is an Everton fan, and never picked Liverpool players. So he didn't do well last season without Salah! I just choose the best players who are playing. But I am still not detached from emotions when it comes to Fantasy and Palace."
Indeed, Jamal regularly picked Palace players during the campaign. "Milivojevic was beautifully priced at £5m last season (scoring 144 points), but he is £6.5 this season. Those looking for inspiration, Jamal is full of praise for two Palace stars. "I believe Sakho is the best defender in the league – Palace do not concede when he's fit." He continued: "The best defenders are wing backs that overlap a lot, like Van Aanholt. He's one of the best. If he played the whole season for Palace, he would have ended with 7 or 8 goals easily. He may have been top scoring defender."
He revealed some crucial decisions that led to his success, for those plotting a title challenge this season. "My philosophy last season was – if I know Harry Kane is going to score 20 goals per season, if I keep him as my captain for the whole season, I would get a certain amount of points. So I'd never pick Salah one day, Kane the next. I kept it on Kane all season." It was a strategy that paid off, but the Bajan was left ruing a big mistake. "My biggest regret was not captaining Salah earlier (than Gameweek 8). I always believe that a player needs to prove his worth in the Premier League before I put him in my team. If I picked him earlier, I'd have won Fantasy." When asked who he'll be captaining on Gameweek 1, it was a no brainer: "Salah!"
Jamal became a Palace fan last season, after a work visit took him to Croydon, and then to Selhurst Park in September – which coincided with Roy Hodgon's first game as Palace manager. "I just fell in love with Palace. The heritage, the prestige – everything about the club, I just loved. When I got there, it felt like home. So I've never looked back since." Whilst the Premier League is hugely popular in the Caribbean, Jamal has had limited success in converting more Eagles fans: "In Barbados, we usually back the winning team! It's difficult to convince my friends to support Palace, but they like the individual players. Like Zaha. He can dribble against any team from anywhere, anytime he wants. From the middle of the park, to the left hand side or the right hand side – he's fantastic."
Looking ahead to the upcoming FPL season, he said: "I strive for the top 1%. I think I can do well again, but to win it – you need something special. One of the reasons I lost was when Aguero scored four goals in a game and I didn't have him – so people had 20 points on me. A lot of luck is involved, but once you know how to play the game – consistently, you can be in the top 1%."
And his hopes for Palace? "I expect Palace to finish in the top 7, I believe that." Who are we to argue with such a knowledgable manager?
Enter your team now at fantasy.premierleague.com and compete with Jamal and his fellow Palace fans this season!
Jamal was kind enough to share a draft of his current team, for those who need some inspiration...
Watch Jamal's top tips for FPL success or his full interview with Palace TV below.