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Sunday, 10 July 2011

England's penalty woe continues - Time to call on Le Tiss

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Another major tournament for England ends by crashing out on penalties. Hope Powell’s England women’s team joined their male counterparts in failing to progress from the spot yesterday afternoon in the world cup to France. But when will England end their penalty hell?

The men’s senior side have gone out of five tournaments over the past 20 years. The Under-21s followed suit in 2007 in a mammoth penalty shoot-out, and now the ladies have joined the party. What happens to the English when it comes to sticking it away from 12 yards? Is it nerves? Is it a lack of composure? Or are we simply not good enough?

The England ladies were within minutes of reaching their first world cup semi-final before France’s Elise Bussaglia hit an unstoppable strike into the top corner. With Kelly Smith struggling with a knee injury, England were effectively down to 10 men but they clung on and obviously fancied their chances from the spot. Given England’s dire record, so did France.

At grassroots level, I think we overlook the importance of penalties. When I was growing up, training would consist of running around a field for an hour, completing some sprints and then going straight into a game. Now you may have noticed something drastically wrong with that picture. There’s no ball development. There was no emphasis on dribbling, no focus on keeping the ball and absolutely no skill training at all. Hence it’s fair to say I never had the required skills to be a top class footballer. I could run all day, shoot and split a defence with a killer ball, but beat a man? Only if I was faster than him!

But back to penalties. With that lack of basic training, you won’t be surprised to learn that the only time we took penalties was in a game. And, of course, if you don’t practise you don’t progress. Things have changed over the past 20 years, or at least they have at my local club. There the emphasis is all about the ball, passing and moving, which is how it should be. But penalties? We still have a long, long way to go on that.

We should be making our players take penalties from as young an age as possible. I’m guessing one of the biggest holdbacks in this though is the nanny state. “What if they miss? They could be traumatised for life,” they’ll cry. Surely it’s better to miss in the playground and develop than wait until they’re in a major final with millions of people around the world watching them?

Today’s children have been wrapped up in cotton wool for far too long. The fact that some games don’t even have a winner anymore because they don’t want to upset the loser is a joke. They should be taught that life is all about winners and losers and that nobody remembers the losers, only the winners. And to be a winner you have to be the best you can be.

Make penalties a major part of the youth game and build from there. Make them take penalties at the end of every game with an extra point awarded to the winners. Players will still miss or have their efforts saved of course, but at least they will become accustomed to the situation and hopefully improve their technique so they don’t fail next time.

It also begs the question; what is the best way to take a penalty? Injured Kelly Smith could hardly walk during the final 50 minutes or so but had enough courage to step up and blast the ball into the back of the net, while some player’s have the confidence to send the keeper the wrong way and slot it in to bottom corner.

Penalties are a bit of a lottery. The keeper holds all the aces. The player is expected to score from 12 yards, but if you’re confident in your ability then that’s half the battle won.

I think there’s one way that England can overcome its hatred of penalties? Bring Southampton legend Matthew Le Tissier into the fold. He should be given a role by the FA to go around every club and school in the country and pass on his experience of penalty taking. After all Le Tiss was one of the best when it came from 12 yards out. His record in the professional game was exemplary. Only one of his penalties out of 48 was ever saved. If you can’t follow his lead when it comes from penalties then you shouldn’t be taking them. Or alternatively Alan Shearer. He was another player who was superb from the spot.

Of course the first rule when it comes to taking a penalty is hit the target. That is what ultimately cost England’s women. Chelsea’s Claire Rafferty choked her effort past the post and captain Faye White went for power but smashed the bar. Hit the target and you’ve got a chance of scoring.

But I’m not going to attack the women. They did a great job and the women’s game is coming on leaps and bounds. In fact the standard is so good that the likes of Kelly Smith, Jill Scott, Karen Carney and Faye White could give their male counterparts a run for their money. They certainly put in a better shift in this competition than Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard managed in South Africa. Unfortunately, they come home as brave battlers and not world cup winners.

Who knows, had England been more prolific from the spot over the years they could have been World Cup winners in 1990 and European Champions in 1996. One thing’s for sure though, we must put more emphasis on penalties or England will continue to be knocked out in the cruellest way of all.

Calling all football fans. How can England end its penalty hell? What is the best way to take a penalty? Why do you think England are so bad when it comes to penalties? How often do you see youngsters practising penalties? Whatever your view I’d love to hear from you.


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Colin Illingworth



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