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Agony and ecstasy of penalty shoot-outs

Gavin Strachan | 21:35 UK time, Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Hi, hope you are all well.

For players and fans alike, penalty shoot-outs are not for the faint-hearted. For me, this was emphasised more forcibly than ever by that extraordinary spot-kick contest in the Scottish League Cup semi-final, which ended in an 11-10 victory for Celtic over Dundee United.

I was obviously delighted for my old man that Celtic won. At the same time, it was impossible not to feel a lot of sympathy for United. This is always the case concerning the losing team in a penalty shoot-out. It is a cruel way for any team to go out of a competition, and because of the general perception of penalty shoot-outs as little more than lotteries, you can understand why so many people in the game would like to see them scrapped.

I would guess that football fans enjoy them much more than players and managers do. There is no doubt that penalty shoot-outs have enhanced the game as spectacles, and my view is that until there is another way to replicate the undoubted excitement that surrounds penalty shoot-outs, we should persevere with them.

For the penalty-takers, the pressure involved is completely different to that of any other aspect of football. Football is fundamentally a team game but when you make that long walk from the half-way line to the penalty spot, you are on your own!

That walk in itself is what separates a penalty shoot-out from a penalty that takes place during the 90 minutes, because it creates the time for the pressure to set in. When you score a "normal" goal, the emotion you experience is elation. When you put the ball in the net in a penalty shoot-out, it is mainly one of relief.

Most players will confirm that the key to taking a successful penalty is to choose where you are going to hit the ball and stick to it. Once you start changing your mind and the element of doubt begins to creep into your mind, the penalty is as good as missed.

The last penalty that I took is a good example of this. It was when I played for Hartlepool at Walsall in the 2006/07 season. Having decided which way to place the kick, I was about to start my run up when Walsall's Chris Westwood - a former team-mate of mine - shouted to the Walsall goalkeeper: "Remember which side I said he puts it". It would be fair to say that my head then went into total meltdown!

That comment caused me to change my mind and yes, you've guessed it ... the keeper saved it and we lost the game 2-0. The irony was that Chris (who is very good friend of mine, although after this, I don't know why!) later told me that he had forgotten which side I preferred to place my penalties and was just hoping to out-psyche me... Well done Chris!

Zinedine Zidane scores for France in the 2006 Fifa World Cup final against Italy

As somebody who has taken quite a few penalties in his career (primarily because I have viewed it as the only way I was ever going to score a goal), I have nothing but respect and admiration for anyone brave enough to take on the job. This especially applies to the top players in the biggest matches. A case in point being Zidane when he "dinked" a penalty in off the bar during the World Cup final. Surely, given the circumstances, there cannot have been a more confident penalty than that in the history of the game.

Penalties have played a big part in my own career and for the most part, in a positive sense. My first career goal for Coventry came by the way of a penalty, away at Preston in the League Cup. Although I was only 19 or 20, I had no compunctions at all about pushing myself forward to take the kick. As soon as the penalty was awarded I picked up the ball and placed it on the spot - how's that for naivety? I remember hearing Carlton Palmer muttering away behind me, saying me that I should not be taking it, but I ignored him and thankfully sent the keeper the wrong way.

The best penalty taker that I have played with has to be Gary McAllister, during my time at Coventry. Unfortunately he will always be remembered for the penalty miss against England in Euro 96 (not his fault I might add, the ball moved on the spot!) but for the vast majority of his career he was a very dependable penalty taker. Who has been the best penalty taker at your club?

My whole attitude to taking penalties is one of "fortune favours the brave". Ultimately, you are taking a risk, because missing a spot kick (which I have on two occasions, the Walsall one and another for Hartlepool against Brighton) leaves you open to criticism and the feeling of having let your team-mates down. But the other side of the coin is that you are displaying the ability to take responsibility and step out of the comfort zone of the team unit. It is great character training!

The first penalty shoot-out I was involved in came two weeks into my spell at Hartlepool, and was against Sheffield Wednesday - where I had previously been on trial during the close-season - in the first round of the Carling Cup. I was the one who happened to score the winning penalty - an achievement which prompted me to celebrate as though I had just earned myself a World Cup winners' medal. Anyone watching must have thought: "This lad is getting a bit too carried away," but after everything I had been through in the summer - when I could not get a club and had to sign on the dole - it was a pretty special moment.

On a par with that was the play-off semi-final penalty shoot-out between Hartlepool and Tranmere in 2004. Having won the first leg 2-0 we got pegged back to 2-2 at Prenton Park and but for our goalkeeper, Dimitrious Konstantopolous, we would have been well beaten. I took the first penalty and scored, and we went on to win. The other reason why I remember it concerned the miss of my Hartlepool colleague, Mark Tinkler.

He tried the "stutter" penalty (the type of penalty made famous by John Aldridge and now Cristiano Ronaldo where the player checks during his run up), which is never a good idea in the lower leagues as far as I am concerned. There is a lot to be said for simplicity and straightforwardness in these situations, as I am sure poor Mark appreciated when he nearly fell over on his approach to the ball and hit a "shot" (I use the term loosely) which gently trickled into the keeper's arms.

It is a good thing that Hartlepool won through in the end. Otherwise, I would have had to resist the temptation to remind Mark of it every opportunity I get!


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