Bench warfare - Derek Asamoah
It's every player's nightmare — sitting on the bench, not in the team or out of it, waiting for a tap on the shoulder
In a region where the coal industry is no more, a miners' institute seems defiantly anachronistic. Yet with its trim bar, well-appointed function room and expertly maintained pool tables, Forest Town Miners' Welfare, on the outskirts of Mansfield, is doing rather well for itself. At the back of the club is a lovingly tended football pitch, home to Forest Town, of the Central Midlands League. During weekday mornings, it moonlights as the training ground of Mansfield Town. They train hard, these men for whom the good life represents securing more than a one-year contract. Star of a show without an audience is Derek Asamoah. At one point, the pacy striker slaloms through a succession of challenges before belting the ball gleefully past former Manchester United goalkeeper Kevin Pilkington.
The man from Ghana looks like he is having the time of his life. As it happens, he is. “Don't talk to me about last season,” shrugs the diminutive 23-year-old, in the manner of somebody about to do just that. Last season, he appeared in 33 of Northampton Town's 46 League games. Alas for him and his self-worth, 28 of those were as a substitute, deployed by manager Colin Calderwood as fresh, fast legs against tiring defenders. The method took Town to last season' s playoffs, but being a substitute is the footballer's version of purgatory: not in the team, not out of it; up to 90 minutes stuck on the bench, waiting for a chance.
“It drove me mad,” Asamoah says. “If I wasn't good enough, fair enough, but I knew I could offer more to the team. I played all 90 minutes in the FA Cup against Manchester United. I got three or four shots in and hit the post. Not bad, eh? A few games later, Colin told me I needed a rest. He told me I'd come back to the starting line-up, but that didn't happen.
“I was in his office so many times, saying, 'Listen Colin, put a video on of a game I started'. He watched the videos. He couldn't fault anything I'd done, but then I was still back on the bench.”
With his contract expiring at the end of last season, Asamoah was offered a new deal as early as February. He rejected it. “I just wanted to go somewhere I was given a fair chance.”
That somewhere turned out to be 77 miles up the M1, to the team that had defeated Northampton in the playoffs.
“I remembered Derek from playing against him when I was at Barnsley,” says Keith Curle, the Mansfield manager. “I was 38 and he was young and fast: let's just say I slowed him down. I saw Northampton several times last season and I could feel the buzz every time Derek came off the bench.
It stuck in my mind when he became available, but I thought there had to be a reason why he was only brought on for 20 minutes.
“We had a meeting where I told him how I run the club and about the individual work we would do with him and his responsibilities, which mean it's not all about being a free spirit. I can't afford to sign substitutes and he convinced me he could do a job. He's a quiet lad, but once you get to know him, he's got that bit of arrogance about him, which I try to bring out even more.”
And so the only games Asamoah has missed this season have been through injury.
“Keith has given me a lot of confidence,” he says. “He knows what I'm about. He likes me to express myself and to play my game. He's been very pleased with me so far. As a substitute, I went mad as soon as I came on. Now it's a whole different game and I have to pace myself. I've surprised myself by doing that very quickly. The best thing though is Saturday morning, when I get up and think, 'Yeah, I'm actually going to play a game today'. It's a fantastic feeling.”
Asamoah may not have sat on Mansfield's bench, but actually filling it is a headache for Curle, who operates with just 19 professionals — including two goalkeepers and two long-term injuries. This is before form, suspension and short-term injuries add to his weekly woes.
“In a fantasy world I'd like 22 substitutes,” he chuckles. “In the real one, there's not been many times where I've been able to drop people, but I've still got permutations. On the bench, there's always a goalkeeper. We're blessed for centre-backs, so there'll be one of those, plus a defensive midfielder who can fill in at full-back, then a more attacking midfielder and a forward — if the bodies add up.”
Against Darlington in an LDV tie in September, Michael Langford and Daniel Herron, both 16, were joined by Ryan Parkes, Richard Lonsdale and Austin McIntosh, all just 17.
“Usually, there'll be kids on the bench as we don't run a reserve team,” says Curle. “And I'll put them on if I think it's right. It will be good experience for them and one of the things that attracts kids here rather than Nottingham Forest, Derby or the Sheffield clubs is the prospect of first-team football. Better still, if they're local lads that has a knock-on effect on our community.” On the other side of the footballing tracks, meanwhile, are Charlton Athletic. In the close season, they signed Francis Jeffers, Talal El Karkouri and Dennis Rommedahl for a total of £5.6m. When Charlton's season kicked off at the Reebok stadium, the three were all on the bench as substitutes. Only Sam Bartram betters Keith Peacock's 591 appearances for Charlton. Having signed as an amateur in 1961, Peacock has been player, scout, reserve-team manager and now assistant manager.
Soon, he will tell his tale in an autobiography, No Substitute, its title a reminder of the day in August 1965 when he became English football's first substitute after replacing injured goalkeeper Mike Rose 11 minutes into a game at Burnden Park.
“Fortunately, I didn't have to go in goal,” he says. “It was strange, because before that injured players who could still walk were left out on a wing for nuisance value. When Mike went off, nobody knew what the proper procedure was. I had no notion that I was making a little piece of history. I was just glad to get on.
“I only made another 20 or so substitute appearances. To tell you the truth, I found it quite difficult. I could never get into games when I came on, but all these years later I'm an answer to a trivia question.”
At Charlton today, manager Alan Curbishley has the final say on team selection after consulting Peacock and first-team coach Mervyn Day. Despite the contrast in personnel, the aim is the same as at Mansfield.
“You can't legislate for unforeseen injuries, but we try to cover every option,” explains Peacock. “Most of our players can play in different positions, so that helps.”
Football is increasingly becoming a 16-man game. The days when a place on the bench meant unarguable demotion are increasingly sepia-tinted. “It's hard sometimes,” admits Peacock. “People have to accept variation and change. It's a squad game now. People were surprised when we didn't start with Rommedahl, but it takes some of the foreign players a while to settle into a new culture. Also, the Premiership being so fast and furious means that everybody must be tuned in to each other. Dennis hadn't had a full pre-season and he hadn't been on our tour to China in July.”
More than 60 places down the pyramid, Curle faces similar problems.
“There is nobody in this football club who is a sub,” he maintains. “Any of the players can be in the starting XI. I pick the team to give other teams problems and to counteract them. I'm trying to create a togetherness, where even if you're a sub or worse, you might be playing next week, so your mental attitude has to be the same. I say, 'Keep your disappointment away from everybody else, except me, and my door is always open'. Nobody trains better with disappointment.”
“Substitutes need to be mentally strong,” he stresses. “They need to feel part of the team. It's partly the job of the management to make sure we look at the whole squad, not just 11 people. If they're not totally professional they won't make that vital interception the moment they get on and they won't score with their first touch.”
Still, footballers are reticent to embrace the new dawn.
“How would I feel if I was on the bench at Mansfield?” asks Asamoah, eyebrows raised to the ceiling of the Miners' Welfare in horror. “Well, I'd get on with my job. I'd think whether it was tactical or personal. Then I'd think, 'No way'.”