It was hard enough dislodging internationals like Allan Clarke from Leeds United’s first team without having to contend with the one sub rule, David McNiven told Leon Wobschall.
Seasoned Liverpool fans will never forget the immortal line “Super-sub strikes again” uttered by Granada TV’s Gerard Sinstadt when a flame-haired Scouse kid called David Fairclough booked the Reds a European Cup semi-final berth at St Etienne’s expense at Anfield in March 1977.
Across the M62 at Elland Road, another youthful No.12 with a predatory knack and deep love of his club – without the same media hype – called David McNiven was also tantalisingly hinting at something big.
But while one went on to taste European and domestic success and champagne highs, the other fell off the top-flight radar almost as quickly as he arrived there.
Like Fairclough, Lanarkshire-born McNiven, who despite his Scottish roots grew up as a massive Leeds United fan, banged in goals for fun at youth and reserve-team level.
The young striker – now 56 and working in car sales in Preston -– went onto show his bench prowess several times during his two seasons in the first-team limelight at Elland Road in 1975-76 and 1976-77.
Yet the combination of an ultra-competitive striking pool at United and the match-day limits on one substitute ensured the diminutive Scottish forward’s Elland Road career never truly hit the fast lane.
Frustrated at his lack of first-team action, McNiven switched to neighbours Bradford City in February 1978, enjoying considerable success in a six-year stint, his goals steering City to promotion from the old Division Four in 1982-83.
But with the benefit of hindsight, and an ability to turn back the clock, McNiven readily admits he’d have bided his time at United, while also changing the one-sub rule!
McNiven, whose twin sons Scott and David jnr have both played professionally, said: “Super-sub was a popular term at the time and a few players were called that – David Fairclough and a lad at Manchester United called David McCreery. Like them, I was the sort who would be brought out to try and change a game.
“Nowadays substitutes are a major part of the gameplan. These days, while I might not have played 90 minutes, I’d have been a good sub. Unfortunately, I played 20 years too early!
“I had two years where I was there or thereabouts and was sub or playing. When I look back, I definitely left the club too young without fulfilling what I should have done as I was a good little player and goalscorer.
“Then again, I was surrounded by good players which helped.
“In a way, that was half the problem; the team was just too good. You had to be some player to dislodge the likes of Allan Clarke and Joe Jordan – established international footballers – and people like that.
“But, looking back, I left when I didn’t really have to. There was a bit of turmoil at the club and I think Jimmy Armfield was having a bit of a bad season. Maybe I should have stayed on and had another year there at least, anyway. I didn’t have to go, but sometimes you see things and think: ‘Well, the writing’s on the wall.’
“I enjoyed Bradford. We had a good bunch of lads and had reasonable success there, but it was always downhill after leaving Leeds.”
After leaving the Bantams, McNiven moved to Blackpool and had spells in the states with Portland Timbers and Pittsburgh Spirit in the now defunct North American Soccer League before winding down his career at Halifax Town and Morecambe.
However, despite his fleeting success at Elland Road, United are the club that will always be in his heart, with the Scot – based on the Fylde coast – realising a boyhood dream when he joined in the early seventies, turning professional in September 1972.
Part of a big Scottish clan in West Yorkshire, McNiven rubbed shoulders with heroes he’d previously viewed with awe on his bedroom wall and despite not going onto become a first-team regular, he can at least reflect on some goal-den nuggets of action to savour.
The frontman netted on his league debut, nine minutes after coming on as a sub in the 2-1 home win over Manchester City in April 1976, a seasonal haul of 32 goals and stunning streak of nine hat-tricks over two years in the Central League prompting his call-up.
McNiven was then feted as the last-gasp hero when he netted an 89th-minute leveller against reigning champions Liverpool in October of that year at Elland Road, becoming the first player to net against the Reds in nearly 600 minutes of play – the barren run going back three years to October 1973.
The next month, super-sub was at it again, finding the net in a 2-2 draw with visiting Leicester City.
On his life and times at United, McNiven reflected: “I still remember it vividly. At the time, if I remember correctly, there were more Scottish players there than any other nation. I think if you included the young lads we had 20-odd at one time!
“I remember scoring against Liverpool, obviously, and the game was on television, which was quite a big thing. I got interviewed after the match, like you do, and there was myself and Kevin Keegan, which was another nice memory to have.
“One game I remember in particular was on my 21st birthday in September 1976. I’d played for Scotland Under-21s in midweek and flew down and then stayed in London, which was a good experience as well, and then met up with the team on Saturday and played against Spurs at White Hart Lane and did particularly well that day. I think it was a draw in what was a big week.
“For me, as a boy, it was always Leeds in my heart. I started coming down when I was 13 and used to spend the school holidays down there. I could have gone to other clubs, but I didn’t show any interest.
“I was a Leeds fan when I was growing up and my bedroom wall was plastered with all these players I eventually played with. Eddie (Gray) was my hero back then and he turned out to be a great guy as well.
“I was probably a little star-struck when I first joined, but it was the only thing I’d wanted to do since I was about 11.
“My heart is always in the place and still is and I really do hope they get back to where they were.
“It’s the first result I look for and only team I think of. I married a Leeds girl, so I’m a West Yorkshire guy at heart and they are great people there.”
McNiven, whose last visited Elland Road last April when United beat Nottingham Forest 4-1, may have severed his links with professional football, but his twin sons, Scott and David jnr, now both 33, have carried on the family name on the pitch.
Scott, a defender, played with the likes of Oldham Athletic, Oxford United and Mansfield Town before retiring following a health scare, while also sampling management with Hyde United.
Centre-forward David is still plying his trade in the Blue Square North at Workington, having played for Oldham and York City and several Scottish and non-league outfits – with the Leeds-born brothers united a few years back at Farsley Celtic.
Proud father David – whose own dad Tom was Hibernian’s physiotherapist and Scotland’s ‘sponge man’ in the 1974, ’78 and ’82 World Cups – said: “They were good players and made a bit of a career out of football for themselves but they are at an age now where they are moving on, just like I did, into something else.
“Scott had a very bad illness (in 2007) and was diagnosed with testicular cancer which put the kibosh on his professional career, but he’s doing well with the coaching now.
“He’s a coach at Blackpool and does the under-11s at the weekend and is also assistant-manager at Fylde – the owner there has a bit of money.
“David is still doing all right, playing at Workington and banging the goals in.
“My football days are over, but I still do a bit of squash and golf. I did play Sunday League for a bit of fun in Blackpool a while back and a bunch of us who are old ex-professionals teamed up on a Sunday and we got a game every week.
“Work-wise, after finishing playing, I was actually a milkman for 12 months, but it wasn’t for me really. I moved into car sales and I’m currently working for Evans Halshaw in Preston – I’ve been here 26 years now.”