It’s the eternal menace of the fantasy football manager – a star player is brought into the team for the weekend, only to discover all too late that their real manager has left them out, leaving a budget substitute to take their place. Undoubtedly frustrating, some competitive inhabitants of the digital dugout have gone to great lengths to avoid this situation, scouring the fantasy football ranks for evidence of unreported team news and putting their findings on the twittersphere for all to benefit. To some, this is an act of benign and selfless diligence, but for Aston Villa, it has inadvertently morphed into dangerous sabotage.
Last week, one such bout of fantasy football forensics revealed that a number of staff at Aston Villa – including first team players – had, prior to the official team announcements, dropped star player Jack Grealish from their Fantasy Premier League teams ahead Villa’s game against Leicester. Sensing that this was not the result of a sudden loss of faith in the talents of the claret’s number 10, the information was shared on social media, alerting fellow FPL players to the fact that Grealish was almost certainly going to miss the game. Sure enough, he was not selected and transpired to have a leg injury which was not previously known to the public. Manager Dean Smith was convinced that the advance notice gave the Foxes an advantage as they bettered Villa 2-1 and the club have now banned their players from participating in fantasy football.
Clubs might well be concerned about the strategic disadvantages in team news being leaked this way, but following the publicity this particular story has received, Premier League players and clubs alike may need to think about the issue in more serious terms. The FA rules prohibit elite football participants – be that players, clubs or other staff – from providing others with insider information which is subsequently used to place a bet. They are also prevented from ‘enabling’ any person to bet on anything to do with a competition that they are involved in, specifically including team selection. The seriousness with which the FA takes these cases is apparent from the recent bans for Daniel Sturridge and Kieran Trippier. Both players discussed their upcoming transfer moves with friends or family who went on to place bets on those moves, with both contending in their defence that they had shared the information innocently and without intending that it would be used to bet. Players must take serious care not to pass on information which could inform another’s gambling decisions. If the information gleaned from staff and player FPL teams can influence opposition preparation, it can equally be used to influence bets.
There is, of course, a defence available to those who provide such insider information entirely innocently. However, to avail themselves of it, the participant in question must convince a disciplinary panel that they could not reasonably have known that the information would be used for gambling. Given the significant publicity of the Jack Grealish incident, the scope for that defence may now have narrowed substantially. Team selection information could be used to inform various bets on football – whether it is on results, goal scorers or prospective transfers – and players may now be expected to foresee that consequence if their FLP team selections accidentally disclose inside information, which could initially go to a small group of people who share an FPL league with the individual involved and potentially be used by a member of that group to inform betting decisions. If such a scenario went alongside whatsapp conversations involving the player discussing the changes and/or possible bets, it is possible to see how action similar to that seen in the Sturridge and Trippier cases could follow. It will be interesting to see what measures, if any, other Premier League teams decide to take to mitigate the risk, whether from a regulatory or tactical perspective. What is clear, however, is that the age of innocence is now at an end. Evidently, there are those who can identify the FPL teams of players and club staff and will happily pass that information on. If the consequences of that become problematic, sympathy for the leaker – whether from their manager or an FA disciplinary tribunal – may be in short supply.
The issue is that this information is all public - if users of the game know where to look. Clubs are increasingly recognising that it is an issue