It’s 37 years since Keith Peacock became the league’s first substitute. Philip Cornwall traces the changing role of the sub with the help of the man himself

Once upon a time, there were no substitutes. None. By the time I started understanding football, the mid-1970s, they were such an established part of the game that there was an emerging player soon to be known to all as Super Sub, and the idea that football had once been just 11 against 11 was very difficult to get my head around.

It wasn’t until I was given one of those football quiz books, which asked “Who was the first substitute in a Football League match?”, that I even realised there was a time before 12th men. Astonishingly, the answer to the question – Keith Peacock of Charlton Athletic – was still Keith Peacock of Charlton Athletic then, a dozen or so years after his moment of history. As he is today, albeit as assistant manager and not as a player.

The moment came at Bolton, on August 21, 1965. “I remember quite clearly I was disappointed at not playing,” he recalls. “Before then a spare player had travelled, in case of illness, but not got changed. I still didn’t expect to be involved – but after only a few min­utes Mick Rose, our goalkeeper, had to come off. It was only on the train back from Manchester, from one of the evening papers, that I found out I had been the first.” Charlton still had no proper keeper – Peacock wasn’t that give that difficult task – and lost 4-2, but had done so with 11 men.

So what was life like, pre-Peacock? Another quiz book question is “Which pop star’s uncle played in the 1959 FA Cup final?” As we all know, it was Roy Dwight, Elton John’s uncle, and he broke his leg with an hour to go – but you rarely see the corollary of that fact, that his Nottingham Forest side were thereby reduced to ten men, only just hanging on to the lead Dwight had helped establish. A year later, Blackburn Rovers were less fortunate against Wolves, when Dave Whelan – now the owner of Wigan – suffered a similar fate to Dwight. (The injury ended Whelan’s playing career; his £400 compensation was the beginning of his bus­iness career, which led all the way to JJB Sports.)

A solution was only a matter of time. Too much time, inevitably, and the change in the rule which gave Pea­cock his place in the history books was initially just for domestic games; as a result, Alf Ramsey was able to name just 11 men for the World Cup final at the end of that season and was denied the option to even choose Jimmy Greaves or anyone else as a replacement in the event of an injury. But the rules had changed completely by 1970, to allow Sir Alf to make tactical substitutions.

“After a couple of seasons there were a number of dodgy substitutions,” Peacock remembers, and so the rules were change and a new phrase was needed – the tactical substitution, a term which according to Pea­cock took a while to get used to. Players took it personally when taken off, as some still do today. Nonetheless, that transformed the rule and the game, giving David Fairclough his chance for peculiar fame.

Fairclough’s initial substitute success came in the closing weeks of Liverpool’s 1975-76 title run, when he grabbed a brace against Burnley and the only goal of a Merseyside derby. But it was the next season’s Eur­opean Cup quarter-final when, with Saint-Etienne ahead on away goals, he scored in the closing minutes to secure a 3-1 win, which made him the Super Sub of the 1970s, a tag which stuck and perhaps even held back his chances of gaining a regular place, but which assures him of lasting fame at Liverpool.

The initial change, to allow tactical substitutions, was one of the few examples of football changing into line with common sense – as happened again 30 years later, when the short-lived rule that one of the three substitutes allowed on the bench had to be a goalkeeper (1994) was altered to give the decision to the manager as to whether or not he wished to gamble and anyway to give him five to choose from (1995).

But the changes, slow at first and then a flood in the last decade or so, have meant more than an increase in work for the Acme Dugout Company. In many ways, substitutions make management easier. Pre-Peacock, every injury from the first minute to the last could leave you a man short. With today’s options, you have to lose two keepers, not one, before an outfielder goes in goal (meaning that the record of scoring a hat-trick and sav­ing a penalty in the FA Cup final will probably remain unique to Roy Race).

And of course if things go wrong tactically you can try to fix them. In the old days you could only reorganise your men if one went off, then post-Peacock you had the one roll of the dice to repair – now you may have three more chances to get it right, or wrong.

Gra­ham Taylor, against Sweden at Euro 92, ended Gary Lineker’s England career by pitching in Alan Smith for his swansong, rather than opting for Lin­eker’s true international successor, Alan Shearer. It’s also possible to make a mistake by not making a change – con­sider Bryan Robson in the closing moments of the 1997 League Cup final, not opting to disrupt Leicester’s closing attacks, a decision which left the worldly wise Fabrizio Ravanelli shaking his head in disbelief when City equalised, denying Middlesbrough their first major trophy.

One thing that will never change is that it will always be the attacking substitutes who are remembered, rather than defenders sent on to close out a game. Sometimes it will be players who have been out through injury and cannot be risked as starters – remember Ian Wright, back from a broken leg at Wembley in 1990, coming on to save Crystal Palace and scoring twice to all but win them the FA Cup. Or the latter-day Fair­cloughs, such as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who has sur­passed any previous model with his efforts from the bench, most famously in Barcelona to win the 1999 European Cup.

Is the game fairer today, and better? Undoubtedly. But substitutions have created problems, too. “We can spend as long choosing the substitutes as we can the team,” Peacock asserts. “It used to be that players were unhappy if they didn’t make the team. Now, if they don’t make the bench…” Omission from the 16 could be considered as saying someone isn’t needed even in an emergency. At the same time, they drive towards ever bigger squads and therefore are very expensive. They hand an advantage to the richer teams. “You mark Thierry Henry for 75 minutes and then you see, say, Sylvain Wiltord come on.”

When taken to extremes – as England fans saw at Upton Park in February, albeit in a friendly – substitutions damage the game, in that case by devaluing the fixture in the minds of one starting XI. With luck, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s overkill will lead to a block on any increase, rather than a slide towards the American sporting system of free substitutions, players coming off for a rest and going back into the game.

Which makes me wary of rugby’s move, to have “blood substitutes” so a team doesn’t suf­fer while someone has stitches. How long be­fore that drifts towards taking a break for other injuries, or just tiredness? But the good out­weighs the bad by far, and more than anything else substitutes give hope. To the manager (and his assistant) and to the fans, the belief that if you can send on a Solskjaer rather than a Smith, a game which is slip­ping away can be turned around. There is still a sense of anticipation when the fourth official starts fiddling around. It didn’t do Charlton much good that day when Peacock made history, but it is almost impossible to imagine the game without his successors.

From WSC 196 June 2003. What was happening this month