It has the potential to be the most romantic narrative in football: the substitute coming on to win the game. For added romance, make it the substitute’s debut for the club. Want more? It’s his debut for a big club following a move from somewhere distinctly small-time. Not romantic enough? How about if our substitute comes on to make his debut following a move from non-league to professional football at, let’s say, a big club in West London. He gets a hard time from the crowd while warming up, but he’ll respond on the pitch. If you’ve watched enough films about football, you’ll know he’s going to come on, set a goal up and then score the winner. Ideally, that will be from the penalty spot, which speaks a far more refined and suspenseful cinematic language than slow-mo replays of Pele liberating France by bicycling a Bobby Moore cross past a Nazi goalkeeper.
It has the potential to be the most popular narrative in football, but the harsh reality of football is that potential usually ends in heartbreak. This is the narrative that plays out in Tony Awor’s 2015 documentary Black and Blue: the Paul Canoville Story, which charts the all-too-brief career of the first black footballer ever to play for Chelsea. At the centre of the film is Canoville’s compelling retelling of his debut. Chelsea are away at Crystal Palace and underneath his tracksuit top is the number 12 shirt. Manager John Neal has selected him for the matchday squad for the first time since his £5,000 signing from Hillingdon Borough. Canoville is itching to get on the pitch, his eyes shifting from Neal to the faltering Palace full-back he knows he’ll have the beating of, and back to Neal. The nod to start warming up will mean everything. It’s 1982 and teams can still only name and use one substitute in a match.