Keeping bench warm is no substitute for a starting place

Olivia Blair ON SATURDAY
Click to follow
The Independent Online
If there are any footballers out there with a penchant for humming that hit by the 1970s group Clout which goes: "I'll be your substitute, whenever you want me" I guarantee it's when the gaffer's out of earshot. Even though a sub is more likely to get a run out these days than years ago when the concept was as unfamiliar as a goal at Upton Park, for most pros keeping the bench warm is still no substitute for a place in the starting 11.

Just ask Chris Day. It would be no surprise if the former Spurs reserve keeper had piles he spent so long on the subs' bench at White Hart Lane. Piles or no piles, Day just became impatient and signed for Crystal Palace, where he is currently on the bench again after losing his place.

But he was one of the unlucky ones. Now that modern football has metamorphosed into a squad game, a substitute has an increasingly key role to play. He has to be a match-winner, a time-waster or even a tactical pawn as Wimbledon's Mick Harford was against Manchester United on Tuesday. Harford may have made his name as a striker (in a manner of speaking) but with minutes to go his 6ft 3in frame was thrown into defence to mark would- be centre-forward Gary Pallister.

As for match-winning subs... they seem to be 10 a penny this season. The 20-year-old sub Paul Hughes scored on his Chelsea debut while his namesake, Mark, was the catalyst for Chelsea's second-half mauling of Liverpool in the so-called Game of the Season, Andy Mutch was, according to the headline writers, "Mutch too much for Southampton" when he scored Stockport's winner with his first touch in the Coca-Cola Cup; the Rangers sub Erik Bo Andersen's brace settled the last Old Firm derby and Mark Robins' winner for Leicester against Ipswich came after he had been out in the cold for four months. Robins is used to it: he played super-sub regularly at Old Trafford before handing over the mantle to Paul Scholes - it was Scholes who came off the bench to break the deadlock in United's first FA Cup tie against Wimbledon.

Of course, there are certain unspoken rules. As Alan Hansen is so fond of pointing out, you "cannae bring on a sub when you're facing a corner, it unsettles your defence". But brought on to break a deadlock, a match- winning sub will stand out.

So it would be churlish to suggest hair colour has anything to do with it, yet ironically, Andersen, Robins and Scholes are all red-heads, while the most famous super-sub of all, David Fairclough, was of that ilk. Who could forget him coming off the bench to score Liverpool's winner against St Etienne in the 1977 European Cup semi-final, a feat which made his non appearance in the final against Borussia Monchengladbach all the more galling? In fact, Bob Paisley had given Fairclough the nod seconds before Tommy Smith's header sailed into the net to put Liverpool 2-1 up. "The goal was a massive blow," Fairclough admits.

He's candid about being Anfield's eternal sub (he made fewer than 100 appearances during eight seasons): "You wish for that bit of bad luck. There's no chance of going on at 3-0 up, but if they're 1-0 down or it's 0-0, then the manager's got to start perking things up. But it was easier for Paisley to drop me than one of the big names."

Had he been playing today, however, Fairclough would be in good company. Liverpool's subs' bench must have a high insurance rating this season with Jamie Redknapp, Patrik Berger, Stan Collymore, Neil Ruddock and Phil Babb relegated by turns to a walk-on part. Elsewhere millions of pounds' worth of talent in Gianluca Vialli, Savo Milosevic, Faustino Asprilla, Jordi Cruyff, Andy Cole and Karel Poborsky have had to sit it out on occasions.

I'd imagine being the eternal sub is like always being the bridesmaid and never the bride, but Ally McCoist would know. He sat on the bench for so long under Graeme Souness's Rangers regime, his team-mates called him The Judge. But at least being a sub is better than sitting in a suit, although Chris Day might disagree having fallen between two stools at Spurs and missed out on both first - and reserve - team football. And in Paul Kitson's case, the words "devil" and "deep blue sea" spring to mind. In the last year Kitson has played just a couple of friendlies and made a handful of first team appearances off the bench because Kevin Keegan disbanded Newcastle's reserves. Kitson says he's "desperate for a game, any game". Lucky that, because West Ham are desperate for a goal, any goal.

With managers now allowed to name five subs, it's astounding to think that the sub was a foreign body back in 1965 when the current Charlton reserve team coach, Keith Peacock, became the first, coming on against Bolton at the Valley.

Thirteen years later it was a Charlton fan who likened Ian Rush coming on for Liverpool to "Bradman coming in to bat with 500 already on the board." Some players, it seems, have just too much clout to suit being a sub.