CALL THIS old fashioned, but surely the idea of substitutions, when the scores are level, is to produce a goal. So the reasoning of Gordon Strachan, when Coventry had been pegged back to 1-1, in leaving the country's second leading goalscorer on the bench for 88 minutes must remain hidden in managerial subterfuge.
Coventry City need goals. They also understand their place in the food chain that is football's natural hierarchy. So they sold the man now the Premiership's leading scorer for pounds 5.75m (and next day Dion Dublin scored twice for Aston Villa); six weeks later they bought a 22-year-old, 17- goal marksman (and next day John Aloisi was named as substitute).
Fair play; no flaw in the argument thus far. But when relegation-threatened Coventry, to hand back their full title temporarily mislaid last season, have failed to capitalise on total first-half dominance against Derby players still musing over what to buy the wife for Christmas, then logic suggests that throwing on a youngster keen for success might be a handy tactic.
But when did logic have anything to do with football? Last week Jim Smith, the Derby manager, played three substitutes and saw one, his goal-hungry striker Dean Sturridge, grab an equaliser against Chelsea. This time he threw on a centre-back and a defensive midfielder and saw the latter, Lee Carsley, equalise Noel Whelan's first-half effort.
"Football's becoming more and more of a squad game and, fortunately, we've got a good squad," said Steve McClaren, the Derby coach. "John's not had much time with us," said Strachan. "But his time will come," and recalled how, last January, when leading at Chelsea, he brought on a fourth striker in giving Viorel Moldovan his debut. "I got my fingers burned," said Strachan. "We went from 1-0 up to 3-1 down."
Maybe fortune favours the brave. Certainly Strachan threw down the gauntlet to his first-choice forwards in buying Aloisi from Portsmouth for pounds 650,000 and he has a longer-term view than one Midlands derby. Whelan responded well, looking sharp from the off, snapping up his sixth goal of the season when Mart Poom could only parry Steve Froggatt's 17th-minute shot. But when he fired over the bar when well-placed two minutes into first-half injury time, Derby appreciated their reprieve.
Smith clearly has the golden touch with substitutions. He asked the left wing-back Rory Delap to play as an inside- forward and, assisted by the striker who did survive the half-time chop, Paolo Wanchope, it was the former Carlisle midfielder who centred for Carsley to score on the turn. It was the Republic of Ireland international's first goal for 15 months. But, then, Derby clearly know how to make their substitutions pay.
Goals: Whelan (17) 1-0; Carsley (50) 1-1.
Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Nilsson, Shaw, Williams, Edworthy (Breen, 73); Telfer (Boateng, 85), McAllister (Aloisi, 88), Soltvedt, Froggatt; Huckerby, Whelan. Substitutes not used: Ogrizovic (gk), Shilton.
Derby County (3-4-3): Poom; Prior, Carbonari, Laursen; Delap, Powell, Bohinen, Dorigo (Hunt, 66); Sturridge (Elliott, h-t), Wanchope, Harper (Carsley, h-t). Substitutes not used: Hoult (gk), Christie.
Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).
Bookings: Coventry: Telfer, Froggatt. Derby: Dorigo, Powell, Delap, Wanchope.
Man of the match: Shaw.