Book of the week: Applying the science of the shoot-out

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The Independent Online
He Always Puts It To The Right: A History Of The Penalty Kick (Victor Gollancz, pounds 12.99 hardback)

By Clark Miller

GEORGE BEST'S place in history is secure. And Manchester United's. Hull City's, too, come to think of it. For it was on 5 August 1970, in the semi-final of the fondly remembered Watney Cup, that Bestie scored the first goal in the very first competitive penalty shoot-out.

This and a deluge of other historical curiosities (such as the fact that the six-yard box used to be shaped like a pair of breasts, or that the first penalty in senior football was put away by Newton Heath, United's first incarnation, in a Lancashire League game in 1891) can be found in this entertaining labour of love.

It was a revelation that for the first few decades after the invention of the penalty (by William McCrum, an Armagh linen manufacturer and goalkeeper for Milford Everton), most were actually saved - it must have been something to do with the goalie being allowed to charge off his line, waving and wailing.

After taking us through all the rule adjustments (and there were many in the early years), Miller, who sadly died before the book could reach the shops, gets into his stride when he reaches the shoot-out. It was dreamed up by a member of the Israeli FA, Michael Almog, and pushed through by a Malaysian on the Fifa's Referees' Committee, Koe Ewe Teik.

For most of us, the shoot-out is exciting but unsatisfactory. For Miller, it is a legitimate part of the game that with a little work and appliance of science can become as much a part of a team's armoury as, say, dead- ball set-pieces. It's surely no coincidence that since they lost to Czechoslovakia in the 1976 European Championship shoot-out, Germany, who use lap-top computers in their preparations, have missed one penalty.

Miller takes us through several chapters of physics (the angle of the hips and of the non-kicking foot are what the goalkeeper needs to pay attention to), the technicalities leavened by the author's light style that is sometimes rather too relentless in its chattiness.

The undisputed star of the spot, and therefore something of a hero for Miller, is Francis Lee. The apogee of his penalty-taking career was 1971- 2, when he took 15 and scored the lot. With his reputation, he used get a fair bit of harassment as he stepped up to take the kick. His usual response was to offer a bet: his week's wages against the sledger's. No one ever took him up.

Aside from all the other qualities required of the perfect penalty-taker, one is ruthlessness, which Lee had plenty of. On a pre-season trip to Scandinavia following his season of 15, City were playing the Swedish national side and were 2-0 up when the referee pointed to the spot.

The Swedish keeper sidled up to Lee and said he would like to be the first goalkeeper to save a Francis Lee penalty.

"OK," Lee said, "I'll put it to your right. I won't hit it too hard."

He ran up, the goalie dived to his right, and Lee dispatched it to his left.

"That's how you score 15 penalties without missing," he said as he picked up the ball from the back of the net.