~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, June 25th 2012
In sport, nothing is certain, but some things come close. As soon as England were drawn against Italy in Euro 12, it was widely assumed that the game would be a draw, there would be penalties, and England would lose. And so it came to pass, as England went into the lead and still managed to blow it. How many Ashleys does it take to shatter a nation’s brittle hopes? Two. Ashley This hit the bar, Ashley That had a tame shot saved, Joe Hart was all mouth and no actual saves, and millions of fans held their heads in their hands.
The England manager, Roy Hodgson, had at least made the players practise penalties, unlike one of his predecessors, Glenn Hoddle. In his practices, Hodgson makes the striker tell the goalkeeper where he is going to put it. Ingenious, but unrealistic (and way too easy for the goalie). “You can't reproduce the tired legs,” he said afterwards. “You can't reproduce the pressure. You can't reproduce the nervous tension.” As usual, he radiated decency, and he was probably right about the legs, but on the other fronts, he could have tried a bit harder. Here’s how.
Make practice public
The essence of penalties is that the eyes of the nation, and quite a few other nations, are upon you. So any practice needs to take place in front of the cameras. At the end of each day’s training at the tournament camp, we need to see a shoot-out, conducted as if for real, complete with that little touch of sadism: the long, lonely walk.
Make it cruel
When it comes to penalties, the watchability is in direct proportion to the cruelty. So, in practice, the players must have plenty to lose. Some have suggested fines, but these men are so blindingly rich that even if you charged them a million pounds a miss, it would just end up saving them some tax. They pay for real penalty misses in terms of pride, so any practice has to contain the possibility of humiliation. Harsh, but fun.
Line up amusing opponents
You don’t have to be a footballer to take a penalty. So on day one, England’s five penalty-takers should take on a team from the Barmy Army (who can spend the day before going through some exhaustive qualifying process). Day two, England against England Under-16 (or some young fans). Day three, a team of pensioners, led by Sir Bobby Charlton; in a few weeks’ time, Hodgson himself will be eligible. Day four, England v England Women, or a team of female fans. Day five, the ultimate banana skin: England v the Press. They might mind losing that one even more than the real thing.
At first, these contests will seem gimmicky, but they will soon become another of sport’s reassuring rituals. And they will make the players that bit better at coping with the real thing. Yes, even the Ashleys.
Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life