Penalties – a professional’s opinion
In a professional career spanning almost two decades, Simon Smith has played for over sixty-seven clubs. The ultimate utility player, as his pace has diminished Simon has managed to reinvent himself time and again, from poacher to holding midfielder, centre-back to goalkeeper. Now that his website has been closed down, we have exclusive access to his weekly column.
Twelve yards. All you have to do is kick a small ball into a big net from twelve yards away.
They say that penalties favour the keeper, that all the pressure is on the taker. Just like those schoolyard games where the ball was sent into a bush riddled with nettles, the one with the gloves is always destined to be the hero. I often think of this analogy when I see goalkeepers who insist on wearing long trousers because I am sure they are harbouring a great nostalgia for that time they waded into the bramble bush to great applause, safe in the knowledge that their shins weren’t going to be riddled with cuts and little white bumps.
Personally I found penalty shootouts a far less stressful affair as a striker than as a goalkeeper. This is probably due to the fact that I was rarely allowed to take one. Earlier in my career I took a few but with little success. They were all carbon copies of each other: I would run up full of confidence, drop my shoulder and send the keeper the right way. I like to think that even then I was a fully paid up member of the goalkeepers’ union. Every penalty I missed seemed to bring more joy to the other team than scoring brought my own. I always thought the jubilant leap of their goalie was my doing and I must confess that felt quite nice.
One of the finest moments in football and indeed all sport (in my opinion) is having a little cuddle and handshake to wish the other team’s keeper luck before a shootout. I can tell you that this show of sporting behaviour is far better received by fans and teammates when you are his opposite number and not one of the takers.
I have always been one of those nervous footballers unable to even watch a penalty involving my team. I used to prefer to turn my back and ascertain whether the ball had gone in or not by the reaction of the crowd. This was not a popular move during my days as a keeper. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom, I did once save one of Jason Lee’s. Unfortunately the manner of the stop meant my daily movements were not as regular as I’d have liked for the next week. You know what they say though, no pain, no gain!
Lightning fast reflexes and cat-like athleticism are crucial if you want to be a great penalty stopper but those like me have to try to implement a system. Some have said that I have a composed, unhurried approach to the game but some who are less kind have said that I have ‘the reflexes of a drugged melon’. In order to combat this, I have devised a system where I stand behind the line on penalties to give myself those crucial extra few split seconds. The downside is that some of my best saves have still technically (and actually) been goals but generally if the keeper gets a hand on the ball he can be considered to have made a decent effort and I think that’s all anyone can ask of you.
Like most modern keepers I like to stay up late watching videos in preparation for a big shootout. Personally I find that Keeping up Appearances puts me in a really positive place mentally. You can get the DVDs now but I’ve still got loads that we taped off the telly years ago. I would love to hear a commentary with Patricia Routledge one day though. It’s good to have ambitions, even at my age.
I also look at footage of previous penalty shootouts occasionally. It can help to try and get a read on a player but it is by no means a foolproof method. I remember doing my homework on a player who will remain nameless. He had put all three of his previous penalties over the bar or wide so I was feeling pretty confident but he rolled the ball into the corner making me feel like I had completely wasted my time.
It’s a cruel business and the nation knows that all too well at the moment. I was utterly convinced that England were going to win it this time. When that final whistle went, I was already thinking about the line-up against the Germans. By the time I had reasoned that Hart should probably start in goal, disaster had struck.
The turning point was undoubtedly Pirlo’s penalty. T
The Ashleys will have to man up now and bounce back with whatever pizza adverts come their way. Speaking of which, like I always say, one man’s mushroom pizza is another man’s mushroom pizza. Turns out the Italians are the mushroom fans in this analogy and I wish them well.
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