There were many remarkable aspects to the aftermath of Sergio Aguero’s last-minute league-winning goal for Manchester City on May 13th. The facts that Manchester City aren‘t, after all, destined to a lifetime of comical implosion, that you can abandon your team mid-season and get away with it and that Fergie’s watch isn’t as accurate as he though, being amongst the most prominent.
However, as Roberto Mancini led his victorious troops from the bench in a triumphant stampede, like a coiffeured sergeant major heading into battle, the less-interested supporters of teams already confined to mid-table obscurity were perhaps confronted by are more subtle question of the Premiership era.
Just how many people does a modern Premiership team need on the bench?
All of the usual suspects were there for City: A veritable non-playing team. A couple of failed ex managers, one to point to where a substitute should stand, the other to give interviews when the real manager has got the hump. A couple of burly guys with latex gloves and earpieces. A seemingly limitless number of substitutes, who at City obviously consider playing to be an optional extra, a bit like a Ryder Cup captain. A little further afield, a couple of fluorescent jackets for the unfortunate souls seeming charged with ushering reluctant dismissed players down the tunnel. For the more fashion-conscious club, such as Chelsea, perhaps a couple of decent-looking Portuguese ladies resplendent in team tracksuits would probably “appeal to new markets.” All of them coiled to leap from their stations at a moments notice, rushing forth to congratulate the gaffer with every goal a ringing endorsement that he knows what he‘s doing, all a far cry from Sir Alf Ramsey observing England’s finest hour in splendid isolation.
No wonder through, because the humble substitutes bench has become quite the place to be. Players rush to the bench to celebrate great goals, and look wistfully in the same direction when they miss sitters. Great goals are replayed not by showing the net bulge, but by showing the contrasting reactions of managers, one crestfallen, one jubilant. Modern stadia incorporate two television gantries, so we Even this season’s most important Premier League game, the second Manchester derby, was more memorable for the duel in the technical areas than for the one on the field.
The Increasing celebrity of the football manager is defined by their behaviour on the bench rather than the teams they produce. Despite the smooth elegance of his recent Blackpool teams, Ian Holloway is still a bit of a loon because he jumps around a bit. By contrast, Owen Coyle’s calm exterior and pristine training kit belie the fact that no-one seems to have noticed that he’s just dragged a very decent team out of the Premier League. Barry Fry is obviously a tit in either context however. Some managers, such as the perennially anxious-to-please Stuart Pearce, spend so much time adjusting their teams from the sidelines that you wonder if he’s ever seen them play before.
It hasn’t always been this way. The humble substitute’s bench, or “dug-out” as it was once known has had to come a long way since Bill Shankly ordered the front row of the Main Stand at Anfield to be excavated so that he could watch his players’ footwork from ground level. In those days, the likes of Shanks and Ronnie Moran would tip their considerable frames into what basically equated to a small pit alongside the solitary substitute who must have felt like he was in quarantine. Few opportunities to berate a conveniently located official or to look suave in a neatly-knotted scarf were forthcoming. Similarly, Bolton Wanderers’ idiosyncratic Burnden Park offered visiting managers a couple of garden chairs from which to direct their teams. Times change though. A year ago, Norwich City season ticket holders celebrated their promotion to the Premier League by being moved to make way for the increased number of Recaro sports seats that the top-flight entails. Indeed, if the benches at Carrow Road were to become any larger, they might actually surpass the remainder of the otherwise modest stand which spawned them, like a son who suddenly realises that he’s bigger and harder than his Dad.
However, as second place is often called the first of the losers, the bench is just the first row of spectators. Supporters watch football to see the game played on the field by gladiatorial superstars with talents unimaginable to the common man, not the reactions of those around it who just happen to have their initials on their tracksuits. Let’s watch the game and let the supporting acts be just that. Action not reaction, if you will.
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