Equally not all missed penalties are the taker’s fault
23 July ~ There is an iconic photo that shows Gordon Banks, almost on the ground but with his arms high above his head, as he pushes a Geoff Hurst penalty up and over the bar in the 118th minute of a League Cup semi-final second leg between West Ham and Stoke on December 15, 1971.
Hurst, cheeks puffed out as usual, had blasted the kick with his usual power, and while one can argue that he might have placed it better, it is also true that nine times out of ten the sheer pace of the shot would have been enough. It would have sent West Ham through to the final. Instead, after two epic replays, it was Stoke who went on to win the trophy by beating Chelsea at Wembley.
I saw this penalty, albeit from a distance of 100 yards as I was on the South Bank at Upton Park, and I have often wondered why, when a penalty is missed, some blame is almost always attached to the kicker. On the other hand, when a goal results rarely if ever does the goalkeeper get criticised for failing to save the shot. And yet it is an incontrovertible fact that some penalties are less difficult to save than some shots from open play. And that sometimes the failure to score is much more due to the brilliance of the goalkeeper than to a poor shot.
Take Hurst’s shot in 1971. Prior to the Stoke game he had never missed a penalty for West Ham. Like one of his successors, Ray Stewart, he relied on power and not subtlety, and it served him well. I believe that what happened on that cold December evening was not so much that Hurst missed a penalty as that Banks, with reflexes almost as sharp as those he had displayed against Pelé in the 1970 World Cup, saved it.
We have all seen penalties that could or should have been saved, and yet we are strangely reluctant to blame goalkeepers when they happen. It is as though the very fact that they are alone facing a shot from 12 yards means that they have nothing to lose. Heroes if they make the save, but never chumps if they do not.
And yet if you analyse penalties logically, the first thing is that the goalkeeper should have a 50-50 chance of diving the right way. And if he does, he probably then has the same chance of saving the shot. Which means that on average 25 per cent of penalties should fail to produce a goal. And I believe that is approximately what does happen. This means that a missed penalty is not a surprise, and saving a penalty is often not especially difficult.
A recent example of a penalty where the goalkeeper should not have been happy occurred in the Serie A game between Milan and Roma on May 9. With Milan leading 2-0, Roma were awarded a penalty. Francesco Totti put it away, but his shot passed under Diego López’s body as he mistimed his dive, and was eminently saveable. Had it come in open play, he would have been criticised and rightly so. But because it was a penalty other criteria were applied and he escaped.
The conclusion to be drawn is that in the way they deal with penalties goalkeepers should be judged by the same standards applied for shots in open play. Do not be afraid to say that a failure to save a penalty was a mistake. Equally, when a penalty is saved, do not always blame the kicker. Sometimes there is little more that he could have done.
If Banks had failed to save Hurst’s penalty, nobody would have criticised him because it was almost perfectly struck. Almost, but not totally. But that is true of lots of penalties, and many that go in are not as well struck as Hurst’s. So I would not blame him either. In the space of a split second two great players produced a cameo that has remained seared in my memory for 44 years. Even though I was disappointed that West Ham had lost, I knew that I had seen a piece of football history. Richard Mason