Penalties - All or Nothing!

When the famous England soccer goalkeeper Peter Shilton said that “the main factor in a penalty shootout is luck,” his theory effectively blows the whistle on all the post-match debates!

Arguments about who should have taken a penalty kick, to which side of the net the shot should have been struck and the questions around whether the approach should have been in a straight line or the advantages of power over precision, are all put into perspective with Shilton’s short summary of how he sees it after years of goal-keeping experience at the highest level.

Were it not for the ingenuity and foresight of another goalkeeper, William McCrum, the drama that we have come to expect with ‘penalties’ may never have become a reality for us today.

The invention of the ‘penalty kick’ is credited to a goalkeeper from the modest and quaint little village of Milford on the outskirts of Armagh City.

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His proposal stated that “if any player shall intentionally handle the ball within twelve yards from his own goal, the referee shall, on appeal, award the opposing side a penalty kick, to be taken at any point twelve yards from the goal line, under the following conditions:  

All players, with the exception of the player taking the penalty and the goalkeeper shall stand behind the ball and at least six yards from it; the ball shall be in play when the kick is taken. A goal may be scored from the penalty kick.”

We don’t know exactly when the idea of the penalty entered William’s mind as something that he believed was needed and ‘could work’ in a soccer game. Some match reports from the world of Rugby in the mid 1880’s speak about the awarding of penalties ‘in front of the goals.’

As a teenage student at The Royal School, Armagh, William would have witnessed and celebrated the inaugural Rugby Schools’ Cup success by his renowned educational establishment in 1876. With further studies in Trinity College Dublin, he met many friends who participated in other sports. It was no wonder then that he returned to become a representative of many sporting clubs and committees including Armagh Cricket and Rugby Clubs as well as his local Milford Everton FC.

Whatever about the origins of his novel idea, the then 27 year-old sportsman saw his proposal submitted to the Irish Football Association in 1890 and after its approval by the International Football Association at a Glasgow meeting the following year, the ‘penalty kick’ was incorporated into the Laws of the Game.

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(William McCrum pictured above and second from left in the middle row with his colleagues at Milford Everton FC)

Last Sunday, the ‘Euros’ concluded at Wembley Stadium with the final between England and Italy being decided by ‘penalties.’ It was the fourth penalty shoot-out of the finals from the ‘last sixteen’ knock-out rounds and like two of this month's Copa América knock-out stages which were also decided after penalties, the destination of the Henri Delaunay Cup would come down to this – a penalty ‘converted’ or ‘missed’ in the dreaded penalty shoot-out!

Many argue, with some validity that this is never the best way to decide the ‘winner’ of a match (especially after a draining 120 minutes of football). Nor was it ever the intention of William McCrum to utilize the penalty kick concept as a method of bringing a tied match to a conclusion.

There is no doubting the high drama of the moment when the penalty shooter and the goalie square up face-to-face with all the tension that ensues from such a confrontation; the mind games in the stand-off, the eye to eye looks, the pacing forward and back. And of course, the whistles and jeering of the crowd in the stands or terraces behind the goals.

Remember Marcus Rashford stepping forward for England in the Final. He hadn’t been on the field long and now - this! He was there for this very moment. Approaching the ball, he hesitated – an attempt to coax the towering 6 feet 4 Italian goalkeeper to reveal his diving intentions.

But Donnarumma stood still! Who would blink first in this game of penalty-poker as the striker slowed further and the keeper continued with his statuesque stance.

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By this stage, Rashford was nearing the ball. Now, he had to kick it. The low shot struck the base of the post and trickled agonizingly wide. In a second, the moment has passed. The chance, the trance and the romance was over.

Those who have played the game understand all that goes into creating an opportunity just to score a goal. When the match is not settled with a winning score in playing time, it seems somewhat unfair to bring it to a conclusion with what amounts to a series of unimpeded shots at the goals, 11 metres from the goal line with only the goalkeeper to beat. No wonder then that the great Brazilian footballer Pelé wrote in his autobiography of a penalty that “it is a cowardly way to score.”

Others will claim that the penalty shootout adds to the climax, especially for the neutral arm-chair supporter watching on TV who secretly hopes for a ‘my turn – your turn’ spectacle. It’s ‘Heads or Tails’ played out right there on the screen in real time; as dinners over-cook in kitchens, drink spills on the floors of crowded bars and children take to the streets within minutes of the ending to take aim at garage doors or makeshift garden goalposts.

Where the intense and unpredictable nature of sport is short circuited to reach an outcome and bring proceedings to a conclusion on the spot and from the spot, there will always be an excited and ever-willing audience in the stadiums, the pubs and the living rooms.

The reason for the birth of the ‘shoot-out’ was to find a winner in circumstances where the game could not be replayed or randomly decided by the toss a coin. It was not uncommon for a match to be decided by the drawing of lots.

When Bulgaria defeated Israel in the quarter-final of the Olympic football tournament of 1968 after the drawing of lots, Yosef Dagan, an Israeli who watched his national team lose, sought a change in the manner of how results were decided.

The FIFA News explained the proposal in 1969 and a year later the ‘penalty-shoot out’ was officially adopted despite discontent from many delegates.

Whilst the ‘penalty’ awarded for an offence (albeit in another setting and with a different meaning), was already in existence in Rugby by the late 19th Century, there has only ever been one ‘penalty shootout’ to decide the outcome of the game. The 2008/09 Heinekin Cup semi-final between Cardiff Blues and Leicester Tigers saw the teams tied at 25 points each after extra-time with Leicester going on to win 'on penalties.'

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Being a different discipline to soccer, in the Rugby penalty shootout, players are required to kick from a set position in front of the posts. 'Easy enough for the regular kickers,' you may say, but when the turn of the forwards comes around, the pressure can quickly mount. It makes sense when the usually accepted 'kickers'  strike the ball during a match, (a Johnny Sexton or John Cooney). When it comes to the forwards (whose forte is in an entirely different aspect of the game), then the kick at goal pushes them beyond their comfort zone and a new level of unpredictability arises. (Imagine Tadgh Furlong or Jack McGrath up next!)

The ‘penalty‘ became a feature of Gaelic Games in 1941 and more recently, it has also been used in a ‘shootout’ as a way to conclude ‘drawn or tied games’ without an outcome after extra-time. As fixture-makers operate in narrow calendar windows the 'shoot-out' is becoming a replacement for the traditional replay where a ‘winner on the day’ is the preferred option. With scoring probabilities being much less likely to result in a drawn match than in soccer, such occurrences in Gaelic Games have been rare to date.

Within a week in 2020, the Senior Club Championships required spot kicks to separate Trillick and Killyclogher in Tyrone while the tie-breaker was also called upon in the Tipperary Senior Hurling Championship. Former Dublin star, Bernard Brogan, aware of the skill sets of the Gaelic Game and the efforts required to win out in match-time, described it as “definitely not fair but probably the most natural end.”

As an indication of just how serious, the whole idea of penalties is taken, Geir Jordet, a Norwegian Professor of Sport Sciences, spent 5 years studying the psychology of the end-of-match shootout. His research concludes "the penalty shootout in football is the essence of performing under pressure". Consequently, anything can happen!

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And anything does indeed happen! Few can forget that man Franceso Totti at the start of the century. Enjoying a relaxing time playing FIFA against Alessandro Nesta back at the hotel during the 2000 Euro’s, he won the game with a Panenka penalty, and brazenly declared to his teammate: “One of these days I will do this in a game.” That day turned out to be the next day when Italy took on the mighty Netherlands in the semi-final!         

Totti’s antics and words on the training field suggested that he would love to try the ‘Panenka penalty.’ This kick was made famous by the former Czech footballer, Antonin Panenka when he rather cheekily chipped the ball directly down the middle at slow pace taking a penalty against West Germany in 1976. It relies on the belief that the goalkeeper would have already committed to diving to his left or right before the chip was executed.

“To take a penalty like that you must be crazy or very good. And I don’t think I’m crazy,” said Totti. Yet, the concern amongst his team-mates suggested otherwise when the entertainer Totti announced before taking his kick: “Mo je faccio er cucchiaio,” which basically means that he was about to do his own version of the Panenka penalty chip! It was beyond belief that he would attempt such in a key match, despite having practiced it at training.

If Totti’s words were in jest, it wasn’t taken as anything to laugh about. Experienced warriors like Maldini, Cannavaro and Zambrotta were visibly concerned. Di Biagio's none too discreet on field conversation with hand gestures of a typical Italian was to convince him not to take any chances.

But the showman striker with an innate desire for improvisation and spontaneity went ahead. As keeper Van de Sar dived to his right, Totti’s simple chip-lift of the ball glided into the net. A 'heart-in-the-mouth' moment for the Italians declaring their player’s actions as ‘mad.’ But the job was done and that was all that mattered as Totti’s score helped Italy progress to the final.

While there is only a positive or negative outcome to a penalty-kick, there is no end to the variety of possibilities in how a player manages to outwit the goalkeeper to score a goal. We can all recall goals scored and shots missed that will rest in our long term memories for many years to come. And then there is always the prospect of another penalty shoot-out in a future competition to add to the collection. Where were you when Rashford missed his penalty 2021? - more of those kind of memory-embedded moments.

PEN4(The grave of William McCrum in St Mark's Church Graveyard, Armagh. It was restored by FIFA in 2015)

Like them or loathe them, it looks like penalties are here to stay despite the numerous alternatives that have been tried down the years.

We have seen golden goals, silver goals, hockey style penalties and other alternatives. Yet, the penalty-shootout as we know it continues to exist with no equal for drama, tension and sheer excitement. As for the penalty-kick itself - it  hasn't really changed since the day it was invented by a far-sighted and visionary Armagh man 130 years ago!

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