Chris Bullard is on a high after reaching the FIFA Interactive World Cup Grand Final for the third time in four years after victory in the UK qualifier in Manchester on Tuesday 15 April.
The 21-year-old, who won the Grand Final in London three years ago, was in imperious form as he defeated all comers to set up another attempt at the world crown. En route to the final, he earned victories over Jonathon Omar, Ben Withey and Sean Allen to set up a fantastic final with 15-year-old Adam Winster, who arguably played the best virtual football of the night.
Ampersand, one of the north west's coolest clubs was the venue for the event - and with beautiful hostesses, superb football skills from John Farnworth, plus breakdancing duo Andrea 'Firefly' Parker and Lloyd 'Tranquil' Thompson, there was a real sense of prestige as the atmosphere built up. Actors from English soaps Coronation Street and Hollyoaks added a touch of glamour to proceedings.
However, the evening really sprung into life with the arrival of Manchester United star Wayne Rooney. The 22-year-old's every move was followed by a posse of interested gamers and spectators, none more so than when he challenged TV star Ryan Thomas to an impromptu game of FIFA 08. With Rooney playing as the Red Devils and Thomas playing as Liverpool, spectators' eyes were transfixed.
With two minutes of game time remaining and Rooney losing 2-1, the ball broke to the virtual Rooney who just had the goalkeeper to beat. However, much to the amusement of the crowd, the England striker fluffed his chance - and, in doing so, lost the match. Those laughs increased still further when Rooney quipped: "It's a great game, but in the next version, can you give me more hair please!"
The sharp end
The frivolity turned to focus as the matches began. Arguably the biggest disappointment in the first stage was felt by Vijay Mitsrang, who had travelled from the Netherlands for the event. His evening was over after just ten minutes after a 2-1 defeat by Ben.
As predicted beforehand, England's four premier FIFA 08 gamers reached the semi-finals of the competition. FIFA Interactive World Cup 2005 winner Chris was joined by Sean, Adam and Max Fayers.
The latter had already qualified for the Grand Final by virtue of his success in the online event. With the pressure off, his 6-3 semi defeat to Adam may not have been such a bitter pill to swallow.
The second semi-final of the night, Chris' match with Sean, was arguably the most exciting of the entitre evening. Early into the second half, Chris raced into what appeared to be an unassailable 3-0 lead, but Sean fought back to level the match with just five minutes of game time remaining. Extra time beckoned, but Chris used his experience to good effect, took his chance when he could, and emerged victorious.
The formbook hinted that Adam could deny Chris a place at his third Grand Final, but the former champion had other ideas. With 75 minutes played, Chris was 4-1 up and looking comfortable, but Adam fought back with two late strikes. However, with Chris using his experience to force the ball into the corners, Adam was left frustrated and Chris held firm to book a place in Berlin.
He is now very confident he will be able to win his second FIWC Grand Final this May. "I've been there before and dealt with the pressure," he said. "I know what's required to win such a big tournament. Tonight has been fantastic and I have to give a lot of credit to all the guys I played against, especially Adam. I'm sure with more experience; he'll only become a better player."
With only one qualifier remaining in Germany next week, all eyes are now firmly fixed on Berlin and Saturday 24 May when the champions go head to head in what promises to be the gaming event of the year.