James Bittner: Goalkeeper makes first league start after 4,991-day wait

By Brent PilnickBBC Sport
James Bittner
It was the first time that James Bittner had warmed up knowing that he would start a Football League game

A staggering 4,991 days and 86 games since he first sat on the bench, James Bittner finally made his first start in the Football League on Saturday.

The 33-year-old goalkeeper, who has been second or third choice at a host of league clubs, got his chance as he helped Plymouth Argyle beat York City 2-1.

Bittner was finally called into action after the Pilgrims' first choice Luke McCormick was ruled out with injury.

"I've started with three points and hopefully I can carry on," he said.

It was 16 March 2002 when a 21-year-old Bittner had his first taste of the Football League. He was, as ever, on the bench as Bournemouth drew 0-0 at Tranmere in League Two, having been brought in on non-contract terms from Salisbury City as cover for the injured Gareth Stewart.

James Bittner - ever alert for the call to action
Began career at Salisbury City for whom he had three different spells
Was Exeter City's first-choice goalkeeper in the Conference for the 2003-04 season
Spent two years at Forest Green and a season at Hereford United
Unused substitute at AFC Bournemouth, Torquay United and Newport County in the Football League

And while the career of the man who kept goal for Bournemouth that day, Michael Menetrier, never really took off, among the players on the field that day was Bournemouth's current boss Eddie Howe, his number two Jason Tindall, Northern Ireland international Warren Feeney and the man who is now Liverpool goalkeeping coach John Achterberg, who was between the sticks for Tranmere.

But while those men all went on to greater things, Bittner only featured in the Conference for Exeter, Salisbury, Forest Green and Hereford, where he has played more than 200 matches.

"I started at Swindon, I went to Fulham in the Premier League, I've been in the Championship, League One and League Two, but always as a second or third choice unfortunately," Bittner said.

"It's frustrating when you've been at the highest level and you've worked down and down and you think 'please just give me a chance'.

"I had the chance in the Conference, I thought I did quite well at that, had one or two sniffs that didn't quite work out and one or two injuries."

James Bittner
Bittner conceded a goal in the eighth minute of injury time at York

After a two-month spell at Bournemouth in 2002, he was understudy to Andy Marriott for a season at Torquay United in League Two in 2005-06, and had a few weeks as cover for the injured Lenny Pidgeley at Newport County in August 2013.

"It's hard for goalkeepers unless you get a break when you're young," Bittner said in the tunnel at Bootham Crescent as he reflected on his first league start.

"But if you don't get that break early on as a goalkeeper it's hard, you're almost always seen as a second or a third choice."

Almost always. He joined Plymouth in the summer of 2014 describing it as the "chance of lifetime".

He spent all of last season as number two, but finally got his first taste of the Football League in January as a half-time substitute in a 1-1 draw with Morecambe.

But that has been it. Until earlier this week, when McCormick suffered a hip injury and after 713 weeks of being the understudy, he finally took on the leading role.

And his view on his full debut? As always with Bittner, the team was more important than the individual.

"I'm a bit upset to concede the last-minute goal," he said. "It would have been nice to have a clean sheet, but three points is three points."