Surviving the death penalty

Brendan Hobbs asks how do you react when Swindon Town are awarded a penalty, against regular league opposition and at an unimportant time of the season? 

“Amongst all the congratulatory back slapping and arse tapping, Michael Smith calmly scooped up the ball and strode purposefully towards the penalty spot. He pulled up his socks, the crowd hushed, a bird chirruped, sunlight gently glinted off his balls of steel and BAAANNNGG! It was in the net, a strike that was confidence personified. I like Michael Smith.”

I wrote the above for a match report back in March, when current Town penalty expert Michael Smith fired home from twelve yards against Preston North End. The same bit of prose could be used to describe his second strike on Saturday.

Yes, balls of steel, these items are exactly what you need in order to take a penalty – not necessarily to convert it but just to have the guts to take one. I’ve never taken one as far as I remember, not at any level and that includes at the local park, highly flammable track suit tops for goalposts (it was the 80s).

I personally cannot stand them, I’m a bag of nerves when Town get awarded one. On Saturday I could barely watch, I had my hands on the shoulders of the guy sat in front, head bowed, eyes twitching and squinting as if my brain was trying to close them but my eyelids were on strike.

Twelve Yards, it seems too close when an opponent is standing over the ball, a mile when it’s Town’s turn. I mean, some American Football teams struggle to move the ball ten yards with four chances in the locker and they can pick up and throw the bastard thing.

I start analysing ridiculously microscopic levels of detail, looking at all possible influences and permutations. Luongo was down too long on Saturday, that’s gonna put Smith off. The goalie was staring out Smith, the defender was chipping in his ear, the grass looked too long around the penalty spot, his shoelace looked slightly frayed at one end, a butterfly was beating its wings in Penhill causing unnecessary wind turbulence.

As he steadied himself, I almost leapt to my feet shouting “Wait, stop, what about the fucking butterfly!!!” I think I would’ve been carted away.

So this is what I do, head bowed, eyes squinting until it’s all over. And when it is, there’s all the embarrassed cheering and backslapping, the jokey “was it in any doubt?” I feel slightly fraudulent about the whole affair, like an air-scared passenger who starts massively freaking out on take-off, but is then laughing and joking in a slightly over-the-top manic way after the obvious safe landing.

Pele famously said that “a penalty is a cowardly way to score” – never has the world’s premier erectile dysfunction spokesman been so wrong, in my opinion it takes a giant of a man to score, it’s a very cowardly man who celebrates (me).

Sports psychologist Andy Barton once said that “Penalties are a marriage of technique and mentality” hence why some of the best players in the world fail from the spot. He also added that the opportunity of taking a penalty should be greeted with relish and not something to be feared. And that right there, is why I wouldn’t be any good at taking one, I would be paralysed by the possibility of failure, something that obviously doesn’t enter Michael Smith’s head.

Smith has missed before, but it seems to have spurred him on with a renewed determination. Germany are generally accepted as being the global masters from 12 yards, and it is widely believed that this is because of a previous failure. When West Deutschland were defeated by Czechoslovakia on penalties in the final of the 1976 European Championship they vowed to never be beaten again via this method, so therefore practised, practised and practised from that point onwards.

Interestingly Antonin Panenka whose famous ‘poetry’ penalty won the 1976 final once said of his pre-pen mindset: “I was relaxed – I felt an enormous positive euphoria”. Again, I don’t think that would have been the case with me, I probably would’ve replied to the reporter: “I was Shitting myself – I felt an enormous bowel movement ‘turtling’ on the cusp of my anus Geoff”…… and with that, back to the studio.

So this rambling piece has summarised my agony on Saturday when, in the grand scheme of things, a Swindon striker converted a routine penalty, against regular league opposition at an unimportant time of the season. How then, would I act if we got one when something really rested on the outcome, like say, oh I dunno – an 85th minute penalty in a level Play-Off final at Wembley?

The honest answer is I can’t remember, that game was a blur of emotions and due to the rollercoaster nature of the match I spent most of it either elated or crying. Passage of time hasn’t helped, I remember the joy of Bodin hitting the net but I can only speculate on the gibbering wreck I was prior to the goal going in. I was 19 at the time, pretty highly strung and had a fair few cans of Heineken on-board, when I asked my Dad I was surprised to find that I didn’t just puke continuously. He merely commented that I was ‘quiet, very quiet indeed, oh and pale, so very pale’.

I think the significance and joy of that strike caused me to forget the pain – like a woman and childbirth.


Look, I’ll share something personal with you now, (don’t tell anyone) when I was 13 I suffered the ignominy of a twisted testicle (stifles a schoolboy giggle) which occurred when I came off my BMX at full flight. Apparently I was involuntarily puking with pain and had to be restrained until the ambulance arrived to pump me with pain relief. I was whisked to hospital and immediately transferred to theatre. I don’t remember that at all, I just remember the 2000AD ‘Best of’ comic I was given by my relieved parents when I was wheeled back to the ward more stitches than skin

I’ve still got that 2000AD, (plus two testicles thanks to some surgical wizardry, and like Ant & Dec, they certainly aren’t pretty to look at but they still serve a purpose of sorts) anyway, back to 2000AD, its yellowed pages and faded graphics still bring a smile to my face to this day as I always remember the elation of being given it – I never remember the uncontrollable puking or the pain.

Metaphorically, Michael Smith et al have given me another 2000AD for my collection, another set of memories to be stored and treasured after a wonderful performance, one of the best for a while. I’ll remember the penalty joy, I won’t remember the pain, well until next time…

If you suffer from a similar pre-penalty nervous disorder (PPND) or just fancy sharing a horrific personal injury story for the amusement of others, then please leave details in the comments below.

The penalty picture is used under the Creative Commons -Share A like 2.0 Generic license –  Attribution: Richard Webb

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