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Jan 8, 2013

Future bright for the so-called super sub

Some of the inhabitants of the Premier League's Hall of Fame are celebrated and decorated. There is Alan Shearer, for instance, with his record 260 goals in the division; there are Andy Cole, Robbie Fowler, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie, with various other goalscoring bests; there are Sir Alex Ferguson and Ryan Giggs, twinned on 12 titles and possessing many a managerial and playing record respectively.

But, bypassing the hall of shame where Richard Dunne, Duncan Ferguson and Patrick Vieira share the unfortunate distinction of being the most dismissed players in the division's history, there are other occupants whose presence might seem, at best, a dubious privilege. It rather escaped attention during the eight-goal second half between Arsenal and Newcastle but history was made. Or equalled, anyway. Shola Ameobi was introduced before the Gunners' final three goals for his 118th substitute appearance in the Premier League. It drew him level with Kanu, who was previously unrivalled in his propensity to come off the bench.

Ameobi may have to wait for outright possession of the record; he is suspended for United's Saturday game against Norwich and Demba Ba's sale to Chelsea may free up a place in the attack. Yet, sooner or later, there is an inevitability about Alan Pardew first leaving Ameobi out and then bringing him on. A combination of a sizeable physical presence and a hint of unpredictability explain why 118 of his top-flight games have not begun with the first blast of the referee's whistle. He is a multi-functional mid-match addition: Ameobi can be introduced to hold the ball up and protect a lead, to subject opponents to an aerial bombardment, to test tiring legs in the opposition ranks or to relieve exhausted figures in the Newcastle forward line.

Yet to talk of his longevity as a replacement, which stretches back over a decade, is part compliment, part criticism. Being deemed a super-sub can seem an unwanted accolade. It seems to involve being praised for an inability to get in the starting XI. In Ameobi's case, the fact he is an irregular scorer counts against him.

Nevertheless, he is part of a broader trend. A basic explanation of football is that it is a game played by teams of 11 players for 90 minutes. Now, however, that definition is outdated. It is sport for sides of 14, of whom a maximum of 11 are on the pitch at any one time.

If the working man or woman's week can encompass 40 hours at the metaphorical coal face, many a footballer's shift is shorter. Some are becoming specialists over smaller periods. Indeed, this is a second successive title race that could be decided by the semi-employed. Last season, Edin Dzeko scored Manchester City's final-day equaliser against QPR and another late arrival, Mario Balotelli, set up the winner.

This year, Javier Hernandez has four telling goals as a replacement; Dzeko five. Each has scored as a starter of late without shaking off the impression that his ability to make an immediate impact is his greatest strength. The capacity to exploit the gaps that appear as a game becomes more stretched and open is an invaluable skill.

It is a reason, Tony Pulis said, why the scorer of perhaps the goal of the season is another fixture on the bench. Cameron Jerome has a solitary league start to his name, the Stoke manager believing his power and pace equips him to make more of a mark in the second half.

Yet if that suggests physicality and sheer speed are the pre-requisites for the substitutes, there are the opposites who flourish in a few minutes. Paul Scholes changed Manchester United's game at Southampton by adding composure. Giggs' ability to pick a pass, too, was apparent in his brief outing against West Ham, his flighted 60-year ball setting up the equaliser for Robin van Persie.

Giggs and Scholes are proof that it is not just sports science that extends careers. Like Twenty20 cricket and baseball's designated hitter rule, Premier League football can provide part-time work for the elderly. Some substitutes are charged with speeding a match up; the game's pensioners can slow it down.

Others are not 90-minute players either. Lukas Podolski's number is up at some stage of the second half in virtually every Arsenal game. West Bromwich Albion's gameplan involves the fit, fast Shane Long running himself into the ground for 70 minutes before Romelu Lukaku takes over. It is a ploy that, because central defenders are rarely replaced mid-match, gives the attacking side an advantage.

Cameos can be still more devastating when premier players are held in reserve, as last weekend's FA Cup ties showed: Podolski, Van Persie and Michu all had a bit of a break and still came on to score. While Sir Alex Ferguson has the strongest aversion to naming an unchanged side in league games, there are managers, such as Rafa Benitez and Andre Villas-Boas, to whom it borders on heresy not to use all three replacements every game.

While others hop on and off the carousel elsewhere, it becomes noteworthy that Steven Gerrard has played every minute of every league game this season. He is the exception not the rule, just as Liverpool, shorn of attacking options until Daniel Sturridge's recent arrival, are a rarity among the elite in only having one league goal from a substitute: scored by Joe Cole at West Ham.

While United and City changed plenty of games from the bench, the reality is that most of Ferguson and Roberto Mancini's counterparts are tinkering just as incessantly, but with lesser footballers and inferior results. The clock cannot be turned back to the 11-man game. It means that the Premier League's newest record holder may not have that distinction forever. Because football's future involves more Ameobis, and not just his younger brother Sammy.

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