When it comes to penalties

I’ve just had a quick scan through the laws of the game and noticed that penalty shoot-out penalties are not actually referred to as penalties, as we all tend to do, they are in fact “kicks from the penalty mark”. It’s all gone a bit Tannoy/loud speaker system, Hoover/vacuum hasn’t it?! However, I’m not sure I’d side with the purveyors of Partridge-esque pedantry in this particular instance; I quite enjoy the  implication the players are being punished for something. Maybe it’s for their general ineptitude during the previous 120-odd minutes.  Or their reluctance to take the game by the scruff of the neck during the extra-time period. Or for their fear of losing. I could get behind all of that.

I was the penalty taker for my team, when I used to play. Before you start, yes, there is a huge difference between the lowest rung of the F.A league ladder and international football (some of the time), but I’m not sure there’s much of a difference between the relative psychologies; everything within its own context and all that.

I could score a penalty in training no problem. My natural kicking technique with the instep of my right foot allowed me to find the inside of the left hand post every time, low and hard. Even if the keeper stood as close as he’d allow himself to, I could still do it. If he went too close, I’d just pass it into the empty net towards the right. I could score penalties with the Ronaldo-style back-flick where you bring your striking foot around the back of your standing foot, but my absolute favourite was a disguised chip that clipped in off the post in the top left corner. Enough about me though. How are you doing?

When it came to a real match, however, the psychological conditions altered dramatically. The tension, even in games where we were winning comfortably, was right there, slapping me in the face as I placed the ball down on the spot. The tension was not just typified by the weight of expectation amongst my team-mates, although there was invariably enough of that, there was also the tension created by the tangible will of the opposition, collectively sucking the ball out of the onion bag, and then there was the tension created by the anticipation of the crowd (not as if we ever really had more than a handful of spectators, until you got a penalty of course, then everyone wanted to watch). These external tensions served as unhelpful additions to the intensely stronger tensions created by the inner turmoil of my own id, ego and super-ego.

The application of super glue can also be a factor

There are four penalties I remember above all others, from a particular period of time, for differing reasons: two I scored, just;  two I had saved, comfortably (I’d like to add that I was by no means an arrogant player, contrary to my tone – this is me attempting to be matter-of-fact about it all). Here they are:

Penalty 1: The first was during a game against the top team in the league (*TENSION*), a not particularly nice bunch (although we had played worse), a team who we had never beaten (*TENSION*), with the biggest (*TENSION*) and best goalkeeper in the league by a country mile (*TENSION*). We were 1-0 up, when one of our players went down in the box. It wasn’t really a penalty (*TENSION*), but the referee gave it. They were very unhappy about that (*TENSION*) and some of them suggested that if I were a sporting type, I’d miss intentionally (*TENSION*). We had our tiny army of travelling fans (*TENSION*) with us who began chanting my name (*TENSION*). I placed the ball and then wrestled with my conscience (*TENSION*). Part of me wanted to make sure I scored to extend our lead. Part of me wanted to do my favourite disguised chip for a “Big Waaaah” in their face, so they’d wish they were me. Part of me was considering missing it (*TENSION*). I decided to go with the first option, so I gave the keeper the eyes and put it low and hard to my favourite corner, bottom left, trusting my technique, the safe option. It went in, but nowhere near the corner, more central. Luckily the keeper had dived to his left. I’d been so physically affected by the mental tension that I’d involuntarily mis-hit the ball entirely. I’d had no control over my physical reaction to the surrounding tensions; the fear of that stuck with me.

Penalty 2: I’d had a cracking game having already lobbed the keeper with virtually my first kick of the game; a sweet first time half volley with the outside of my right foot if you’re interested. We were 3-0 up and cruising when we were awarded a fairly straightforward penalty for a deliberate handball and I was on a hat-trick. There was no tension from the external sources, as described above during Penalty 1: there was no crowd, the other team had already given up and the keeper was awful at best. The memory of Penalty 1 was still haunting me (*TENSION*). The fact I’d never scored a hat-trick for this team, and as a Midfielder may not get a better chance, was in the back of my mind (*TENSION*). I thought there would never be a better opportunity, so I gave the keeper the eyes and went for the disguised chip. The keeper just kind of awkwardly stumbled forward off his line and grabbed the floating wet fart of a shot out the air, and glared at me with the most degrading of looks on his face. We only just won the game in the end, 3-2. I didn’t complete the hat-trick, and never did.

Penalty 3: We were playing our biggest rivals (*TENSION*) and so had our rent-a-crowd down to watch (*TENSION*). The rain was hammering down and the pitch was barely playable (*TENSION*), especially in the areas around the goal (*TENSION*). We were short of defenders so I’d been earmarked to fill in, and of course obliged, although I absolutely hated playing defence (*TENSION*).  Our opposition weren’t playing very well and we got ourselves 1-0 up and were controlling the game by the time we were awarded an obvious penalty. I stepped forward with the memories of my two previous efforts now not just haunting my match day thoughts, but my daily ones too (*TENSION*). The other team, who we were very familiar with, started spouting (*TENSION*). I had all sorts going on in my head and the wind had picked up, so the ball wouldn’t stay on the spot. I could barely keep my footing as I tried to replace it. (*TENSION* *TENSION* *TENSION*). I had to go low and hard, trust my technique. As I started my run up, the keeper drifted to the right and before I’d even processed the information, I’d instinctively gone for the disguised chip again. The result was the same as Penalty 2, apart from this time the keeper let out an involuntary laugh as he plucked the ball out the air. Fortunately, we went on to win.

Penalty 4: We were playing a cup game against some shifty looking knuckle-headed morons (*TENSION*) and I’d been picked up-front, my preferred position, where I rarely got to play (*TENSION*). We were on fire and by half time were 4-1 up. I’d only scored a fairly standard header, but was playing out my skin. At 6-2 up we got a penalty, I offered it to my strike partner who was on a hat-trick but he didn’t fancy it (*TENSION*). Their keeper was okayish and had made some good stops (*TENSION*) and they were mouthing all kinds of ridiculous things as I went to place the ball down (*TENSION*). The penalty spot was painted on the edge of a sharp angled dip in the ground and the ball rolled off the spot as I turned to start my run up (*TENSION*). The opposition started up again (*TENSION*). After replacing it a few times, the referee settled it half in and half out the dip (*TENSION*). I was never going to try the disguised chip in a match again, so gave the keeper the eyes and went low and hard, trusting my technique. The contact with the ball, if you could call it that, would best be described as “a waft”. The ball was more in the dip than I’d anticipated. The keeper, who had originally been going the other way, was now readjusting and squirming towards the barely goal bound ball. It somehow managed to piffle beneath his grasp and in *PHEW!*

My intention in going through those scenarios was, of course, to show off, but secondary to that I wanted to iterate and illustrate from my own experience the psychology of general penalty taking. If I hadn’t already broken my rule over keeping posts below 2000 words, I could have highlighted further areas of tension. For every other team I’d played for I had usually been the penalty taker and had always scored. But things, often out your control, can conspire to make you miss. Trusting your technique is always by far the best policy and usually yields the best result, but not always.

*Orbit*

As a rough estimate I think  you could probably times the tension factor at the top level by at least a thousand. There are so many extra external and internal factors at play, because there is so much more at stake. In a game, I think generally the penalty is roughly 80-90% in favour of the taker, compared with the goalkeepers chance of saving it. Having not been in a shoot out, I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess that the percentage during one shifts to nearer 50-50.

As a slight aside I’d like to just talk about Becks; a good example of a player with a superb kicking technique, who, with all due respect, put himself forward for England penalties, but was terrible at them. Aside from attempting to take them like free-kicks, an entirely flawed concept, his main problem was that he was taking them for the wrong reasons. He presented a wholly misguided idea of what taking responsibility was all about: making the right decisions for the team and not attempting to decorate yourself in glory is usually a good start. Lampard and Gerrard, regular takers for their respective club sides, were in and around the England team at the same time (however, in Beck’s defence, in their absence he was probably the only viable option). He wasn’t a penalty taker, but took the penalties?! What’s better – someone willing to take one who can’t? Or someone who can, who doesn’t want to? I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong answer. Beckham’s penalty against Argentina at the World Cup 2002 was technically dreadful, it was the equivalent of a hit (it as hard as you can) and hope, but it went in and won England one of their biggest games in recent times. For the most part, his other penalties, that he missed, cost England dearly (p.s I still love you, David).

To say a player “should” score from a penalty, for me, is unfair. People readily forget that goalkeepers are professionals too and it doesn’t take much homework to figure out which side of the goal Player X prefers, which type of disguise they use on their run up, etc. Yes, there are a lot of  great penalties from skilled takers, but their are also a lot of really poor ones that go in and a lot of technically flawless penalties that are saved, and everything in between.

I have, elsewhere on this blog, already vented my general dislike of the inference that a player “should” have done something. To me, the inference of the word ‘should’ is that certain elements of the sport are regarded by some as nothing more than the automated actions of a football-kitted vending machine. In dehumanising certain aspects of football, what those deviants using the word ‘should’ are in fact doing is depriving many of us (or possibly just me) of the much valued relatedness we find implicit in our love of the game. I want the players I support to be susceptible to all facets of the human condition: paralysed by self-doubt, enraged yet empowered by injustice, driven by their own narcissism, corrupted by the temptation to deceive, revelling in exacted revenge, foregoing their professionalism to embrace the inherent propensity in all of us to behave like a child – because it’s those things that make football brilliant.

Some misses are more beautiful than others

When the inevitable shoot-out rears up to deny us our passage to the latter stages, I won’t be the one lambasting players for not being good enough to stick one away despite being paid blah-blah-blah etc, but I might be the annoying one making sure everyone in the pub refers to them as “kicks from the penalty mark”, cus that’s correct, and I can be a real jerk sometimes.

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