Even to muster three for the bench they have sometimes had to summon the assistant manager from retirement, or a boy from his GCSE revision. Unfortunately, the latter has now picked up an injury as well, but the manpower crisis at Bournemouth has not yet reached the point where Eddie Howe himself has had to hobble on to the field.
In theory, as the youngest manager in the League, he would be perfectly entitled to do so. He only turned 32 a fortnight ago, after all. And there was a time when he wore an England shirt alongside Frank Lampard, Jamie Carragher and Emile Heskey, in winning two Under-21 caps. But Howe only fast-tracked into his second football career because his first was ruined by a chronic knee injury. And, as things are turning out, both Howe and his team know how to make a virtue of necessity.
The squad is still mercilessly fettered by a transfer embargo imposed as a final consequence of Bournemouth's failure – in previous hands – to meet insolvency regulations. Relegated from League One by a 10-point penalty, they began last season with minus 17 points. They remained stricken, 10 points from safety, when Howe was appointed manager on New Year's Day. Cynics viewed the greenhorn as the cheap option, a gesture of futility. Oblivion beckoned.
But Howe and his assistant, Jason Tindall, rallied their men and together they cleared the abyss by five points. Now, astonishingly, despite their threadbare resources, the blossoming Cherries are just one point behind Rochdale at the top of the table. And they say there are no promising young English managers.
There is a pretty obvious reason for that, if you consider that Howe is already up to 51 of 92 in the league's long-service table. Staggering as that is, he has already turned down the possibility of starting over at 92, in a Championship job at Peterborough. The very fact that he did so, of course, reflects the calm, independent perspective that already separates him from the herd.
"I immediately thought: 'No, I want to see this through'," he explains. "Because I do see this as a long-term project. And I feel a huge bond with this club, having come through the ranks here. As a kid, it was my dream to pull on the shirt just once. That's why the youth structure is so important to me, because I came through it myself. I want it to be the best it can be. And I'm desperate to see Bournemouth do well, because the fans really deserve it."
Howe ended up wearing the shirt 301 times, a sequence interrupted only by an atrociously unlucky stint at Portsmouth, where he was Harry Redknapp's first signing. (Incidentally, Redknapp, Tony Pulis and Sean O'Driscoll are among the other managers to have first made their name at Dean Court.) Sadly, his knee gave out, and after one, last nine-minute comeback he limped back along the coast.
"I was down, I've got to say," he admits. "I did feel I should have been in my prime. I was 28 when I retired, but really from 24 onwards my career was over. But all those experiences will stay with me. I know that when a player can't see light at the end of the tunnel, that's when he needs his manager to be strong."
He feels a corresponding unease about the demands he is obliged to make of his squad, and there is surely a welfare issue here. During the summer, Howe was not even permitted to sign his half-brother, who was prepared to play as an amateur. Is the League's intransigence exposing unsound players to further damage?
"There was a spell when one of our guys had a thigh strain, and we had to keep playing him because we had no one else in his position," Howe says. "Steve Fletcher is 37, and we've had to play him when ideally we'd have rested him. If one of these players were to get injured, you'd feel a responsibility. It's not fair to them. You don't want to be putting their health at risk."
At the same time, Howe scrupulously discourages self-pity. For while he acknowledges that a siege mentality helped turn things round, it will not be enough to get his men through the marathon. "There's no use moaning," he says. "It is what it is, and we've got to deal with it. Yes, it's a really difficult league, 46 games. If our players get tired, when other teams can freshen things up, it may hurt us. But all you can do is get the best out of what you've got. Of course, if we want to shuffle the pack, or change formation, we haven't had the bodies. But we just have to work around that. And the lads have been absolutely outstanding, to a man, the way they've responded."
Last week, at Barnet, they conceded an early lead with one of their defenders lying stricken after a clash of heads. Luckily, he had "only" broken his nose. "Just as well, because we only have two fit centre-halves at the moment," Howe says ruefully. "Including him."
Bournemouth equalised and would now be top of the table but for missing a late penalty. But perhaps the most engaging footnote from that game is that Barnet had a player – Paul Furlong – fully nine years older than the visiting boss.
By any measure, Howe has had to grow up pretty fast as a manager. He expresses awed gratitude for the forbearance of his wife, and otherwise finds his only sanctuary from the game in walking his boxer dog along the Dorset coast. But if he can pull off things like this, now, what might he do when he some day gets a free hand?
"That's been the really disappointing thing, missing out on a couple of gems that ended up at other clubs," he says. "Teams tend to evolve, with players pushing for places, players who can be embedded with your philosophy. We haven't had that luxury. But the players we do have are responding fantastically.
"I think it's important you develop an identity, a sense of how you want your teams to play. In two or three years, I'd like to say: 'This is the team I built.' I do believe in playing the right way. I'm not saying constant, free-flowing passing, from back to front, because there are times in this league when you've got to mix it. But I do find teams like Arsenal a joy to watch, and I do believe that's the way football is going."
He has quickly discovered a head for heights, anyhow, and offers a sensible perspective on the game's murky financial depths. "There are very few clubs that aren't struggling, and I don't think that's all Bournemouth's fault," he says. "It's a football problem. It's easy to get a distorted idea of what's happening at clubs. Certainly it's not always the case that they are paying the players too much. Here they've inherited problems that have been going on for years. But for the first time in a long time, I hope there are reasons to be optimistic."
Pending another appeal for clemency from the League, Howe's latest problem is an injury to his goalkeeper, whose deputy is only 18. He is also sweating on the fitness of a key midfielder for the trip to Morecambe tomorrow. But he hopes never to revisit the bottom of the barrel, as he did when briefly pondering a comeback during the autumn. "Yes, there was a time when I did think about it," he admits. "We were that short. But that would be absolutely the last resort. My knees are shot, and I wouldn't want to embarrass myself."
So long as he keeps wearing that tracksuit, there doesn't seem the remotest danger of that.
Touchline fast-track: Early starters
Appointed Middlesbrough manager in 2006 at 36, while still registered to play. After indifferent beginnings, his inexperience showed and he was sacked in October following relegation from the Premier League last season.
Took over at Lincoln at 28 to become the youngest Football League manager. Led Imps to 1976 Fourth Division title before succeeding at Watford and failing with England.
Became Coventry manager in 1961, aged only 33. He proved innovative, changing the club's colours and introducing match programmes. Hill led the Sky Blues to Third and Second Division Two titles, before leaving to take up a career in broadcasting.
In 1983 Francis managed Third Division Exeter City, aged 32. After a poor season (with a 13 per cent win rate) Francis left managing to concentrate on his playing career, returning to manage Bristol Rovers in 1987.
Widely considered as the greatest manager in the English game, Clough started at Hartlepool in 1965, aged 30. He had an outstanding managerial career, most noteworthy for lifting consecutive European Cups with Nottingham Forest.Reuse content