Football Management

Commentary on the management of over 160 English football clubs by Dr John Beech, winner of the FSF Writer of the Year Award 2009/10 Twitter: @JohnBeech Curator of Scoop.it! Football Finance

Substitutes and ‘cheating’

Posted by John Beech on July 21, 2011

The Football League has announced that its member clubs have voted “voted to reduce the number of substitutes that can be named on the teamsheet for matches in the npower Football League from 7 to 5” (1).  As a rationale for this change, it was stated that “This was felt to be a sensible and prudent step given the financial challenges facing many football clubs and the commitment made earlier this summer to adopt UEFA’s Financial Fair Play framework“, or, to put it another way, it’s ultimately a good way of cutting costs by employing a marginally smaller squad.

I for one would like to see a change in the rules regarding the actual substitutions allowed.  Nothing imposes such a feeling of anti-climax at the end of a tense game is the tactical (and essentially unnecessary) substitution of players as the final whistle approaches.  It has far more to do with the ‘gamesmanship’ of Stephen Potter than the gamesmanship of what used to be the Beautiful Game.

Musing on this, I turned out an early report by the Football League (but actually published in the FA Yearbook 1966-67, and hence not available online I’m afraid) called “Substitutes: An Experiment Justified“.

It begins “When the Football League introduced its Substitute Rule at the beginning of the 1965-66 season, it was received with misgivings from many people inside and outside the game.  Many of those who were against it chose to ignore the fact that substitution of players for injury has been permitted by the Laws of the Game for a good number of years”.  The second sentence came as a surprise to me.  Did substitution actually take place before 1965?  Surely in that era the culture was for a player to battle on, hiding injury in spite of the danger of exacerbating it causing permanent injury.  Think Bert Trautman.

The report continues: “There were many forecasts of the amount of cheating [sic] and misuse which would follow.  In point of fact, there has been no instance of the Substitute by a manager in order to gain a tactical advantage over his team’s opponents.”  Would that the same could be said today.

Data in the report broadly backs up the claim.  It records that 772 substitutions had been made in 2,028 League games.  These occurred during games thus:

Period of game

Substitutions

Up to 10 minutes

26

11 to 19 minutes

31

20 to 29 minutes

55

30 to 45 minutes

141

Total, first half

253

46 to 59 minutes

182

60 to 69 minutes

100

70 to 79 minutes

110

80 to 85 minutes

106

86 to 90 minutes

21

Total, second half

519

The number of substitutions in those days was limited to one, and, as the report says “If substitution is raised to two, this would increase the danger of substitutes being used tactically, which is really what everyone wants to avoid“.  Substitution was, in any case, only permitted then for injury.

Subsequently ‘everyone’ apparently stopped wanting to avoid the use of tactical substitution, and we have seen the number permitted on the bench grow to 5 in 1996 and then the about-to-be abandoned level of 7 in 2008.  Memory fails me on when tactical, i.e. for reasons other than injury, substitution was first allowed (any offers?).

Do I detect in all of this the idea that the Football League cares less about the game and its enjoyment by fans today than it did in 1965, and cares more about the costs of its member clubs?

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh.  Substitution for injury is a principle I would strongly defend, on the grounds of players’ well-being, and I wouldn’t want a return to pre-1965 practices.  It’s just that it seems to me we have gone too far with tactical substitution, something which I still want to avoid, to use the League’s phrase.

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2 Responses to “Substitutes and ‘cheating’”

  1. John Beech said

    Writing on Twitter, Richard Tupholme says “Tactical (i.e. non-injury) substitutes were first allowed in the 1966-67 season. Only 1 season of injury substitutions”. Many thanks for this, Richard.
    What an amazingly rapid about-turn by the Football League!

  2. Tam said

    I also agree to your principle, for the well-being of the players.

    - Football

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