The English Penalty Disease (NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13 – Wigan Athletic)

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                                                            David Batty

 

Jamie Carragher          Gareth Southgate        Stuart Pearce               Ashley Cole

 

David Beckham          Frank Lampard           Paul Ince                     Chris Waddle

 

                                                            Steven Gerrard

 

                                                            Darius Vassell

 

Substitute: Ashley Young

 

No, this is not my all time England XI. I don’t know which would be a worse judgement call, David Batty in goal or a Leicester reject up front? Strangely, apart from that, it’s a pretty strong line-up.

 

These twelve players represent the unfortunate souls who have missed for England during penalty shootouts. It seems that no matter how we prepare, Englishmen have an inherent psychological defect that prevents them from converting penalties when it matters most.

 

For those who think I’m exaggerating the problem, just take a look at the statistics. Since 1990 England have competed in ten international tournaments, six of which have ended with us being knocked out via a penalty shootout. We have only once been victorious, against Spain at Wembley during Euro 96. We went out of the same tournament in the next round, having lost to those damned efficient Germans in yet another penalty shootout.

 

Back in 1996 we were actually fairly good at taking penalties. We scored ten out of a possible eleven penalty kicks, with only Pizza enthusiast Gareth Southgate missing. In that particular tournament it was understandable for people to blame our semi-final exit on good old-fashioned bad luck.

 

Since then, a regretful pattern of penalty trauma has emerged and it’s no longer feasible to blame our failings on bad luck alone. Over the years, England have scored only 66% of their penalties during shootouts, conceding 81% of those taken against them.

 

The only countries to boast a worse record are Gabon and Costa Rica, both of whom have conceded 100% of penalties taken against them in shootouts. Fingers crossed we draw one of these two in the knockout phase of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

 

Tonight fills me with utter dread, because I know there is a real possibility this cup tie could go to a penalty shootout! Not only will it be a venomous reminder of how English hopes were dashed in Kiev this summer, but there is also a chance Forest’s fate could lie at the feet, or perhaps in the mind, of an Englishman.

 

This time last year, with England’s Euro 2012 hopes in mind, I campaigned for the abolition of penalty shootouts, but having received no response from Sepp Blatter, I’ve had to resort to trying to solve the puzzle that has plagued football-kind for the last twenty years: why are Englishmen so bad when it comes to penalty shootouts?

 

Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham and our very own Stuart Pearce were all considered expert penalty takers as they took the dreaded walk from the centre circle. Some of the other names in the lineup would not have inspired such confidence, but all would have dispatched their fair share of successful penalty kicks within the comfort of the training ground. All this matters little.

 

The scoring of a penalty in the high-pressure environment of the shootout has absolutely nothing to do with ability. It doesn’t matter if you are the most technically gifted player in the world; anyone can miss a penalty. Some of the best players the world has ever seen – Baggio, Shevchenko, Pirlo, even John Aldridge – have all missed crucial historic penalties. It’s all about having the right mentality in that key moment.

 

So why is the English mentality so consistently wrong when it comes to taking a penalty kick?

 

Perhaps if we kept possession of the ball better throughout the hundred and twenty minutes before the seemingly inevitable shootout, our players would be less physically and mentally tired and would be in a better frame of mind when they come to take their crucial kick.

 

It’s worth pointing out that in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals England were completely outclassed by Italy. It was a minor miracle that we managed to keep the score at 0-0, only to be knocked out, yet again, on penalties.

 

Perhaps players like Ashley Young, low on confidence after being run ragged by the fluid Italian midfield, stepped up lacking the self-belief that is required for such moments of intense pressure.

 

I would never blame an individual player for missing a penalty; I am bringing up the example of Ashley Young to illustrate that an inherent lack of confidence could be the cause of the penalty saga that has now spanned three decades.

 

Andrea Pirlo, who scored the pivotal game-changing penalty for Italy, had been the player of the tournament up to that point and so subsequently exuded boundless confidence, as he delicately kissed the ball with his laces. He made it look so, so easy.

 

It may be that the cumulative effect of all those famous misses has spawned a negative national mentality when it comes to taking penalty kicks. As soon as extra time ends, the football loving English public bow their heads in readiness for defeat; sub-consciously, the mental approach to a penalty shootout may well be the same for our players. If we expect to fail, how can we hope to succeed?

 

There’s no single reason why England so consistently loses shootouts; equally, there’s no magic solution that can transform our penalty-taking fortunes. A successful penalty taker needs to be confident, self-assured and decisive; three things that don’t come all that naturally to polite, self-doubting, over-thinking Englishmen. Granted, footballers would normally ooze the arrogance required to mercilessly bury a penalty … but under the spotlight of an all-or-nothing shootout they become just like every other Englishman, terrified.

 

We have to somehow change our collective mindset and nurture the self-belief required to win a penalty shootout. No amount of practice will help our players; it’s all about building an impenetrable fortress of mental strength within our national psyche.

 

Or we could just try and win the game in ninety minutes!

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss

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