The short-lived joy of Pure Fantasy Football play-by-mail

You may have seen that we recently ran an article on the play-by-mail football management craze of the 1990s. Well, Robert Mansell, the founder of Pure Fantasy Football, got in touch with us to tell us more. Here Robert talks us through the game’s modest beginnings, how it reached its peak with more than 10,000 players, and the eventual demise of play-by-mail…

“I was a big lover of games but, rather than the arcades, I always preferred strategy games on the Commodore 64. Kevin Toms was my hero from the original Football Manager and I played that along with two other management games, The Double (which was huge in scope for its time) and Football Director.”

“I first heard of play-by-mail football management in the mid-80s. I made my first tentative steps with a game from Pace Games in Nottingham that caught my eye in Match magazine. For £1.10 a week it was great, but I felt that better could be done. After being made redundant in 1990, I decided it was the right time to set one up myself.

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To start with it was very difficult. Myself and a friend took up the challenge without a clue how to run it. We used a word processor to manage everything and I wrote a basic program on the C64 to get the results and statistics.

Thanks to small adverts in Match magazine, Pure Fantasy Football steadily grew to a couple of hundred members a week. Each league took at least a day to run and after a few months we had five leagues up and running. Nothing was automated so we had no room for growth. We were doing this for a living but we were running it out of the back bedroom.

One day a member accidentally sent us the wrong sheets to process. They were for League Soccer by Necom Games, run by a decent chap in Stockport called Neil Comins. We noticed immediately that this game was automated so phoned him up. He wrote us our first automated program which meant we could now expand. Within a couple of weeks we grew from hundreds of members to thousands – it was time to bring in new staff and technology.

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The game peaked around Euro ’96. We had around 25 staff, ten of which were full-time, and we had our own office. In previous years players contacted each other via telephone to make transfers but now the internet was here. We were dealing with 13,000 people a week.

It was a big operation. We had an advertising budget of around £5,000 per month and it just grew stupidly fast – more than we could really cope with. At around 3.30pm the phone lines would be ringing off the hook with people wanting to know their results before they had been sent out, or just wanting to chat about the game.

I had so many decent conversations with people who loved the game. Some even turned up at the office to see how we did stuff. I don’t think they thought it was a real business. They didn’t expect to see 20 people huddled at a computer inputting data and stuffing match reports into envelopes.

It would take ten people two hours to open the post in the morning, there was that much. Once we had someone send us their passport asking for a trial as they thought the game was real and we could get them a game at Old Trafford.

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There were several reasons for the eventual demise of Pure Fantasy Football. We didn’t move with the times. We should have moved online somehow, but then again has there ever been a successful online version? Championship Manager, as it was then, just took the bull by the horns and was a runaway success. But I do think that we were the Jacobsen and Collyers of our generation.

I never saw what became of Pure Fantasy Football after I left in 2000. But the chap who took it on from myself ran it until its closure earlier this year. It would have been 25 next year. I have nothing really left from those days; no full-page adverts, no rule books, nothing. All I do have is a copy of the software up in the loft in a very old PC which probably hasn’t been fired up since 1998.

What are your memories of play-by-mail football management? Let us know at [email protected]

The short-lived joy of Pure Fantasy Football play-by-mail
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