WINNERS call them an art form. Losers, a lottery dependent upon pure luck.
If the second theory is true then Sheffield United, who have failed to prevail in any of their last four penalty shoot-outs, would be advised to start collecting shamrocks or a clowder of black cats.
But, as manager Danny Wilson searches for a solution to his team’s problem, two former players and one sports psychologist have shed light on the methods he could employ to try and improve their conversion rate.
Keith Eddy, who made 136 appearances for United before joining New York Cosmos in 1976, marked his debut by scoring a spot-kick during the 1972 Watney Cup Final.
He told The Star: “You can be coached to become a better penalty-taker. I know because I coached myself through sheer repetition. I approached every single one the same way, took the same run-up and always put it to the goalkeeper’s right. The only time I changed was if he moved early.”
Shane Nicholson, the former Derby County and Chesterfield defender, also converted a penalty during his first outing in United colours.
“They are something you can train to become better at,” Nicholson, who left Bramall Lane in 2002, said. “There’s a knack even if you don’t realise straight away.
“It’s a free shot on goal from 12 yards out. In open play, any footballer would back themselves to score in that position. But in shoot-outs some people get nervy rather than remembering that what they are doing is essentially that; taking a free shot.
“I never changed what I did. I even told the media once about where I always put the ball. The biggest battle I had was persuading myself never to alter.
“I visualised scoring and didn’t pay any attention to the keeper. Just the ball and the net.”
The evidence provided by Eddy and Nicholson confirms sound technique and cool heads are important. But can Wilson’s squad mentally prepare to take spot-kicks during ‘real match’ situations?
The answer, according to Professor Ian Maynard, is ‘yes.’
“Work under pressure,” Maynard, of Sheffield Hallam University, said. “Pressure could be having the rest of the squad watching or being ordered to do press-ups if you miss. It will never feel the same as a proper game but it will start to get close.”
Maynard added: “The mind has a very important role. Players need to have made a clear decision on what they are going to do before starting the run-up.
“If the ball is struck well then the goalie might save about two out of 10. Problems start when the player is in two minds or attending to what the goalie is doing because then striking the ball becomes less efficient and a tentative shot is easier to save.”
Eddy agrees. “The more composed you are the more you are dictating things to the keeper. Even if my heart was pounding, I never acted in a manner which gave it away because I wanted to be in charge of the situation.”
Nicholson, who retired from professional football five years ago, echoed Eddy’s sentiment about the importance of body language.
But he also revealed that even seemingly inconsequential details can make the difference between failure and success.
“Always look at the penalty spot itself when you are placing the ball,” Nicholson said. “If there is a divot there or the surface is uneven in any way then that could have a huge bearing on the outcome.”
Teams and ref
CRAWLEY (possible): Jones, Sadler, Connolly, Hunt, Walsh, Akpan, Simpson, Bulman, Adams, Jones, Alexander (4-4-2).
UNITED (possible): Long, McMahon, Collins, Maguire, Hill, Flynn, Doyle, McAllister, Blackman, Kitson, Miller (4-4-2).
Gavin Ward: From Surrey, he averages 3.5 cautions per game so far this season. That compares to 3.14 at the end of last. Sent off two players, including Crawley Town’s Hope Akpan, whe he took charge of their match against Oldham Athletic in October. And also Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson following a difference of opinion at King Power Stadium 10 months ago.