It wasn’t that long ago that you could have fitted everyone who sat on the bench for the duration of a football match into one of those little tents so beloved of Glastonbury and other music festivals.
Manager, trainer, substitute and a man in a tracksuit from Woolworths armed with a galvanised bucket full of cold water and the sponge he used to clean his Ford Escort.
Not that anyone really noticed them before, during or after a match as they were more intent on watching the match that just happened to be taking place at the time, which was fine by the quartet on the bench as they were focused on watching it as well.
Their domain was called “the bench” because, more often than not, that’s exactly what it was. A piece of wood placed on top of two supports long enough to seat four. No backrests, no shelter and no sponsor’s slogans in and around them.
And certainly no supporting cast of thousands.
Because if you take a look at the Norwich City “bench” these days – laughably still called that within the game although, in truth, it looks more like one of the meeting rooms at the nearby Holiday In – you are witness to a scene that looks like it might have been set up by Peter Jackson as part of one of the Lord Of The Rings films.
You know the shots, the ones of an endless Orc army, thousands and thousands of them in rows stretching back into infinity and, in all likelihood, and beyond.
Only what we see at Carrow Road is a mighty phalanx of different warriors: manager, coach (or three), goalkeeping coach, physio, doctor, kit-man, assistant physio and a fitness coach, all of them surrounded by seven substitutes, chewing of gum and fidgeting all.
Not forgetting the paraphernalia that accompanies them all. Laptops, tablets, clipboards, mobiles, assorted energy drinks, sheaves of paper and a bundle of football related gear and spares; all of which would, if taken down the local car boot sale the next morning, fill out much more than the requisite two tables permitted.
There are more people sat on the bench/conservatory than there are players in their team on the pitch.
Are they all needed? Or is it a case of the Emperor’s new clothes and that massive supporting cast is only there at every game in every town and City, week in, week out, because everyone else does it with no-one quite knowing who did it first?
I haven’t been anywhere near our own ‘bench’ but have sat in the one at the Amex Stadium in Brighton and it was like sitting in a concert hall. Honestly, it felt so big, you could imagine One Direction playing a concert there with special screens needed in order for those sat at the back to be able to more closely see what was going on at the front.
If ours is anywhere near as big, then there’s no way Neil Adams will be able to turn and talk to those sat in the back row. He’ll need to call them on his mobile if he wants to make a change, else asks Declan Rudd to pop inside to get another industrial sized crate of Lucozade. And that’s if he even got a signal so he could make the call in the first place of course, but we won’t go there.
The policy of allowing seven subs was originally a sop to Premier League clubs who, with their overloaded first team squads, had collectively figured out that it would be easier to keep so many players relatively happy and on their toes if more of them could feel that they were part of the first team on match days. All on the premise that, even if it was on the bench, there was always the chance of some action as well as it being a sign you were in the thoughts of the manager.
It also meant they could sit at the back with all of their mates and spend their time giggling like schoolboys and drawing comedy breasts on the pictures of their more firmly established team-mates in the match programme.
All for the sake of a big clubs’ perceived team spirit (they probably had an official one) and to quell egos the size of their salaries.
The seven subs thing has had a couple of interesting knock-on effects. Firstly if a manager wants to make a point to his board about the paucity of his squad, then he’ll name just five subs from seven, one of which will normally be a 15 year-old.
Secondly, a player is more likely to have a flounce if he is not included in that 18 player match-day squad rather than actually being named as one of the subs – something which generally used to be the case in a pre-match walkout.
So there’s little shame, it would seem, in being on the bench anymore. And after all, why would there be? You’re sat there, comfy and snug along with your mates, you’re part of the group, one of the alphas, you feel included.
It’s all about the squad as we are forever told, about every player. Tell us that often enough and we’ll start to believe it. The players certainly seem to have done so as no-one seems to caterwaul about being “on the bench” anymore.
Which isn’t how it was when a side was able to name only one man in reserve and having the number 12 on the back of your shirt meant you were the spare part – the extra, the one who didn’t quite make it as opposed to meaning your name was Jos Hooiveld.
As Jeremy Goss recalls, saying;
“The sight of me jogging up and down the old asphalt running track by the stand at Carrow Road became such a regular one that the fans used to take the piss, especially if I was running past or near the chap that was selling the hot dogs, coffees, Mars Bars etc from a little tray he had with him. Someone in the crowd would shout, “Oi, Gossy-get us a Twix will you?” Then someone would add, “I’ll have a coffee and a hot dog Gossy, I’m in Row G, get it up here for me mate.” I hated it, absolutely hated it. One week I’d be on the coach and part of the first-team squad going off for a big game somewhere, the next I’d be stood at the side of the pitch at Carrow Road, all these fans having a pop at me. It was all good banter and they probably thought it was funny. I didn’t. I was disillusioned and wondering what I had to do to push on.”
When it was just you sat there with Ken Brown and Mel Machin, you tended to stick out and want to be anywhere else rather than sat there with them – nothing to do and no-one to talk to. And you were desperate, absolutely desperate to get onto the pitch and into the action. Unless your name was John Polston.
Polston was one of the three Norwich subs for the game at Blackburn Rovers in October 1992 that saw the Canaries lose 7-1. With around twenty minutes of the game to go and with Norwich then 6-1 down, Mike Walker decided it was time to give Polston – who’d appeared in four of the Canaries previous ten league games – a run out, mindful, no doubt, that defensive chances might have to be made for Norwich’s next game.
Despite the pending heavy defeat, the Canaries were then top of the Premier League with a winnable home game against QPR coming up. With that in mind, you’d have thought Polston would have been desperate to get onto the pitch. Not a chance!
“…with about twenty minutes to go, Mike Walker turns to me and says, ‘go and have a warm up’. Now, Shearer is on fire, he’s got two and we’re 6-1 down, so I look at him and say, ‘…sorry?’, but no, he says it again, ‘go and have a warm up’. I went off and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t need to be going on here’, but I start my stretches, still thinking, ‘no, I really don’t want to be going on here.’ Then they score again and its 6-1, and I’m now thinking, ‘Jeez, I do not fancy this’, so I make off to one of the corners and I’m there, doing my warm ups, out of the way, not wanting to go on. I looked across once and could see Mike and John Deehan waving at me. They were telling me to come over and get ready to go on. I wasn’t having that, so I ignored them and carried on with my stretching. And I stayed there for the next 20 minutes, just stretching, before, with only a few minutes to go, I went back, thinking, ‘well, they won’t put me on now’. When I got back, they said, ‘what have you been doing, we’ve been calling you to come back, you’re not going on, don’t worry about it’. But I’d been stood there ignoring them, thinking, ‘sod that, I’m not going on now!’”.
Norwich’s first ever substitute in a league game was Gordon Bolland who came on for Terry Anderson during the 0-0 draw at Bristol City on August 31, 1965. The first number 12 to be used at Carrow Road was Mike Sutton, father of Chris, who replaced Tommy Bryceland in our 3-0 home defeat to Wolves a month later. A week after that Sutton came on again, this time for Bolland, in the 1-0 defeat at Birmingham.
Norwich didn’t utilise the substitute option again until the following March when Don Heath replaced Bill Punton in a 1-1 draw at Wolves with the honour of being the first Norwich player to score a goal having come on as a substitute going to Trevor Howard in our 1-0 win at Hull on Boxing Day 1969.
Cue headlines of Howard’s Christmas bonus?
That 1965/66 season, the first that saw substitutes used in English football, saw Norwich utilise the services of just nineteen players for the entirety of a 47 league and cup game season – just one more than the total that can be named for just one Championship game now – a total that we surpassed in just our fifth game this season, the game against Crawley seeing the number of Norwich players used over that time to 24 players.
Five games, 24 different players.
It’s getting a bit crowded out there. Because that’s two more, already, than we used in the whole of the 1992/93 season when we finished third in the Premier League.
So much for squad rotation. We didn’t do it much that season (nine different players started 30 or more of our 42 league games) and look where we ended up.
Has the game changed that much in the last two decades?
Is squad and team rotation (hence seven substitutes and a bench that could probably, between them, man the USS Enterprise) now a must in the modern game? Or is it more important to play a settled side as much as you possibly can?