Time to kick out the senseless shoot-out

Trevor Haylett considers methods of settling drawn games without the pain of penalties
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The Independent Online
A compelling spectacle with incident and drama to spare, a celebration of intense competition, yet with splendid sportsmanship on show as well. An occasion to enjoy your Englishness and to feel proud of our boys in grey. Wembley on Wednesday was all of these things. And then you remember Gareth Southgate.

The enduring image of one man's utter desolation as Southgate turned away from the goal where Andreas Moller had just struck the decisive penalty to put England alongside France, the Netherlands and Spain as the lottery losers of Euro 96, should be pinned to the chest of every administrator responsible for introducing this piece of loopy sporting legislation. Gentleman, it is time for change.

It so happens that Southgate is one of the most honourable, decent footballers you could wish to meet. He believes he has failed an entire nation, never mind that he revealed immense courage to step up to the spot when others were found wanting, and for that reason we are drawn to him even more. His hurt is our hurt, although you do not have to be admirers of the Netherlands' Clarence Seedorf nor the semi-finals' other fall-guy, the Frenchman Reynald Pedros, to feel for them as well.

Football is a team game and it should not fall to one individual to bear the excruciating pain that was Southgate's lot at Wembley on Wednesday night. Terry Venables, who has lost a European Cup final as well as a European Championship semi-final by this method, believes the time to look for alternatives has come. Two quarter-finals and two semi-finals decided this way in the past five days is four shoot-outs too many.

As the tie-breaking system becomes an accepted part of the game, so the suspicion grows that teams, weighing up a technical or tactical disadvantage, might set out a defensive stall and play for penalties from the first whistle. In such a way does the contest itself become flawed as well.

If it has to be penalties then the entire team should be put on the spot. "Togetherness" has been a popular refrain these three weeks and at least that way the spectre of responsibility that will be the unfortunate Southgate's burden for some time to come is more likely to be a shared one.

Better still, ditch this fairground nonsense once and for all. It might make for great television, it may well be gripping entertainment for the neutral but as a means of deciding a football match, penalties remain thoroughly unsatisfactory - particularly at a time when we are urging our players to become more professional and with the game embracing science to effect all-round improvement.

There is merit in some of the alternatives that were suggested in the aftermath of England's cruel defeat. One is to have a count-back on corners and shots that hit the woodwork to determine, a la boxing, the superior force.

True, it would provide an accurate reflection of the balance of play and ensure teams would at least go out for victory, although there remains something too cold and statistical about the method. That compels us to look elsewhere.

The best solution is one that combines the basic principles of the game with drama and excitement while retaining a sense of fair-play and justice. Withdrawing a player from each side at regular intervals would meet all those criteria while guaranteeing a result.

If the sides are still level after, say, 20 minutes of extra-time - forget the "golden goal" because the evidence so far accrued suggests it only instilled more caution and persuades officials against a controversial decision that could prove conclusive - outfield players should be removed from each side one at a time at, say, five-minute intervals, thereby producing 10 v 10, nine v nine, etc until a goal is scored.

With space on the field increasing, there is no doubt a goal would arise, sooner rather than later, and before the surviving participants had run themselves into the ground. It is playing football to decide a football match and surely that is what we all want to see.