This week, a topic very close to my heart. It is an issue that has affected most people at some stage, that has touched many lives.
Yes, we all know somebody who has spent time on the substitutes bench.
So well versed did myself and Ed Leahy, of RTÉ Sport, once become, in this way of life, we wrote a sitcom pilot called The Subs.
That one is still waiting for the green light, as they say. It is waiting for some television gaffer to tire of what he is seeing in front of him, and turn in desperation to what is behind him.
A lot of research went into it, on our travails around the Leinster Senior League. Since myself and Ed are both what Big Ron would have called ‘lighthouses’, with a preference for ambling about up top, no right-thinking gaffer was likely to accommodate the pair of us, in his plans.
So there was invariably one of us on the bench, keeping an eye on things. While trying to psyche out the man in possession of the number nine by warming up after 20 minutes.
Indeed, we were often both on the bench, particularly under the stewardship of a gaffer who would step out every away pitch before kickoff, and inevitably decide, from his careful measurements, that it was too big for a lighthouse, that he would prefer that elusive quality, ‘pace in behind’.
On those mornings, it became a psychological battle to feature in ‘plan B’. Except on the very rare occasions, in times of abject desperation, when the gaffer threw his hat at it, abandoned all pretence that we were just going to ‘keep playing the way we’re playing, lads’, and instead released the twin towers.
Much was learned on cold Sunday mornings in places like Dolphin’s Barn.
The importance of putting pride to one side to secure one of only two padded subs coats even before the team was read out.
The etiquette involved in subtly undermining the efforts of the players on the field while in the gaffer’s earshot.
“Head up, Joe. Next one.”
“You’re better than that, Tom.”
“You alright, George? If you’re injured, do down.”
And the precautions taken to ensure you’re not the sub sent to A&E with the starter who hobbled off before half-time. Or have to give your shinpads to a lad who forgot his.
The twisted world of the bench — where you need the enterprise you’re invested in to fail — was explored by Eamon Dunphy in Only a Game?.
“Wanting them to lose but unable to show it. This terrible conflict the whole time.”
And now the patron saint of lighthouses — the man with most Premier League substitute appearances — Peter Crouch, has expanded our knowledge of this sub-culture, in his new book, I, Robot.
In a chapter entitled The Bench, Crouchy reveals many of the problems that occupy disgruntled reserves on Sunday morning sidelines everywhere are echoed on the biggest stage.
Chief among them, what to wear. “For all the money in football no one has yet developed the right clothing,” he complains. “You have a choice between a wet top — in civilian life an anorak — and a big padded jacket.”
So Crouchy was either dry and cold or warm and wet. “Why not provide a jacket that does the best of both?”
Crouchy also noticed unattractive tendencies in his bench brethren that were all too evident among young Dublin shapers anxious to catch the gaffer’s eye.
“Do not look too desperate in front of the manager. I’ve seen players deliberately do their warm-up in his direct eye-line — sprinting flat out, stopping in front of the bench, sticking in ostentatious tuck-jumps. Have some self-respect. You’re still a sub.”
And he explores the logistical difficulties of combining regular match-day hydration with lack of sweating, resulting in the sub’s constant need for a piss.
Perhaps Crouchy never quite became as twisted as Eamo. He wanted the team to do okay, but obviously not the strikers to score.
“But there is an accepted protocol. You can’t sit there slagging off the player in your position.”
And while the Sunday morning sub only has to ensure the gaffer doesn’t catch him enjoying the team’s misfortune, his Premier League counterpart has wider concerns.
“If a player beside you says something funny, remember that someone somewhere will be filming you, and soiling yourself with laughter when your side is getting thumped is not a good look.”
There are reviews of Premier League benches, which, by the time Crouchy finished up, featured ‘heated seats, deep padding, recliners and adjustable headrests’.
“The poshest now are at the Emirates and the Etihad. At Stoke, it’s probably the best furniture in the city.”
And a run-down of warm-up techniques: “One knee on turf, other knee up. Usually seen early on in the game. An entirely token effort. It’s to look like you’re warming up, while watching the game.”
In a week which saw Pep Guardiola furiously chastise John Stones for his lack of readiness to replace the hamstrung Rodri, Crouchy explains that subs never put their shinpads on in the first half, leading to frequent frantic searches. He selects Harry Redknapp as the most combustible gaffer during these delays. “When the panic sets in and the manager is raging, you will see subs lose the ability to perform basic motor skills like taking off a coat or tying a lace.”
Crouchy also tackles deeper tactical posers such as whether it’s wise to do too well as sub: “The manager may decide to make it a permanent role.”
And he puts down most Monday training ground dust-ups to the spilled over frustration of the Saturday sub.
It’s not all gloom. Crouchy admits coming off the bench can be “the most wonderful feeling”, when those 10-minute cameos produce the winner.
Though there are also afternoons of “pure degradation”, when the sub is subbed.
That rings a bell. On after 20 minutes for an injury. Big pitch, Navan maybe. Get the hook by 70.
In fairness to him, Ed suppressed his amusement reasonably well as I trudged off.
Tiers of joy for the media
What a magnificent week it has been for your old friend, ‘the meeja’.
All of a sudden, it is more or less accepted that, while Gaelic football might have some intrinsic merits as a pastime, in reality the only reason anyone plays it is for the media attention.
It seems the success of this mythical B championship will stand or fall on one thing alone: Media interest.
Obviously, the glamour boys and girls on television will reap most reward. And GAA president John Horan left no stone unturned in securing the traditional binding arrangement of a text message tying RTÉ to a bit of coverage.
But there are bound to be fringe benefits for the rest of us. Already Oisín McConville has complained, on Second Captains, that the last time he played for Armagh in a B championship, the newspapers had no interest in it.
To guard against this kind of indignity when the new tier two competition gets under way, we fully expect to be inundated with calls from managers and players, demanding they be interviewed before matches.
Heroes & villains
After the great civil war over Arsene Wenger that tore a fanbase apart, what Arsenal needed most was a unifying force, to get the supporters to agree on something. Poor Unai seems well on his way to achieving that much.
Now we know the answer was ‘unstructured rugby’, it’s clear the one thing everyone thought they could rely on, the one thing they talked ceaselessly about, was the very thing holding them back — sticking to the process.
How would you make a sport more entertaining? More stoppages, of course. Even better, more stoppages just as the ball gets into a dangerous area.
As Eoin Larkin has noted, it remains the greatest scourge of modern hurling: lads pointing to their heads after a score. Anything to be said for a Special Congress to outlaw this disgraceful practice?