One size fits all

Liverpool's most famous substitute, David Fairclough, in an all-too familiar role for the team

When football was played by Victorian gentlemen (and ladies), a level playing field was maintained when a side volunteered to lose a player if one of the opposing team had been too injured to carry on. That quaint reminder from the sport’s origins could not survive the rigours of a more competitive world when leagues and professionalism were introduced, and for the first half of the twentieth century the unfortunate team had to play with a man down. Tough! Matches were clearly, though subconsciously, seen as being between two teams, not two clubs. Continental football after the Second World War was more enlightened by allowing substitutes, but we had to wait until 1965 before the English FA adopted the practice. Their solution allowed one player per game, named in advance, to replace an injured teammate. This still left a ten-man team if a second player went off injured – a cruel blow at Southampton on 20 Sep 1986 when the LFC substitute, Kevin MacDonald, broke his leg (or, rather, had his leg – as well as the rest of his season - broken).

Any history of the use of substitutes in England falls naturally into two periods – 1965/66 to 1986/87 when only one sub could be nominated in advance; and 1987/88 to the present day when first two, then three, five, and now nine can be named – so many, it makes you wonder why they have to name them at all! It’s still teams, not clubs. (During Covid-19, five substitutes could be used in a match, reduced back to three for the 2021/22 season. At this time the Premier League is currently the only major European league not to adopt the five-substitute rule (see more details here.)

Unless a manager arranged in advance for a man to be ‘injured’ (perish the thought) he would have to name his one substitute not knowing whether the team would lose a forward, midfielder, defender or even goalkeeper. The position was eased somewhat by the change for the 1967/68 season, when a player could be replaced for any reason (e.g., tactical) other than having been sent off. Finding Bill Shankly’s policy is not easy, as the records are nowhere near complete. Other means have to be found to fill the gaps (newspaper reports, for example, which rarely supply the reason for a substitution unless there had been an injury), and even then, the great majority of LFC substitutes for the last nine years of Shankly’s reign (32 out of 42 league games in 1973/74, for example) are unknown. (One of the main reasons why modern commentators concentrate on the Premier League era is that surviving records before 1992/93 are inaccessible, being relatively poor and largely undigitised.) Luckily, the record of Liverpool’s subs actually brought on during a match is complete.

Geoff Strong (far left) became Liverpool's first substitute to come off the bench after the Football League allowed a 12th man on the teamsheet.

Of course, the problem of fitting a square peg into a round hole is not as bad as first imagined, because there is likely to be considerable movement possible among players already on the field in order to accommodate the sub – a midfielder might move back to replace an injured defender, for example. The ensuing chaos for any worthwhile analysis is well illustrated by LFC’s very first league substitute when versatile left-back, Geoff Strong, replaced an injured right-back, Chris Lawler, but played inside left and scored the equaliser with a header! It was an event worthy enough to merit two paragraphs in the Guardian. However, the debut of Rush (13 Dec 1980) when Dalglish was unavailable, gave us a rare indication of Bob Paisley’s main intention. ‘It was not an easy decision, but what swayed me in the end was that if I picked anyone else it would have meant playing them out of position. I have replaced a striker with a striker.’

For twenty-two years, the FA left the position of goalkeeper hanging. It was clearly not sensible to have a goalkeeper named as the only substitute, to come on to replace no matter who else was injured, and I’ve not found a goalkeeper on the sub’s bench in a Liverpool FA match until one was specifically allowed in the new rules of 1992. Equally it would give a decided advantage to the opposing team if an outfielder had to replace an injured goalkeeper. In Liverpool’s case, the ‘hope and a prayer’ technique worked for almost the whole period. Keepers Lawrence and Clemence missed whole matches for different reasons – illness, for example – but I can’t find an example of a goalkeeper being seriously injured during a game until 20 April 1987 when Grobbelaar hurt his right elbow making a save at (of all places) the Stretford End at Old Trafford. (Our named sub was midfielder John Wark.) Below you can relive the serious situation with Grobbelaar’s right arm hanging loose, no one to replace him in goal, and the Mancs cheering when they unsportingly scored the winner past him. He missed the remainder of the season.

David James was the first LFC keeper to take over during a match – and that was only in the 89th minute against Leeds United (19 Feb 1994) when Grobbelaar had to give way. It was a rare event – the next such were occasioned by Dudek’s groin strain in the 6-0 thrashing of Ipswich Town, 9 Feb 2002, and Luzi replacing Dudek at Stamford Bridge, 7 Jan 2004. Technically, Dudek himself came on to replace Luis Garcia, again at Stamford Bridge, 5 Feb 2006, but Garcia was being sacrificed after Reina had been sent off.

In contrast, what a pleasant change when we were invited to nominate three subs (including a goalkeeper) when we first entered European competitions, and to use two from five nominated as from 1969/70. Our earliest surviving record is from 1967/68 when we had Ray Clemence and Willie Stevenson on the bench at Malmo on 19 Sep 1967. Shankly’s well known doubts about Europe encouraged him to blood newcomers such as Tony Hateley on the bench, and towards the tail end of his time with LFC to reward old favourites like Tommy Lawrence when he had been replaced as No.1 by Clemence.
There were marked differences in the way Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley chose and used substitutes when only one was available, though lack of most data (179 games missing out of a possible 280) for the former makes a comparison somewhat tentative.

Which players were put on the bench?
Among the 208 substitutes known to have been named by Shankly, there were 44 defenders (about 23%), 99 midfielders (51%), and 65 strikers (36%). Paisley’s figures were 23 defenders (6%), 175 midfielders (50%), and 155 strikers (44%), 353 in all. The latter’s intention was plain even from his first season as manager – the subs include no defenders, seven midfielders and eleven strikers; in his last season, there were again no defenders, but 23 strikers. Both managers used the bench for the debuts of players, including Steve Arnold, Brian Hall, Steve Heighway, Doug Livermore, Ian Ross, Phil Thompson, and Dave Wilson for Shankly, and Howard Gayle, Craig Johnston, Kevin Kewley, Sammy Lee, and Richard Money for Paisley. Several others came so close as to be named as sub but never played for the first team, including Frank McGarvey, Peter Spiring and John Webb.

How many were brought into play off the bench?
Shankly was very cautious about the whole practice at first, to the extent of deploying only two in 1965/66 and none during 1967/68, the season when managers were first allowed more reasons to do so. He brought on defenders to play 11 times, midfielders 41, and strikers 13; Paisley’s corresponding figures were: defenders 11, midfielders 59, and strikers 62. During 1976/77, the latter called strikers off the bench fifteen times, midfielders only three times. Thus, the public persona of each manager bore little relation to their deeds on the field of play, with Paisley’s approach far more aggressive than that of his predecessor. Paisley was also much more likely to bring on a substitute during a match, deploying 132 during his 9 seasons as manager, whereas Bill Shankly had used only 65, but it’s worth remembering that Paisley would be expected to use substitutes more in order to protect and rest valuable assets as a result of the great increase in the number of Cup and European games.

If you're on the bench better bring earplugs as Colin Irwin can testify if you're sitting next to Ronnie Moran

When were they brought on?
On average, Bob Paisley waited almost exactly the same length as Bill Shankly (or, for that matter, Joe Fagan or Kenny Dalglish) to bring on his only substitute – within minutes past the hour mark. However, Paisley was much more prone to make changes at half time – he did so thirteen times, Shankly only twice, both in the earliest season, 1965/66.

Why were they used?
In the majority of cases, we can only guess at the reasons why any substitute was sent on. Newspapers, it seems, normally reported on anyone having to come off injured, but only occasionally suggested the basis for tactical changes. ‘Liverpool moved forward purposefully, replaced Boersma when he could not score, by Lindsay, who did.’ (LFC v Ipswich 18 Oct 1969.) Ross came on against Chelsea because ‘neither Boersma nor Graham had succeeded in making any impact on the game’, 12 Apr 1971.) Sixteen of Shankly’s subs were sent on to replace an injured teammate, and exactly the same number for apparently tactical reasons; Paisley’s figures (30 and 44 respectively) show a manager more driven to making decisions tactically.

Against which clubs were they used?
Common sense would suggest that the question is irrelevant, as the occurrence of injuries and the need for tactical changes should be random. It is therefore difficult to explain (i.e., I can’t) why the four Liverpool managers, combined, felt the need to send on substitutes significantly more often against some clubs, in particular Birmingham, Leicester, Southampton, (and most of all, Ipswich Town with 16 times in 18 seasons. Five were through injuries, four were tactical, and seven could not have a cause ascribed.) On the other hand, far fewer than average were sent on against certain other clubs - Chelsea, Burnley, Derby County, and Wolves.

What resulted after bringing them on?
There are obviously far too many variables, which led to the final result of matches in which subs were brought on, to identify the cause of winning, drawing, or losing a match. What can be shown is the state of play at the time of being called off the bench, and the final result of those matches. No game was lost if we were winning, and only eleven were drawn; all the rest (86) were won. Fifty-two games were being drawn, and ended up the same; we went on to win 29 but lose 12. Finally, if we were losing when a sub was brought on, 52 finished with a loss, 20 with a draw, and only four with a win.

If we examine only those identified as having been used for tactical purposes, fifty-five show no change of fortune between coming on and the final result; twenty-two had a clear improvement (one from a losing position to a win, v Wolves, 4 May 1976), and only two deteriorated from drawing to a loss. This is a better record than those following the accident of injuries and illness, indicating some thoughtful planning by the four managers.

Paisley’s (and probably Liverpool’s) most famous substitute was David Fairclough who appeared on the bench in league games no fewer than 78 times, and was called into action on 33 occasions, once six in a row, and one of them on the ninety-minute mark against Newcastle in 1976, the first LFC sub ever to be brought on so late in a match; we were winning 2-0 at the time. His record, when coming on as a substitute, was to score his league goals an average of 8.5 minutes later. That’s what put the fear of Fairclough into the opponents’ minds. However, he scored only seven goals, (with one assist) when he came off the bench from his remarkable opening season, 1975/76, until his last, 1982/83, also appearing twenty-five times without scoring. It was the speed with which he did score, once within a minute, which launched his headlines.

Fairclough has expressed some dissatisfaction about the way he was used as a stand-by so often, but by 1978 Bob Paisley had developed a policy of keeping the same sub for several league matches in a row. David Johnson, Craig Johnston, and Steve Heighway were on the bench for five consecutive league matches, David Fairclough for six, Terry McDermott seven, and Jimmy Case (who was a sub for only half the number of games as Fairclough) nine times in a row during the 1980/81 season. In contrast, Bill Shankly’s surviving record shows no player more than four times consecutively.

During the next four seasons, until the major change to two subs for each match in 1987/88, managers were not averse to continuing this policy, Fagan exceeding his predecessor by using the unfortunate Paul Walsh eleven times in a row, (a man for two seasons, you might say), but bringing him on in only three of those matches. Dalglish had Aldridge on the bench eight times without a break, but least Aldridge came on in five of those games. (Aldridge’s own debut had been off the bench.) Half of all Dalglish’s subs were brought on between 68 and 78 minutes, which suggests (hopefully incorrectly) a routine whatever the score at the time.

Paul Walsh sat on the bench 11 games in a row, only coming on three times.

Dalglish, of course, could put himself on the bench, and bring himself on when he chose to do so – and he usually chose to do so. (He could also take himself off, of course, as he did with a knee injury at Newcastle.) Named as a sub eleven times in his first two seasons as manager, Dalglish came on in all but his first, scoring four goals (two against West Ham which the man he had replaced on 17 minutes, the injured Hansen, would have been unlikely to have scored). One instance should probably be ascribed to neither injury nor tactics – his 500th appearance as a player, on 1 Nov 1986 against Norwich.
The era of ‘one sub fits all circumstances’ fails to answer a question which prompted this research – how have LFC managers reacted to going one goal UP? Did they exploit their subs to increase the lead, or order them to sit deep and preserve it? Part 2 will try to discover how different managers have reacted when more than one substitute was available to them.

Written by Colin Rogers for 


We've got all the results from official games, appearance stats, goal stats and basically every conceivable statistic from 1892 to the present, every single line-up and substitutions!