Every player wants to be in the starting XI. No one grows up dreaming of being left on the bench.
Yet competition for places at the highest level is fierce. A manager can only pick 11 players to start a game, and must then rely on his substitutes to make an impact when they come on.
But who exactly are the most trusted substitutes? Who are the squad members that managers call upon to change the direction of a game or to close out a match?
Here, we take a look at the top 10 most used substitutes in Premier League history…
(Please note, these stats were recorded prior to the 2021/22 Premier League campaign and we will update accordingly throughout the season).
10. Ryan Giggs – 110 substitute appearances
Giggs was able to play for Manchester United until he was 40. That’s a remarkable achievement but one that was only possible due to how carefully he was managed throughout his career.
Sir Alex Ferguson used him sparingly at times, making sure that Giggs was available for key games towards the latter stages of his playing days, and this meant that the Welsh midfielder had to regularly settle for a place on the bench.
9. Kanu – 118 substitute appearances
Next up, we have Kanu.
Arriving at Arsenal in the late 1990s, it was always going to be difficult for him to force his way into the starting line-up given that the club had the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Dennis Bergkamp in their ranks.
Still, Kanu managed to make a positive impression at Highbury, scoring 44 goals in 196 matches, and he then went on to represent West Brom and Portsmouth in England’s top-flight.
8. Joe Cole – 123 substitute appearances
Given that Cole’s peak was during his time at Chelsea, it is no surprise that he was not a guaranteed starter every week for the Blues, who were the team to beat in the mid-2000s.
At the time, the Stamford Bridge club had Arjen Robben and Damien Duff causing defences all sorts of problems down the flanks, meaning that Cole had to wait patiently for his opportunities at times.
He also played for West Ham, Liverpool and Aston Villa in a Premier League career which stretched over 15 years, explaining how he was able to rack up so many substitute appearances.
7. Theo Walcott – 124 substitute appearances
Walcott burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old when he was called up to England’s 2006 World Cup squad. At that stage, few would have predicted that he would go on to struggle to establish himself as a regular starter over the coming years.
Of course, he has made over 350 Premier League appearances in his career to date, so he has hardly been short of game time, but the precocious talent has arguably not quite lived up to expectations, and in recent years he has moved on from Arsenal to Everton and now back to Southampton, where it all started for the winger as a teenager.
6. Carlton Cole – 129 substitute appearances
Having started off his career at Chelsea, Cole was unable to force his way into the reckoning at the west London club, which meant that he had to move from team to team to get some minutes under his belt.
Even at Charlton, Aston Villa and West Ham, though, it was difficult for him to convince managers that he was worthy of a starting berth. Cole ended up playing 290 games in the Premier League, with 44% of his appearances coming from the substitutes’ bench.
5. Shola Ameobi – 142 substitute appearances
Undoubtedly one of the best names in football but it was not always the first one on the teamsheet.
In fairness, Ameobi started his career behind one of the best strikers in Premier League history in the pecking order – Alan Shearer. He also had to battle with players such as Mark Viduka, Obafemi Martins and Michael Owen for a look-in, so it is easy to see why he had to make the most of his game time off the bench.
Ameobi finished his career with 43 Premier League goals, all for his beloved Newcastle United.
4. Shane Long – 148 substitute appearances
There may not be a more hard-working player than Long but that has not always translated into goals. Indeed, he has only managed to hit double figures in a top-flight campaign once in his career, which highlights why he has not always been trusted to lead the line from the start at various clubs.
He has represented Reading, West Brom, Hull City and Southampton in the Premier League, showing that plenty of sides appreciate his skill set. Now in the twilight of his career, he may have to settle for continuing to come off the bench to run the channels late on in games moving forwards as well.
3. Jermain Defoe – 149 substitute appearances
Defoe accumulated almost 500 games in the Premier League, with almost a third of them coming from the substitutes’ bench.
His finishing skills can never be questioned given that he netted 163 goals in these matches but when he was at Tottenham he had to bide his time at certain points due to the club having Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov on their books.
The diminutive attacker also played for West Ham, Portsmouth, Sunderland and Bournemouth in England’s top division, and chipped in with useful goals at all of those clubs.
2. Peter Crouch – 158 substitute appearances
This one is understandable. If a team needs a goal in the final minutes of a match, it makes sense to throw on a 6 foot 7 striker to cause havoc in the opposition penalty box.
However, it would be doing Crouch a disservice to suggest that he was only used for this purpose. The giant centre forward played for some of the biggest clubs in England, and scored 106 Premier League goals, showing that he could be the difference in games whether he was playing from the start or not.
1. James Milner – 161 substitute appearances
At the top of the list is Milner. Having made his Premier League debut at just 16, he was always going to have a decent chance of doing well in this category.
Milner has become Mr. Reliable at a number of clubs, making over 100 appearances for four of the five Premier League teams that he has played for.
He still has the chance to extend his record at Liverpool, with his contract set to run until June 2022.
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