Five subs? You’re Having a Laugh

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The 72 Football League members voted to differentiate themselves from the Premier League recently, making the change to reduce the number of substitutes from seven to five. The official rationale is this rather beautiful piece of spin. “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.”

It’s my view that this is the wrong decision by the clubs.

Between the official party lines, the clubs want to carry slightly smaller squads and not have the same level of depth on the bench. Don’t get me wrong, following the living within your means mantra is fantastic, but it seems illogical that clubs would restrict themselves just to save on appearance fees and wages for an extra player over the course of a season. It might seem like a small thing, but a well-timed substitution can be the difference between success and failure. Reducing the choices available to managers is only going to frustrate them and give them a couple of excuses each season.

There were a fair few alternatives if clubs didn’t want to name 18 full squad players on a matchday. Let’s look at the alternatives. We can assume that not every team was in favour. Surely it should be a matter of choice. Clubs could be obligated to name a backup keeper and then anyone, up to six outfielders. That way, the flexibility remains and more importantly, choice. The downside to this is that the richer clubs would be able to field more subs than the have nots which would deepen competitive imbalance so this system wouldn’t work. North of the border exists a slightly different, but innovative system.

The Scottish Premier League, not a league known as a financial haven, has a rule stipulating that teams must name at least three players under the age of 21. This rule could be adapted to the Football League, keeping seven on the bench but with a minimum of two under-21’s. Younger players are generally cheaper to keep on a squad, do not take up a valuable registration spot and can gain experience from being a role player into solid first-teamers. Hell, even in the largely semi-pro Welsh Premier League (it does exist), they recently voted to expand the number of substitutes from five to seven, although two must be teenagers.

With voluntary salary caps being enforced in the lower two divisions, I can see the benefits of reducing matchday numbers. But with the Championship being one of the wealthiest leagues in Europe, how can they not afford to keep an extra two players on the bench? Maybe a stepped system would be in order? Five subs in League Two, increasing the number by one through the Leagues (six in League One, seven in the top two tiers). With more people watching, there is more pressure to provide a top-quality product. Substitutions are a key part of that, with the right player unlocking a defence and giving his team the win.

The number of changes that managers can make hasn’t changed and there is nothing more frustrating to a fan then seeing a team try and battle back from a goal down with four minutes up on the board then the winning manager rising from his technical area, sending his target to the opposite side of the pitch before subbing him off, the player feigning knowledge. It’s not a tactic, it’s a stupid move, so to stop this, I would propose that no more than one change can be made by each team from 85 minutes onwards. You’d still get the usual clock-killer but it would only be once a game which might reduce the annoyance they provide.

The financial ‘benefits’ afforded by this decision will save the clubs a marginal amount over the course of a campaign, while coaches will look from their technical area to a reduced bench where the perfect situational player might not have been on the teamsheet. Although the Football League should be praised for giving it’s member clubs the final say, a decision about on pitch affairs that’s made with money saving in mind is not one that will benefit the quality of play on the field and won’t do the league any favours long-term.

Hashim also writes about music and tweets all sorts of useless trivia – join him on Twitter @Hashistweeting or to read his other stuff, head to are seeking new writers to join the team! If you’re passionate about football, drop us a line at “” to learn more.

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