Football: `I hope for God's sake he's not taking a penalty'

The untold stories in a year of buried treasure: BARRY DAVIES
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The Independent Online
It is 30 June 1998 and in a hotel room in Toulouse, one man was not sharing Kevin Keegan's optimism as 150 miles away at St Etienne David Batty stepped up to the spot to keep England in the World Cup. It is a phenomenon that might be termed the commentator's fear of the penalty shoot-out because, after 32 years behind the microphone, Barry Davies appreciates as well as anybody every nuance of the art of the spot-kicker.

He had a distinctly uneasy feeling about this match, which was being covered by ITV. The previous day the BBC commentator, whose mellifluous and occasionally sardonic tones have embellished Match of the Day for nearly 30 years, had covered Holland's 2-1 defeat of Yugoslavia from the city and he was watching the drama of the night unfold against Argentina with his producer Simon Betts and his engineer, with an eye which is part that of the committed fan, part that of the dispassionate professional. The result would determine what part of France he would set out for the following day.

"Batty had come on as substitute and I do remember saying, during the closing minutes of the game, after a shot that nearly hit the corner flag, `I hope for God's sake he's not taking a penalty.' When he actually put the ball down, I had to say, `I just don't fancy this at all.' I get feelings about these things, and I'd have put money on David Batty missing."

He added: "Some coaches would have settled for a shoot-out and therefore made sure they had their best penalty-takers on the field. I think there came a moment when that should have become a priority. But Darren Anderton was taken off, and he would probably have scored."

While in football much sagacity comes from hindsight, an appreciation of players' body language over many seasons gives Davies authority for such observations. "Ince was another strange choice," he said. "The previous time, against Germany in Euro 96, which I did `live', not only did he not want to take a penalty, he couldn't even sit and watch it. I remember thinking, but not actually saying, `If you want a nickname "The Guv'nor", my friend, you ought to be showing more confidence than you're showing at the moment.' Usually, I tend to say what I think, but I swallowed that. I decided it wasn't the right moment. When it's England, you've got to be willing them to score. But it didn't surprise me that when it came to it against Argentina, he took a poor penalty."

Yet, what still astonishes Davies is the revelation that coach Glenn Hoddle's squad had not practised penalties. "I had bumped into Glenn at an airport somewhere before the World Cup, and he had talked enthusiastically about this theory of practising with kickers an extra distance, a yard or two back, and goalkeepers facing kicks a yard nearer. I thought it was a hell of a good idea. I still can't quite believe that apparently it didn't happen. His whole approach otherwise had been ultra-professional. I would have thought that every man jack of them should have been practising penalties right the way through. Maybe he felt he didn't want to tempt fate."

Davies's chagrin was all the greater because he genuinely believed that Hoddle was creating a World Cup-winning team. He had sensed that since covering the Tunisia game a fortnight earlier. "From the moment it was 1-1 versus Argentina until the equaliser, which was the best-worked free- kick of the tournament, England could see the promised land, and I really think we played as well at that stage as anyone achieved in the competition. I don't think there was an unbeatable side in the tournament. In fact, France were the only side not to lose to anybody, and they came pretty damn close." It was to make the sending-off of David Beckham all the more galling.

There is an assumption that away from the microphone, commentators revert to mere analytical, soulless beings. Not so. The moment the Manchester United man reacted in that almost child-like manner from a prone position to Diego Simeone's challenge, Davies metamorphosed into the average England supporter. "I was furious with him and I shouted, `How could you do that? How could he be so stupid?' It doesn't matter whether he barely touched him; he aimed a kick at the guy and it was clearly premeditated. The referee had no choice but to send him off."

It is an illustration of the eternal dilemma for the broadcasting brotherhood. How far to tread the patriotic line? The immortal observation, "Where were the Germans... but frankly who cares" after Great Britain had scored in an Olympic hockey match, provoked suggestions of xenophobia as well as wry smiles, "but I try to be a million miles away from jingoistic. I try to look at things from England's point of view, but you have to tell the truth of what you are seeing."

Which is why he bucks the popular trend of condemning Hoddle for limiting Michael Owen's appearances. "I think Glenn was right that it would have put a lot of unnecessary pressure on him. He thought he had plenty of players capable of beating Tunisia, and was right not to start with him in the next game. The Owen phenomenon was developing well. If England had gone on, everybody would have been saying how well he had used him. He was building to get his team right when it mattered most, but sadly we never got the chance to see what he could achieve."

NICK TOWNSEND

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