From the archive ~ The nightmarish life of an amateur-league substitute


It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. In WSC 56, October 1991, Phil Town gave an insider’s view of life on the substitutes’ bench

The stuff of nightmares. Your team is 2-1 down in the cup final with five minutes to play. The other team has you penned back in your own half, playing silly buggers at the comer flag. The other goal seems a million light years away, receding rapidly. And the second hand slips remorselessly round, round, round.

But where are you all this time? Ah, here’s the pain. You’re on the bench casting pleading glances at the manager. You’re mouthing, “Let me on boss, let me on!” but no sounds come out. Or the boss doesn’t hear. Or the boss doesn’t want to hear. And a blinding panic washes through your very being. “If only I could… if only I could… ” And the second hand slips remorselessly round.

Then, yippee! The manager turns towards you and through a thick bank of cigarette smoke you see the lips move, hear the magic words, “Okay son, you’re on. ” Your heart leaps and you follow it off the seat. Your moment is come. Glory, Glory Hallelujah! A choir of angels shuts out the ugly earthly sounds and you’re floating effortlessly towards the touchline and Paradise (in the form of a last-gasp, match-saving 30-yarder).


But hold! Something’s wrong. Something’s dreadfully wrong. You see the manager waving wildly nearby. You feel his hand on your sleeve. He’s spluttering something. If only you could hear him. If only he’d speak more clearly. If only that sodding choir would shut up for a second. What are you trying to say, Boss? Last-minute tactics for the last minute? Tell me, tell me!

And then it comes through, loud and clear as that bell tolls for you. “Not you, Town, you dumbo, sit down! Peters, you’re on.” And as you crumple back on to the accursed wood, your heart now like a hundredweight of King Edwards and rolling around near your feet, you see a flash of colour sweep past; Peters takes to the field.

The nightmare may end there, or it may go on to have your beloved team, invariably and inexplicably (considering the occasion) wearing Reading’s sublime old hooped shirts, die with a whimper, the ball still trapped by the comer flag.


Or worse, it’s Peters who gets the 30-yard equaliser and then, on the stroke of time, a diving header that leaves Bob Wilson helpless. (Nightmares do tend to be populated by strange beings, don’t they?) And it’s Peters who gets hoisted onto the shoulders of his team-mates and gets to put the lid of the cup on his head.

Of course, you smile bravely and try to put some warmth into the hugs you give your club-mates (note: not “team-mates” for you). But the smile soon cracks, the sobs start and you wake up sweating. For what could be worse, I ask you, than the status of sub? Answer: a very few things.

And I should know. I’ve been there. Not Wembley, naturally. No, Prospect Park, Reading. A great sprawling patchwork of pitches shielded from the horizontal, razor-blade rain and leg-chapping winds only by the odd oak tree, branches of which love to break off in storms and fall on wingers’ heads. And linesmen’s heads.


And who are the linesmen in the Reading and District Sunday League Division 7 (West)? Why, the subs of course. You trot up and down in the rain with a soggy hankie in your hand (no flags in Div 7) and as you trot you try to remember what it was Jimmy Hill said about the offside rule and try to scrunch your ears up to listen for the thwack of the passed through-ball while keeping your eye on the last line of defence, and… but all this is purely academic. You could be a FIFA ref running the line and you’d still be getting the same streams of abuse from those lucky enough to be trotting around within the rectangle, without hankies.

Especially your “club-mates” who, it seems, actually expect you to cheat. “Wave the f****** thing, you pillock!” they cry, although the bloke was in his own half at the time and our (fat) sweeper was on his own penalty spot, wheezing and gasping after a previous attack had been thwarted. But the humiliation doesn’t stop there, oh no. The fact is you didn’t expect to be named sub today, so you didn’t bring a tracksuit, and all you’ve got is your overcoat, which you don. And you look a right prat. Overcoat and footy boots and socks. Oh, the shame!

But the most excruciatingly humiliating thing about being named sub has nothing to do with the seriously uncomfortable practicalities of it and everything to do with the horrific implications. It means, doesn’t it, that you’re just not good enough. You’re not good enough to get into a team of dangerously overweight lager louts propping up Div 7 (West).


Of course, you can mollify/delude yourself temporarily by citing the clique rule: “The player-manager only ever picks his mates”, or the fair’s fair rule: “Someone has to be sub… so why not you this week?” (this rule loses weight, however, after the third successive game running the line). But in the end it comes down to the fact that you’re not an automatic choice (this is a nice way of putting it). And you want so desperately to be one.

So it’s half an hour before kick-off and the boss is reading out the team line-up for the day. Each name that isn’t yours enters your ear and plummets down into your soul like a Luke Skywalker photon torpedo. You can feel the blood pumping, thumping through your temples. And the boss gets to number 11. Your last chance. “At number 11, Phil…”

Joy! This week you’ll show ’em. You feel good. You’ll turn it on and show ’em. You’ll…

“…Turner. That’s it. Phil Town, you’re sub again this week. Can you run the line?”

The stuff of nightmares indeed.

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This article was originally printed in WSC 56, October 1991. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here

Photos by Colin McPherson/Simon Gill for WSC Photography. Click on the pictures to see full caption details