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Warming the bench is a pain in the backside!

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Gavin Strachan | 08:00 UK time, Thursday, 5 March 2009

Hi, hope you are all well.

While waiting for the chance to re-establish myself in the Notts County team since my return to fitness from injury, I have again experienced life on the substitutes' bench.

Unfortunately for me, being confined to the bench has been an all too common occurrence during my career.

So much so, it is getting to the stage where I could quite easily compile my own comprehensive guide to dugouts in the Football League (and the Scottish Premier League as well, for that matter)!

I have always found the role of substitute a very challenging one, particularly from a psychological perspective. The process begins with the initial naming of the side, which is predominantly in training the day before a game. If you are not in the starting XI you are invariably told to put a bib on and pretend to be one of the opposition players.

I have lost track of the number of different players I have represented in these training games! One of the most amusing aspects of it is when the time comes for the first team to rehearse attacking free-kicks and all the lads in bibs are hiding, trying to avoid being in the defensive wall and having balls smashed at them! At times like this, I have found that a well-timed stretching exercise can sometimes do the trick.

As a substitute, it is absolutely essential to prepare for a game as you would if you had been selected in the starting line-up. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your chances of featuring in a game are remote, and ease off on your preparation as a result.

I made this mistake on a couple of occasions in the early stages of my career and lived to regret it because when I was brought on, my total lack of application in the build up inevitably showed in my performance.

Not a good thing when you consider that the key objective for any substitute is to make a positive impact on the game and give the manager something to think about when it comes to his next team selection.

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I believe that the real test of a professional footballer is when things are not going well. When you are in the team and playing well you are swept along by the momentum created by it. Training is a joy: you feel fit and cannot wait for the next match. However, it is a different story when you are not in the team.

Some players cannot handle the disappointment and certainly cannot hide it. I am not having a go at these players - in the past I have been one of them and understand the reasons why.

Playing first-team football is the objective of every footballer regardless of what level he is at, but what I have learned is that moping about does not help the situation. My own therapy when not playing is to lose myself in hard work during training and do a little bit extra. That way, you at least have a clear conscience knowing that you are doing all you can to get back in the side.

I have never forgotten the attitude of a former team-mate - like me, a regular on the bench - during an FA Cup tie. Such was his frustration, he actually wanted the other team to win!

That in itself was bad enough but when the opposition had a chance that flashed wide of the post, he stood up ready to cheer in anticipation of the ball hitting the back of the net! Fortunately for him it was only me that noticed. All I could do was shake my head and hope that I would not end up so consumed by bitterness.

The actual experience of sitting on the bench for a full 90 minutes is an interesting one from a behavioural point of view. The amount of nervous energy on display is incredible, particularly from the coaches. Seeing what anguish these guys go through during a match would make any player with hopes of one day becoming a manager ask himself: "Do I really want to put myself through that?"

You also hear the - how shall I put it - "constructive criticism" that is aimed at the players. Managers and coaches can scream all manner of abusive remarks to their players in the heat of battle. It is part and parcel of the game. But when you are listening to it on the bench, the thought does occur that you will be getting the same level of stick when you go on the pitch!

Players on the bench sometimes have to find ways of keeping themselves amused because, as much as you try to stay focused on the game, this can be exceptionally difficult without the physical involvement. At one of my former clubs we passed a bit of time on the bench by working out the odds each substitute had of being brought on. I was invariably the long odds outsider, which usually proved to be justified!

For all the frustrations that being on the bench has brought me, there has been some very funny instances. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a player bang his head on the dugout ceiling. This usually happens when the manager tells the player he is going on and blind panic ensues with the player frantically trying to get his warm-up gear off and his shirt on before the manager changes his mind!

Being on the receiving end of the manager changing his mind about bringing you on as a substitute when you are stripped and ready to go on is a miserable experience. At the time it is very humiliating, especially when the other subs (and the kit man for that matter) are sniggering away at you and pretending to wipe the metaphorical "custard pie" off your face. However, as with most things in professional football, you laugh about it on the Monday morning.

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Over the years, there have been certain players who have been ideally suited to being a substitute, players who for some reason make more of an impact when joining a game at a later stage as opposed to when they start it. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Manchester United) and David Fairclough (Liverpool) are the ones that immediately spring to mind. My own personal favourite "super-sub" when I was growing up watching Leeds United was Imre Varadi.

I would be interested to hear who has been the substitute who regularly made the biggest impact at your club.

I have always found that players with searing pace or an eye for goal can be the most effective substitutes, especially when the players on the pitch begin to tire and space opens up later in the game.

I have often come on in the last few minutes of games. When the final whistle goes you do feel like a bit of a fraud joining in the celebrations if you have won. The rest of the lads have been slogging their guts off and you stroll on for a couple of minutes and share in the glory.

There is always that sense of being slightly on the periphery of things. It is important to hide such feelings, for the sake of not undermining the dressing-room spirit which is vital at any club, although it is easier said than done when the lad in your position scores a hat-trick and you have to say "well done" through gritted teeth! I am pretty sure that this boils down to basic human nature.

At Peterborough we had the Recaro racing-type seats in the dug out, which are the type of individual seats that are used by top Premier League and European teams. In my expert opinion they were the comfiest of my career.

For a brief moment you felt good knowing that Premier League players sit on the same type of seats. Then the sobering reality of your predicament sets in and you realise that ultimately you are a substitute for a League Two club.

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