The Changing Role Of The Football Substitutes Through The Years

Tactics not injuries now dictate replacement
11:25, 21 Aug 2019

Today we accept substitutions as an everyday part of football. Much is made of the strength of the bench; the options on the bench and the quality of the bench.

But “the bench” wasn’t always such a big deal. In fact, it was only on August 21, 1965, when the first sub was deployed in an English league match.

Keith Peacock replaced Mike Rose for Charlton in their game at Burnden Park but the change didn’t have the desired effect for the Addicks as the Trotters won 4-2. On the same day, Bobby Knox also ensured his name would be celebrated in articles like this for years to come when he became the first substitute to score a goal - for Barrow against Wrexham. Bizarrely, Knox also made history as the first sub to save a penalty as he came on as a stand-in keeper against Wrexham. Some countries have celebrated lesser feats by naming parks in someone's honour.

The changes were only permitted in cases where a player had a genuine injury which led to some very bad acting on the pitch. Trailblazing Leeds United boss Don Revie was suspected of encouraging players to feign injury so he could make a change when things weren’t going their way but he wasn’t alone in bending the rules.

It wasn’t until 1987 when the rule saw a major change and two substitutions were permitted. But this change didn’t give managers more opportunity to implement tactical changes rather than those forced by injury because it was limited to a reserve goalkeeper.

Two outfield subs were only allowed from 1992 which meant three players could be named on the bench. The rulebook was thrown out of the window altogether for the 1996/97 Premier League season when managers could make three changes however they wanted to and five players were allowed on the bench.

Things were slightly different in the Football League where three subs had been the norm from 1993/94 with the restriction on using one as a goalkeeper lifted two seasons later. Here, five subs were permitted from 1999/2000 - increased to seven 10 years later.  

Changes were generally made only in the event of an injury back then. Now, substitutions are made for tactical reasons. A team that’s trailing may sacrifice a defender for a striker in search of an equaliser or there may be an extra midfielder introduced to help preserve a slender lead. Once such a change is made, that’s it. A player can’t come back - unlike in rugby league or American Football. 

These days, teams have the luxury of being able to make three changes with the option of another during some tournaments in extra time. A bench can contain as many as seven players and nearly always includes a back-up goalkeeper which is a shame for those of us old enough to remember the novelty of an outfield player in a shirt four sizes too big for him going between the sticks.

Through the 70s and 80s, some players found themselves christened a "super-sub" which would prove to be a blessing and a curse. David Fairclough of Liverpool was perhaps the best known of this breed, celebrated for his uncanny knack of coming up with a late winner in front of The Kop. 

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also weighed in with his fair share of goals from the bench, as did Mikael Forssell at Chelsea. In both these cases, being bracketed as a super-sub was seen as a bad thing and they may not have started as many games as they should because of this preconception.  

Debates continue about what is the ideal number of changes and how many should be allowed, especially when used as a time-wasting tactic in the closing stages of a game. 

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