Football: Freeze the action, silence the crowd, single out one player and give him time to think - and the pressure can prove too much

Olivia Blair ON SATURDAY
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Three weeks into the season, several aggravations already; in particular, the haphazard nature of the fixture list due to international matches that have nothing whatsoever to do with English football, and the ridiculous new rule that allows keepers to perform the equivalent of Riverdance on their line during penalty kicks.

Peter Schmeichel was the first to profit from the latter during the Charity Shield shoot-out, while Ian Walker did his best to spoil Teddy Sheringham's return to White Hart Lane. But if this new "initiative" gives a rare advantage to keepers (new directives are usually designed to make their game more difficult) then surely it penalises the team who've actually been wronged in the first place?

Bob Wilson thinks so. The former Arsenal keeper says Fifa has "got it wrong; they're penalising those who should be rewarded. Anyway, it'll only help keepers if the kicker takes a long run-up, because if the kicker just turns and hits it, the keeper won't have time to regain his balance".

As if taking a penalty wasn't hard enough already... even if you'd expect highly paid professional footballers to at least hit the target from 12 yards. But you can't, for instance, liken a penalty miss to a golfer failing to sink a three-foot putt at the final hole; golf is played to a silent gallery at a leisurely pace by one man with time to think, whereas football is a fluent sport played in front of the rowdy masses by 11 men, most of whom do things instinctively. Freeze the action, silence the crowd, single out one player and give him time to think - and the pressure can prove too much.

Just ask Lee Bradbury. Manchester City's new pounds 3m striker seems to have become inflicted by the same inferiority complex as the rest of the City players since arriving at Maine Road. He'd been firing blanks in Tuesday's Coca-Cola Cup tie against Blackpool before he was called on during the shoot-out, and looked a bag of nerves as he skied his kick. Mind you, it probably didn't help that he was facing a keeper called Banks who'd been performing heroics all night.

Some players thrive on the pressure. Alan Shearer, who says pressure is when his daughters can't sleep at night, wanted assurances from Manchester United that he could take the penalties if he joined them; now Eric Cantona's mantle has passed to Sheringham, whose miss for United against Spurs wasn't the first penalty he's missed at White Hart Lane. Cantona's accuracy from the spot was such that his only miss, against Leeds last season, caused a huge stir among the football fraternity.

For all his apparent arrogance, Sheringham never fills me with the same conviction when he places the ball on the spot. Not like Francis Lee, whose record of scoring 13 penalties during one season (1972) still stands, or Burnley's Peter Noble, who scored 27 consecutive penalties between 1974 and 1979. Liverpool's Phil Neal was another clinical penalty-taker, as was Ray Stewart, who scored 76 for West Ham in the 1980s.

Stewart says he used to think about the keeper's strengths and weaknesses and practise in a empty net, which suggests he blanked the keeper. "I knew what I was up to," he concurs, "and whatever the keeper did wouldn't change my mind." Stewart tended to opt for power, although he did place his most crucial penalty - West Ham's late equaliser against Liverpool in the 1981 League Cup final - and consequently remembers the ball as bouncing "at least 400 times".

His successor as West Ham's penalty king is Julian "burst the net" Dicks; but there are fewer specialists around today since teams seem to change their penalty-taker on the basis of one hit or miss. That Matt Le Tissier is among the most competent is ironic, since I wouldn't have described him as having the necessary characteristics: single-mindedness, focus and total self-confidence.

Millwall and Northampton missed seven consecutive kicks in their Coca- Cola shoot-out on Wednesday (which Millwall eventually won 2-0). "At that stage in a game you just get your head down and they either go in or they don't," Ian Atkins, the Northampton manager, said. "It just wasn't our day."

Unfortunately, certain players have paid the penalty for higher profile misses. "Not for the penalty," said Chris Waddle when asked how he'd like to be remembered. But perhaps Waddle just wasn't cut out to take penalties, and would be cheered by Pele's theory, that a penalty is "a cowardly way to score".

Johan Cruyff, who wouldn't have been fazed by the antics of any keeper, obviously did. I recall watching footage of Cruyff passing the ball to a team-mate instead of shooting directly from the spot when Ajax won a penalty against Helmond Sport in 1982. Talk about making the easy things look difficult.