The Use of Substitutes in English Football

by SteveRogerson

A look back at the history of the use of substitutes in English football

Once upon a time, substitutes were not allowed in English football; if a player suffered an injury, then the team had to carry on with ten players. Today, there is a choice of three from seven. Steve Rogerson traces the history of the use of substitutes looking at when they were first used and who was the first substitute to score a goal.

Substitutes traditionally wore 12
Substitutes traditionally wore 12

"Come on the ten men!" used to be a common cry at football grounds up and down England on a Saturday afternoon and not because, as if often the case these days, someone had been sent-off. That is because until 1965 substitutes were not allowed in the Football League. That meant the eleven players who started had to survive until the end, and if they were injured to the point they couldn't continue then the team had to struggle on without them.

That is a far cry from today were teams have a bank of substitutes ready to come on - even though only three are allowed to be used - and the substitutes are not just used to replace injured players but for tactical reasons as managers react to what is happening on the pitch.


The First Substitutes

Though substitutes were not to be allowed in league matches until 1965, they had been used much earlier in international matches, even as far back as 1889 in a rather unusual international game between Wales and Scotland. The Welsh goalkeeper Jim Trainer didn't turn up for the game and so a local goalkeeper - Alf Pugh - was used instead. The match was being played at Wrexham's home ground and a call went out to Wrexham goalkeeper Sam Gillam, who arrived twenty minutes into the game and was allowed to replace Pugh between the posts.

Gillam's substitution was somewhat unorthodox and it was not until the early 1950s that substitutes were used officially during the qualification games for the 1954 World Cup. The first substitute to be used was Horst Eckel who replaced Richard Gottinger in West Germany's match against Saarland on 11 October 1953.

But it was to be more than a decade later that the English Football League changed its rules to allow substitutions for the 1965-66 season, and then only to replace an injured player, though the rule was amended two years later to allow a tactical substitution.

The first team to take advantage of the new rule was Charlton Athletic on 21 August 1965 in a match against Bolton Wanderers. When eleven minutes into the game goalkeeper Mike Rose was injured, Keith Peacock came off the bench to replace him. The first substitute to score a goal happened on the same day - Bobby Knox for Barrow against Wrexham.

Though the rule in England had changed by the time the country hosted the 1966 World Cup, Fifa decided that substitutes would not be allowed in that tournament and that rule wasn't changed until the 1970 World Cup.

Before the days of squad numbers, substitutes traditionally wore the number twelve on their back.


Increasing the Number of Substitutes

Over the years, the number of substitutes has increased in England, first to two and then briefly to three on condition that one of them had to be a goalkeeper. When in 1995, the number of substitutes allowed on the bench increased to five, the manager was given a free choice as to whether to include a goalkeeper or not. This has not been a completely linear progression though as after the number was increased to seven it was decreased again to five for the 2011-12 season but increased back to seven for 2012-13, though only three of the seven are allowed to be used.

In some friendly games, such as pre-season warm-up games, there are no limits to the number of substitutes to allow managers to try out different players and tactics as they prepare for the season to start. It is not unusual in those games for the eleven who finish the game to be completely different from the eleven who started.


Famous Substitutes

The term "super sub" was first applied to Liverpool's David Fairclough when he started scoring regularly after coming off the bench in the 1975-76 season and the following season took Liverpool to the European Cup semi-final after coming off the bench to score the winner against Saint Etienne.

Norwegian footballer Ole Gunnar Solskjær also earned that tag when he came on as a substitute in injury time during the 1999 Champions League final to score the winning goal for Manchester United against Bayern Munich.

Updated: 06/05/2016, SteveRogerson
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DerdriuMarriner on 01/24/2022

SteveRogerson, Thank you for practical information, pretty pictures and product lines.
Does one of the three who may be used as substitutes still have to be a goalkeeper?

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