Penalty kicks have made the news several times this week. First, we had the fact that, if needed, they would be used in this year’s FA Cup quarter finals instead of replays. Then, the International Football Association Board which serves as the guardian of the game’s laws proposed changes to the traditional spot kick format in penalty shoot outs. Instead of teams taking turns one at a time, they want to adopt a system similar to tie breaks in tennis. Thus, after the first team takes the opening penalty, the next team gets two attempts and so on. This means that instead of all the pressure being on the second team, the contest becomes more equal in theory, and probably adds to the drama too for supporters in offering something different to the usual routine.

According to Associated Press reports this means an ABBA system, instead of the A-B system that we have at the present. The rationale for this is that historically the team that goes first has a 60% greater chance of victory in shoot outs. Of course, such statistics don’t seem to apply to the England football team in major tournaments. Whether kicking first or second, England’s shoot out history is horrendous. Out of eight tournament shoot-outs since 1990, England have only won once on penalties; against Spain in the 1996 European Championship quarter final. The other seven defeats have come in major tournaments at the hands of West Germany (1990), Germany (1996), Argentina (1998), Portugal (2004 and 2006), Italy (2012), and then a lesser-known defeat at the hands of Belgium in the King Hassan II International Cup tournament in 1998.

So who is to blame for this affliction of defying statistics when it comes to penalties? The players who have missed? The managers in charge of the team? The fans and media for putting such pressure on their shoulders in advance of every major tournament? Nope. This malignance goes back a lot further than the scene of England’s match against West Germany in Italia 90, when infamous misses by Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle cost the team a place in the final.

Fittingly for St. Patrick’s day perhaps, the blame for this whole situation can be laid at the hands of an Irishman, two decades before the island was partitioned. If asked to name people in Irish history who had caused grief for the English, you might well think of Daniel O’Connell, Gerry Adams, or Ray Houghton. Very few people would name William McCrum, affectionately known as ‘Master Willie’ and born in February 1865 in The Orchard County of Armagh, which lies about forty miles south of Belfast in green and rolling countryside. From here, the son of a wealthy industrialist would rise head and shoulders above most of his countrymen in the legacy he left for his neighbours across the water, particularly in their international battles a century later. Indeed, you could say he might even have contributed to Brexit, such is the way the papers have hyped up hysteria about defeats to ‘foreign’ teams over the years!

McCrum played as a goalkeeper for a small village club named Milford F.C. and it was here that he came up with a clever plan to improve the game. At this time, before the days of sendings off in football, there was no mechanism in place to stop attackers being fouled in the box to prevent a certain score. The only punishment awarded was an indirect free kick. Therefore, Willie McCrum proposed the idea of a shot being taken, twelve yards from the goal line, with no other players between the goalkeeper and the person who strikes the ball. This revolutionary move was treated with derision at first when the Irish Football Association (IFA) submitted the original proposal to the International Football Board (IFB), through General Secretary Jack Reid.

The popular press of the day called this ‘The Irishman’s Motion’ or ‘THE DEATH PENALTY’, criticising the very notion that British players would behave in such an unsporting fashion in the first instance. As a consequence of the controversy this new idea generated, the IFB adjourned their decision until a season later. By then public opinion had changed, following two notorious handball incidents in the British game. One took place in a Scottish Cup tie between Hearts and East Stirlingshire, with the other coming in an FA Cup quarter final clash between Stoke and Notts County. In both cases, the offending team escaped without any ‘penalty’, as their opponents missed the subsequent free kicks. Even in the days before TV and social media, word soon spread about the viability of the Irishman’s motion to take this cruel injustice out of football. Rugby, after all, had been using a penalty system for over a decade and football of the spherical variety, needed to catch up to create a sense of it being a fair game.

On June 2nd 1891, swept up in this mood of change, the IFB accepted the IFA’s proposal at a meeting in Glasgow’s Alexandra Hotel and approved the humble penalty kick as Rule No 13 in Association Football’s Laws of the Game; with some amendments to the original idea. Fittingly then, just four days later, on June 6th, the world’s first penalty came about fifteen minutes into the Airdrie Charity Cup final between Royal Albert F.C. and Airdrieonians. In another bout of irony, it was an Irishman who stepped up to face the opposing keeper and take this historic kick twelve yards from goal. James McLuggage (original spelling McCluggage) from a family of Irish immigrants beat the keeper to open the scoring in a game which Royal Albert would eventually win by two goals to nil.

By the start of the next season the penalty kick had been fully introduced across Britain and Ireland’s leagues, and William McCrum’s name faded out of the headlines. Much like Jean-Marc Bosman in 1995, he had instigated one of the greatest changes in the history of football but never really got the credit for it. Indeed, my discovery of this only came about through a billboard in the George Best City Airport in Belfast. From that advertisement I got the inspiration to find out more about this amateur footballer who perhaps should be as well-known as his countrymen and fellow goalkeepers Harry Gregg, Pat Jennings, and Jim Platt.