Cast your minds back to 2004. Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Facebook was a mere seed in the mind of Mark Zuckerburg. NOW That’s What I Call Music was on its 57th edition, whilst Bob Geldof was dusting off the Band Aid lyrics for its 20th anniversary. Football wise, it was the year of Arsenal’s Invincibles, and Palace were back in the Premier League under Iain Dowie, although as it turned out - not for long. Whilst for many Palace fans it would be a year to forget, for one fan it was quite the opposite.
Meet Andrew Tomlins, a Palace season ticket holder with his father since 1990. A die-hard Eagle who bears a striking resemblance to his idol Andy Johnson, Tomlins has travelled home and away to support the red and blue for three decades even though his work has led him to live in Sheffield, and now, the Midlands.
In the summer of 2004, 470,000 football fans would be creating their Fantasy Premier League football team. Tomlins was making a masterpiece.
His team - Palace Exile - would go on to do the unthinkable: win the FPL.
At the time, Tomlins was an Operations Analyst at a financial firm in London. He would spend his days analysing call flows, internet traffic, and optimising website journeys. It’s fair to say that his mind would wander towards football during office hours.
This conversation with the Palace programme was prompted by an article published in February focusing on this season’s top-ranking Palace fan, James Armstrong. Someone replied to the club’s tweet within 15 minutes of it being posted, saying “Want to know about the #cpfc fan who won it thanks to AJ, Routledge & Boyce?”
Wanna know about the #CPFC fan (& 28 year season ticket holder), who won it. Number 1 in the world. Thanks to AJ, Routledge & Boyce?!— EagleAndy (@TheOneEagleAndy) February 21, 2019
It was Tomlins. Investigative journalist skills were not required to hunt down the man in question, he leapt into cpfc.co.uk's arms. “Any time someone wants to talk about this, I’m more than happy to!”
Throughout the 2004/05 season, his Fantasy Premier League side would flirt with some bigger names of the time – Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo. But it had a Palace core.
“I used my knowledge of Palace players to put them into my Fantasy team. The information that you got those days was a lot less – there was no Fantasy Football Scout, no Twitter or forums. Working out starting XIs especially for promoted clubs was quite difficult. So I used my knowledge, plus reading reports from pre-season.
“I had Emmerson Boyce, who was new into the team. Wayne Routledge, who had done fantastic the previous season. Then AJ, Andy Johnson, up front. I took a punt on all three, all were cheap.
“With AJ I thought, I’d put him in the first few games – and thought, he probably won’t do as well as he did. He ended up scoring 21 goals, which was fantastic for a Palace player.”
The team was diligently tweaked over the 38-week campaign, with Tomlins showing minimal loyalty to his squad, other than his beloved Palace players.
The game back then remains remarkably similar to today’s edition – a squad of 15, maximum three players from one club, £100m budget, fluctuating player values based on popularity, weekly captain picks, albeit without the new-age ‘chips’ of Bench Boost and Triple Captain. A wildcard was offered in January only, and managers could select two in defence, not the minimum of three these days.
It was a simpler time. Research was done in the pub with his mates, or via text messages with fellow fans dotted around the country.
“I’d speak to my mates, text them – right, ‘how’s Scholesy doing? Is he playing further forward, or is he having to cover at the back?’
“I used the actual FPL site for research – analysing form, assists, looking at each of the players. I’d have an idea about who I want to bring in, I’d have a shortlist of players in each position. I’d be scouting on Match of the Day and Sky Sports, reading newspapers, seeing which players are playing well and particularly which players are playing a bit more advanced than their positions would suggest.
“I bought in Stewart Downing very early, when he was breaking his way into the England team. He was getting a lot of assists and bonus points. He did well for me, Tim Cahill too.
“Spotting those players early was the secret, before the price rises. I used to leave a couple of million in the bank at the beginning of the season to capitalise upon players in the early weeks.”
Even for mediocre FPL managers, the experience can be exhausting. How many hours were invested in the campaign? “Lots. I’d have a spreadsheet where I was tracking players. I’d plan six gameweeks in advance particularly around the short weeks where teams might not be playing, and the double headers.”
As the season was reaching its climax, Tomlins entered the top 50 in gameweek 27. By gameweek 34, he was in the top 10. Something was happening.
In the double gameweek 35, he would agonise over a decision that would ultimately decide his fate: to captain Arsenal’s Robert Pires or Manchester United’s Paul Scholes?
“I went out in east Dulwich with my mates on a Friday night – deliberating which of the two to captain. A few beers, and most of the conversation later – as this point, it was a serious decision as I was doing well – and I plumped for Pires. Arsenal won 7-0 against Everton, he scored 3 goals and got 20-odd points in that gameweek as my captain, Scholes got just four.”
That decision catapulted him to second place. “Then it got serious, I thought I could do it.”
Tomlins was the top ranked manager, 11 points clear, going into final day of the season. He spent that day at the Valley watching his beloved Palace throw away the chance of Premier League survival at the hands of local rivals Charlton Athletic, before the long and lonely drive back to Sheffield.
“Not only were Palace relegated, the massive concern I had - was the guy in second place had Fulham’s Luis Boa Morte in his team. Driving back, I heard Fulham had won 6-0 v Norwich and I thought ‘that’s it. He’ll have a goal or two, and it’ll be over’.
“I didn’t know how I’d got on during the drive home, but when I got back I took a phone-call from a very good friend of mine who’s a Charlton fan – who had helped me a lot in the season with FPL.
“I didn’t know whether to take the call, but learnt at that point that the beauty of not gloating. He was fairly sympathetic, and that’s shaped how I deal with victory and defeat going forward.
“And he said ‘shame you went down, but do you realise the results are in and you’ve won the Fantasy Premier League?’ I was quite delighted at that point.”
Indeed, Boa Morte had secured just two points despite Fulham’s rout, and Tomlins was Fantasy Premier League champion, four points clear.
His prize for topping the table with 2,253 points, four more than his nearest rival, was a trip to a Premier League game of his choice (Liverpool v Spurs settled by a Harry Kewell goal), with full hospitality, accommodation and luxury travel, and £250 spending money. He arrived at Anfield in a blacked-out car, with onlookers enquiring who this VIP was. In keeping with Tomlin’s personality, the champion said with a grin: “I told anyone that cared to listen that I was Andy Johnson, just finalising a deal to Everton.”
Did he receive a trophy? “No. I made myself a certificate. A print out of the final league table and my final team. I laminated it and stuck it on my desk for a while.”
Tomlins likens his FPL managerial career to former Palace manager Ian Holloway: “A one season wonder, bit of a chancer. Not much in-depth tactics, but lots of passion!”
Indeed, Tomlins still plays the game, but without the same motivation of the 2004/05 season. “Since then I’ve not played it to the same level – it’s quite draining and tiring. The focus you need to put in to get to the point where you win it. Where do I go from there? I can’t retain it. I’ve probably not checked my team for a month or so. I haven’t lost the love for it, just the energy I need to do it.
“Back then, the last thing I thought about before going to bed was my Fantasy team. Probably the first thing when I woke up too. Now it’s the Palace line-up before the weekend.
"I’m the Leicester City of FPL, rather than the Manchester City. When I think about FPL, I think of the phrase ‘yeah, completed it mate!’"