Pat Nevin: Hampden drama proved penalty shoot-outs really do hit the spot
ONE OF the first works of German art house filmmaker Wim Wenders was The Goalkeeper's Fear Of The Penalty Kick. The accepted wisdom these days, however, is that stoppers relish more than fear spot kicks because they are under no pressure to save them. The argument is that players are favourites to score from 12 yards, so any stop is considered a bonus.
Maybe it is slightly different back in Germany – after all they aren't exactly renowned for missing them and Andreas Hinkel provided yet another example of that on Wednesday night at Hampden Park with his lash into the top corner.
Maybe Wenders should have considered the keeper's fear of taking penalty kicks – a goalie is rarely called on to step up to the mark, but both Lukasz Zaluska and Artur Boruc (below) also gave the lie to that one with classy conversions in the Co-operative cup tie.
What struck most of us at the end of that pulsating semi final, particularly anyone who has been in this most pressured of positions, is how calm and composed the players appeared as they scored time and time again while the tension ratcheted up to incredible levels. I say how composed they looked, because I can tell you right now that underneath, very few were even half as confident as they appeared.
For the second time in 10 months, Dundee United tried in vain to overcome an Old Firm opponent in what many describe as "a lottery" or "no way to decide a game". I have always disagreed vehemently with this viewpoint, for what is football if it isn't about entertainment, excitement and drama? Tell me if you have witnessed a more dramatic situation this season than when the score was moving from 8-8 to 9-8 and beyond.
Not to feel at least some stress taking a penalty in that situation, with a cup final at stake, might not take nerves of steel, it might take something completely different. A negligent disregard for the concerns of your team-mates and fans or else some basic lack of ability to comprehend the relevance of the game could well help. Or maybe, just maybe, some people have perspective and understand that there are some things more important than football, but it is almost impossible to philosophise in those circumstances.
That was maybe the most impressive thing about the Celtic and Dundee United players on Wednesday: how well they focused during the shoot-out. Overall the quality was astounding. They managed to get their heads straight and remembered the accepted pearls of wisdom about taking penalties – which hold particularly if you do not find yourself in the situation regularly.
Firstly, you must make your mind up where you are going to hit the ball long before you take the kick, preferably 24 hours in advance, then do not change your mind on the run up. Secondly – and this may sound a trifle obvious – make sure it is on target, if it is not between the posts it doesn't count, as Willo Flood discovered with his second effort. Finally, if you are not confident and do not often take penalties, go for power over placement. Even if it is not right in the corner and the keeper goes the correct way, there is still a chance of it finding its way over the line, which is not the case if it is passed instead of blootered. There is also the age-old debate of whether or not there is any value in practising penalty kicks beforehand. I understand the argument that the circumstances and the pressures are so different between an empty training ground and the national stadium with thousands of fans and a cup final depending on your one kick. There are, however, few downsides to practising; it certainly isn't going to hurt your chances of scoring.
For starters you can find out what type of penalty suits you best. After a bit of practice, a rugged centre half might just discover that a clip up into the postage stamp is a tad beyond his capabilities; it is always good to know this before you try it at Hampden Park.
Coming back to the Germans and their historical ability to win most penalty shoot-outs, I unashamedly copied one of their ideas. Not only would they practise, but they would try as often as possible to practise in the stadium and at the end of the pitch at which the penalties were likely to be taken.
No doubt some scientist will do some work on perspective and how it affects your brain and judgment, proving that even though the size of the goal and the distance of the kick never change, your mind will see it differently depending on what is behind the goal. I know that those 12 yards always felt slightly further away for me when there was a running track behind the goal like the old Stamford Bridge instead of a bank of fans six feet from the keeper's shoulder like there is at Upton Park.
Any little thing that will give you even the smallest advantage in a penalty shoot-out is worth investigating because matches, cups, seasons and even on occasion how careers are quantified, can all depend on one kick of a ball.
When analysing the kicks on TV or radio, while others will use the tired, lazy old line "they are professional footballers, they should never miss from 12 yards", I always try to remember what it really felt like, even for someone like myself who was ultra confident in his own ability when on the pitch. Players are usually part of a team, but in the long, long moments walking from the half-way line to the penalty spot, suddenly it becomes a totally individual sport and as such totally different from the norm and that always has an effect.
Most reasonable former players applaud the scorers and are sympathetic towards those who miss, mainly because we have been there before. If I ever feel there is any danger of me getting divorced from the reality of the situation or that I am getting too pleased with myself, all I have to do is go on to YouTube, type in "Pat Nevin" and "Man City penalty" and a level of humility very swiftly returns.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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