The commonly accepted story is that the first substitutes during competitive football matches were used in the qualifying tournament for the 1954 World Cup, with the very first being Richard Gottinger of West Germany (who replaced Horst Eckel) in their match against Saarland on October 11, 1953. (Saarland is part of Germany, but in the years following WW2 it was governed by the French, who wanted to keep it independent of the rest of Germany. It joined the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1957.)
However, the first substitution in a competitive football international was actually during a Wales v England match, as part of the old Home International Championship, in March 1908. Wales had two players injured early in the game, with goalkeeper Leigh Roose suffering concussion after being charged (probably by England captain Vivian Woodward), which was considered a fair and legal tactic in those days. Then Edwin “Teddy” Hughes, who was already suffering a bad cold, apparently injured his back. Both had to leave the field by 30 minutes into the game. According to the match report in The Athletic News, Woodward offered the Welsh team the opportunity to bring on two substitutes. This was probably at half time, by which time England were 4-0 up. Accordingly, David “Dai” Davies came on in goal for Wales “shortly after half time”, becoming the first substitute in any international match. Further details of the match are here.
The history of substitutions in competitive domestic English football started rather later, and goes like this:
- From the 1965-66 season: one named substitute to replace an injured player
- From the 1967-68 season: one named substitute for any reason
- From the 1986-87 season: up to two named substitutes for any reason in League Cup and FA Cup matches only, still one in the League
- From the 1987-88 season: up to two named substitutes for any reason in League matches
In 1992 the Premier League was formed, and at that point the rules diverged slightly from Football League rules:
Premiership / Premier League
- From the 1992-93 season, teams could name three substitutes, one of whom had to be a goalkeeper, and could use any two of them for any reason
- From the 1994-95 season, teams could name and use up to three substitutes (one of whom could only be used to replace the goalkeeper) for any reason
- From the 1995-96 season, teams could name and use up to three substitutes for any reason with no restriction on positions
- From the 1996-97 season, teams could name up to five and use up to three substitutes for any reason
- From the 2008-09 season, teams could name up to seven and use up to three substitutes for any reason
- From the 1993-94 season, teams could name and use up to three substitutes (one of whom could only be used to replace the goalkeeper) for any reason
- From the 1995-96 season, teams could name and use up to three substitutes for any reason, with no restriction on positions
- From the 1999-00 season, teams could name up to five and use up to three substitutes for any reason
- From the 2009-10 season, teams could name up to seven and use up to three substitutes for any reason
- From the 2011-12 season, the rule reverted to naming up to five and using up to three substitutes for any reason
When subs were first introduced to domestic football in 1965, Leeds always seemed to get an injury around the 70th minute. If they were losing, it was often a defender who was injured. If they were winning it was often an attacker. By reshuffling when their substitute was brought on they could attack or defend more, as needed. Needless to say, injured players always seemed to recover by the following game. This amazing string of coincidences in almost every match probably helped the League to realise that as long as the likes of Don Revie were involved in football, they may as well allow substitutions for any reason. Hence the original rule lasted only two years.
For the record, the first substitute in domestic English competitive football was Keith Peacock, who came on for Charlton on August 21, 1965, replacing his club’s injured goalkeeper after 11 minutes. Peacock didn’t go in goal though, central defender John Hewie took over between the sticks. (Peacock was the first if you don’t count circumstances like this, where the remainder of an abandoned match was played on a later date with a different player, all the way back in 1897. Subs were also used in friendly matches, though still rarely before the second half of the 20th century.)
But what of Niall Quinn, record breaker? In 1987, the first season of two League substitutions, he came on for Arsenal against Southampton on November 21. Quinn replaced an injured Perry Groves, like Peacock also after just 11 minutes. Unfortunately, Quinn played badly. Very badly. I was there, I remember it well. After 77 minutes both the crowd and George Graham had had enough. George used his second substitute, Nigel Winterburn, to replace Quinn, who was definitely not injured. And so Quinn became the first Arsenal player to be substituted in the League after being brought on as a substitute, and the first Arsenal player in any competitive game to be subbed as a sub for poor play. Arsenal lost this game 0-1, ending a record-equalling run of 14 consecutive wins in all competitions by an English top-flight club. (Man City beat this record in February 2021.)
Quinn wasn’t quite the first substitute in domestic English football to ever be substituted for playing badly – at least according to ‘Dixie’ in the comments below. That honour, if that’s the right word, perhaps goes to Neil Adams of Everton, in the 1986 Charity Shield. Thanks for the info.
The next couple of subs who got subbed for Arsenal were:
- Steve Morrow against Crystal Palace on 25 February 1995 – Morrow went off in the last minute, so was probably just a timewasting managerial tactic
- Christopher Wreh v West Ham on Boxing Day 1998 – Wreh came on after half an hour and was subbed for poor play after 77 minutes, coincidentally the same time Quinn went off
(I should point out that I had thought Quinn was the first Arsenal sub to be subbed, full stop. But after I posted this Andy Kelly, who has the best Arsenal stats site you will find at http://www.stats.woolwicharsenal.co.uk, commented that in fact on at least two prior occasions Arsenal players had been subbed after coming on as subs. The first was way back in 1978 in a UEFA Cup match against Hajduk Split, and the second in an FA Cup match the season before Quinn – two subs was I think trialled in the FA Cup before being adopted in the League. Both these were for injuries, though. See the comments below. Andy thinks two subs were allowed in European matches by the end of the 1960s.)
Let’s give Quinn a chance to defend himself. Here he is in the Arsenal programme talking a better game than he ever played. This is from September 1987, just two months before his embarrassment.
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