Monday, 22 Jul 2024

A Brief History of Substitutions in Football

Football fans have always been passionate about the game, offering their opinions on everything from tactics to team selection. With the advent of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, these opinions are now widely shared and discussed. One area that often garners criticism is a manager’s use of substitutions. Fans believe they know best and are quick to point out when a substitution should have been made earlier or when fresh legs were needed on the field.

But what do we really know about the history of substitutions in football? Has it always been a part of the game? How have teams adapted their use of substitutes over the years? And what does the future hold?

In this article, we will explore the answers to these questions, providing insights into the evolution of substitutions in football. From the early days of players “substituting in” for absent teammates to the introduction of in-game substitutions, we will delve into the facts and stories behind this crucial aspect of the game.

The First ‘Substitutes’ in Football

While the concept of substitutes is often seen as a recent development, it actually dates back much further than most people realize. In the 1850s, Eton College used “emergency” players to replace those who failed to show up for a match. The term “substitute” was first used in a match report in 1863, referring to players filling in for absentees.

This practice extended beyond school matches. In 1889, Wales faced Scotland in an international match without their goalkeeper. A local amateur player stepped in until the proper goalkeeper arrived, becoming the first substitute in the modern sense in international football.

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The Introduction of In-Game Substitutions

Believe it or not, in-game substitutions were not introduced until much later. It was not until qualifying matches for the 1954 World Cup that substitutes were allowed, with Richard Gottinger being the first player to be substituted in a match. However, most football leagues only allowed substitutions for injured players until the 1965-1966 season when the use of tactical substitutions was permitted.

The Football Association in England initially restricted substitutions to one player replacing an injured teammate. However, managers found ways to exploit this rule, leading to a change that allowed tactical substitutions starting from the 1967-1968 season. English football witnessed its first substitution when Keith Peacock came on for Charlton Athletic’s injured goalkeeper in 1965.

The Expansion of the Subs Bench

Changes to the number of substitutions allowed in a match came about much later due to resistance to change within the football community. In 1987, a second substitute was finally permitted in English matches to address the unfairness of having outfield players fill in as goalkeepers. Subsequent years saw further alterations, such as allowing three substitutes and increasing the number of players on the bench.

The introduction of the Premier League in 1992 brought with it the option to name two outfield substitutes and one goalkeeper on the bench. Over time, this number increased to three outfield players and one goalkeeper, paving the way for teams to make tactical changes throughout the game.

Famous Substitution Stories

Throughout football history, there have been remarkable tales involving the use of substitutes. One such story is that of Gerry Byrne, who played for Liverpool in the 1964-1965 season. Despite breaking his collarbone in the third minute of the FA Cup final, he played through the pain and even provided an assist, highlighting the need for substitutions in such situations.

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Another fascinating story involves Bert Trautmann, who kept playing for Manchester City after unknowingly breaking his neck during a collision with an opponent. It was only days later, after seeking medical attention, that he discovered the severity of his injury.

The Future of Substitutions

As we look to the future of substitutions in football, one recent development to note is the trial of a fourth substitution during extra time in certain competitions. UEFA and the FA have experimented with this rule, with mixed reactions from players, managers, and fans. It remains to be seen whether a fourth substitution will become a permanent fixture in the game and possibly extend beyond extra time.

In conclusion, the history of substitutions in football reflects the ever-changing nature of the sport. From the early days of players filling in for absent teammates to the introduction of tactical substitutions, the game has evolved to incorporate this vital aspect. While the future remains uncertain, one thing is for sure: substitutions will continue to play a significant role in shaping the outcome of matches.


Q: When were substitutions first introduced in football?

A: The concept of substitutions can be traced back to the 1850s when Eton College used emergency players to replace absent teammates. However, in-game substitutions were only allowed in certain matches during the qualifying rounds for the 1954 World Cup.

Q: How have substitutions evolved over the years?

A: Initially, substitutions were primarily used for injured players. However, changes in the rules allowed for tactical substitutions, providing teams with strategic options to influence the game. The number of substitutions permitted in a match has also increased over time.

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Q: What are some famous substitution stories in football?

A: One notable story involves Gerry Byrne, who played most of the 1965 FA Cup final with a broken collarbone. Bert Trautmann is another remarkable example, as he unknowingly played with a broken neck after a collision. These stories highlight the determination and resilience of players in the face of injury.

Q: What does the future hold for substitutions in football?

A: The introduction of a fourth substitution during extra time has been trialed in certain competitions. It remains to be seen whether this rule will be permanently adopted or expanded to the entire duration of matches. The football community continues to evaluate the impact of such changes.


This article has explored the fascinating history of substitutions in football. From their early origins as emergency replacements for absent players to the introduction of tactical substitutions, substitutions have become a vital part of the game. The number of substitutes allowed and the reasons for substitutions have evolved over time, reflecting the ever-changing nature of football.

As we look to the future, there is a possibility of further changes, such as the permanent adoption of a fourth substitution or the expansion of substitution options. Regardless of what lies ahead, it is clear that substitutions will continue to be an essential strategy for teams aiming to influence the outcome of matches.

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