Former Leeds United midfielder writes exclusively for the YEP.
IT might surprise you to hear that I never took a penalty in all my time as a player (or not that I remember anyway).
Let’s be fair, in virtually every squad I was part of there were better options than me. At a critical moment of an important game, I wasn’t counting on the other lads to say ‘go on Prutts, have a bash’.
I don’t even know if I’d have been any good at them. I practised them in training, like everyone does from time to time, but that honestly means sod all. If you stick one in the woods, you have a shower, get changed and go home to the family. A few hours later the kids are running riot and you’ve forgotten all about it.
That’s the thing about penalties. It’s an intricate skill which looks much easier at face value than it is when scoring one matters. The fact is that the odds are stacked in favour of a player who takes one. The size of the goal, the size of the keeper in comparison to it and the distance between you: if you don’t do anything stupid, it’s harder to miss.
But put a baying crowd behind the net and hang the entire season on one kick of the ball and the scenario’s very different.
Should Jordan Rhodes have put his hand up before the shoot-out between Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town on Wednesday night? It did come as a surprise to hear Carlos Carvalhal say that Rhodes didn’t want to take one. When you grind football down to the brass tacks, we expect our strikers to score goals and we expect them to stick away penalties in their sleep. Rhodes is a £10m striker. But the reality’s not so straightforward.
For one thing, scoring goals in open play is not the same thing as converting a penalty. A lot of what Rhodes does comes down to anticipation and being in the right place at the right time. The best penalty takers are the cleanest strikers of the ball or the most accurate.
There’s a reason why centre-forwards don’t often have a go with free-kicks from 20 yards. Other people can be more deadly from that range. The same theory was behind Harry Kane taking corners for England at Euro 2016. If he’s got the best delivery then he’s your man. I can’t deny it looks and feels odd but it’s really a case of horses for courses.
I’d assume that on the night, having come on as a substitute and seen little in the way of chances, Rhodes didn’t feel like his confidence or his mind was where it needed to be. He’ll get criticised for that, inevitably, but you’d probably find plenty of strikers out there who relate to how he was feeling. A knack for goalscoring doesn’t necessarily make you good at penalties.
It only increases expectation that you should be good at them. The scenario I’d give you is Jermaine Beckford and me in a shoot-out at Leeds. We both take a penalty and we both miss. Who takes more heat? Becks, naturally, because scoring goals is what he does. I’d been seen as a less reliable option.
As it happens, we went through a weird stretch under Simon Grayson at Leeds where our record with penalties was awful. We rotated through quite a few players, none of whom were much good at them and most of whom ended up missing. It wasn’t that we didn’t practice – the more you miss the more you think about it – but the quiet surroundings of Thorp Arch created no pressure. It didn’t count for anything and it didn’t make much difference on match days. Perhaps it was just the case that none of us were naturals.
Alan Shearer was brilliant from 12 yards because he took the ‘up yours’ approach. Basically, I’m going to smash this into the top corner. If the keeper keeps it out, fair enough. Matt Le Tissier is someone else who springs to mind. When I think about his style, it was cat-and-mouse. He seemed to love the process of outwitting a keeper and finding the net regardless of where he placed the ball and regardless of how much anyone studied his technique. I’m talking about stellar players here but still, some people make it into an art form. Think about Julian Dicks at West Ham.
Rhodes is obviously not of the same ilk and that’s not me having a go at him. If you don’t like the fact that he didn’t want to be part of the shoot-out then fair enough, and in a hypothetical conversation I’d always put my hand up to take one. I’d always be saying ‘gaffer, throw me in there.’ But in the heat of a moment like Wednesday night, maybe I’d think differently. Am I actually any good at penalties? Am I risking the club’s chances by offering to take one? Are there other people around me who are better at it? There’s a fine balance between showing the confidence a player should show and remembering where you’re own ability stops.
It’s a complicated discussion for what is basically the simplest of scenarios – score from 12 yards and you’re at Wembley – but in many ways that’s the ultimate test of nerve for a footballer. I can’t say I’m sorry that I was never asked to take it.
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