Dreamers on the bench: A tale of two subs

Being a substitute on the bench isn’t much fun. It might be okay if you’re a young prospect… biding your time, waiting for a breakthrough. You may be full of nervous energy: anxious to enter the stage, yet somewhat daunted too. Or it might be okay if you’re a veteran – one who has seen it all – most likely included on the bench because you are a solid, reliable and battle-hardened player who can generally bring calmness to a storm if called upon late on.

Whatever stage you’re at, whatever the sport, being on the bench can be an emotional rollercoaster. You are powerless. Sitting on the bench, involved but not involved, you are occupying a strange world, one where fantasy and reality uneasily co-exist. By day’s end you may have remained on the margins, you may have had a very small role, or the hero within you might even have emerged. In the realm of subs, small margins thrive, your fate subject to the manager’s thought process, the flow of the game, and – in the event of you getting a nod – at the mercy of the bounce of a ball, the timing of a colleague’s pass, your own touch, or any one of a multitude of miniscule factors. Below, a tale of two subs last Saturday…


St James’ Park: Newcastle United’s form has been inconsistent. There is some pressure on their manager, Eddie Howe. In the Premier League, one win can lift a city for a week, but one defeat can be poisonous, potentially signalling the drafting of that dreaded statement that solemnly tells the world a manager and club have parted ‘by mutual consent’.

It’s last Saturday, and Newcastle United are in trouble, losing 2-1 at home to Bournemouth. Their fans are very restless. Amongst the subs on the bench is Matt Ritchie. Aged 34, he has no great expectations. He has only played 100 minutes since August.

The Den: It’s a bottom of the table clash in the Championship, between home side Millwall and Sheffield Wednesday. The visitors lead 2-0. On the Wednesday bench, subs tap their feet, study their teammates on the pitch, occasionally casting a sideways glance at the manager. One of those subs is Ashley Fletcher. On loan from Watford, he wants to continue to add value to a stop-start period in his career. The points look safe. Fletcher wonders will he get a run. These things matter. For lots of reasons. Your own self-esteem. Family in the stand. The mood of the week to come. Your currency in the game.

St James’ Park: The 90 minutes are up, the mood darkening. Newcastle are still 2-1 behind. The manager watches the play, imagining the boos that will ring out in a few minutes’ time when thousands of passionate Geordies pass judgement. He ponders his options, such as they are. And he wonders about his job, his livelihood, his standing.

The clock ticks, unforgivingly. But there will be eight minutes of time added on. In the 91st minute, Eddie Howe gestures to one of his right-hand men. Get Matt Ritchie ready. The 34-year-old’s heart beats faster. He warms up, eyes on the green cauldron before him. It’s a poisoned chalice this… the 90 minutes over, darkness descending on Tyneside.

The Den: Sheffield Wednesday substitution. Ashley Fletcher gets the nod. Eleven minutes of normal time remaining. Still 2-0 ahead, Wednesday are comfortable, but Fletcher wants to make an impact. Maybe that’s why, moments after joining the play, he kicked the ball away. It was stupid, and deemed to be time-wasting. The referee flashes a yellow card. Oops.

St James’ Park: Seconds after coming in off the bench, Matt Ritchie saunters towards the opposition goal. He tracks the cross, and meets it with a firm header. The ‘keeper parries, but Ritchie pounces on the rebound… and scores. St James’ Park erupts. Newcastle are level! Ritchie is a schoolboy again, a dreamer. The game ends 2-2. The fans are relieved, content, ready to flock to the bars in better spirits. And Eddie Howe can breathe more comfortably.

The Den: Too eager, Ashley Fletcher fouls an opponent. His heart sinks, his gaze discreetly checking the ref’s body language. Second yellow. The sub is sent off. “The only blemish on Sheffield Wednesday’s day” the BBC said. It’s all fine, Wednesday won. Try telling that to Ashley as he rests his head on his pillow later that night, or talks to his mum, or to his partner, or to himself. Hopefully next week will be different… if he’s on the bench.

St James’ Park: Thousands of Newcastle fans, parking their team’s display, hail unlikely hero Matt Ritchie. It’s his first goal in over three years. He will cherish this memory, of being… sprung from the bench. It’s a feel-good finale to the afternoon, and a soccer-mad city will remain positive for at least another week. Matt Ritchie is still 34, but he feels 25 tonight.