FIRST PUBLISHED: 90 Minutes, September 1991
By Chris Hunt

Gary Lineker can well remember his first penalty in the professional game. Leicester City were 5-0 up and the regular penalty taker had already bagged two on his way to a hat trick. Lineker was given the chance to complete his own hat trick with the third penalty of the match. “I miss hit it completely,” he laughs, “but it went in.” And the moral of the lesson? “When you take your first penalty, take it when you’re 5-0 up.”


As an international, Lineker wasn’t granted the same luxury. After four barren years in his role as England penalty taker, Gary found himself on the spot for the first time against Cameroon, 2-1 down and a few minutes from the final whistle. His kick alone stood between England and the World Cup semi-final. “It wasn’t the nicest way to be initiated into taking penalties for your country,” he recalls with his usual sportsmanlike sense of understatement. “It was a bit nerve racking, but fortunately for myself, the ball ended up in the right place and it got us going.”


But penalties, like buses, don’t always come in ones. 15 minutes later Lineker found himself on the spot once more. “I always pre-planned any penalty before a game and practiced what I was going to do with it, but I’d never really accounted for getting two! I had to make my mind up… and having seen the goalkeeper move so early on the first one, I decided to just hit it in the middle. And on this particular occasion, everything went according to plan.”


Next came the semi final with Germany. Every English football fan knows that story, of course. But to have actually been there, to have experienced that long, long walk from the centre circle to the 18 yard box… “You can’t get much more pressure than a shoot out in the World Cup semi-final,” he says. “I’m sure it makes good TV and it’s probably great to watch for the public, but it’s certainly very nerve racking for those that have to take them.”


Somehow, it’s hard to believe that the ice cool Gary Lineker could ever suffer from a good “nerve racking”, but then Stuart Pearce, a man seemingly made of iron, could a few minutes later be seen reduced to tears by the same pressure. And indeed, has Chris Waddle been able to watch a penalty since? Could that have been Gary under a less favourable outcome? “If I’d have missed the one in the last few minutes of the game against Cameroon, I’m sure I would have been just as devastated. In a game so tense, you’re bound to be devastated if you miss. I don’t think anyone in the squad or in the country blamed Stuart Pearce or Chris Waddle, but it’s an awful weight for someone to carry.”



Confidence, it seems, is the Lineker rule to coping under the pressure of the spotkick. “The most important thing about taking penalties is not be scared to miss,” he says, “because at some stage if you take them you’re going to miss, and you’ve got to be able to control yourself and not let that worry you for the rest of the game. I missed one in the Cup Final, but fortunately for myself we got the right result so it didn’t matter too much in the end. But if we’d have lost, then I’d have been desperately disappointed about missing that.” One goal down to Forest in the Cup Final and Lineker had the chance of equalising from the spot for Spurs. “I hit the penalty quite well, the goalkeeper moved – I thought early – but he made a great save.”


If Gary has one minor chink in his immaculate armour, it seems to be the slight irritation he feels at the thought of the gamemanship of the goalkeeper. “The penalty it is a bit of a lottery,” he explains. “Although it is a rule that goalkeepers shouldn’t move before the ball is kicked, no-one takes a blind bit of notice – goalkeepers or referees! Unless you hit the absolute perfect penalty in the top corner, if the goalkeeper guesses the right way, the odds are he has every chance of saving it.”

Lineker’s remedy is surprisingly a case of loosening the rules rather than tightening them. “The penalty kicker is not allowed to ‘check’ in his run-up, which I think is a shame. I think they should change the rule to allow goalkeepers to move before the ball is kicked – not off his line but along it – and the person taking the penalty should be allowed to do whatever he likes. If you check your stride just before you run up, I think that would stop goalkeepers moving.”


In the World Cup semi-final it was apparent that Peter Shilton didn’t move before the kick – was he being too gentlemanly? Apparently not, for there is always method in Shilts’ ’keeping madness. “The reason Peter didn’t move was because we’d seen so many poor penalties hitting the middle of the goal in all the other shoot outs. Peter decided he’d be better off watching where they went, but unfortunately every penalty went right in the corner where he couldn’t get to them.”


Sometimes it seems hard to differentiate between football as a sport, and football as the dramatic piece of entertainment it becomes in moments of great excitement and tension. Lineker still finds it possible to tell one from the other. For instance, the penalty may have all the drama of the final act of ‘Hamlet’, but it still serves its purpose in terms of the rules of the game.


“It’s still a deterrent to people committing fouls in the area and handballing things, but the entertainment side of it has always been there.” But why does the penalty kick hold so much enduring fascination to the average football fan? “I would think it’s because everybody knows they’ve got the chance of watching a goal being scored, and there aren’t that many goals scored in any games. And of course, there’s the theatre of the penalty shoot-out. I think if you asked a neutral fan watching a game what he’d like to see at the end, invariably they’d hope that the shoot out would take place.”


And with the introduction of sudden death penalties as a first replay decider in all rounds of the FA Cup this season, is Gary looking forward to the prospect of more tension on the spot?


“Well, with the fixture list we have this season it makes sense to make sure that nobody goes four or five replays in a cup game. It’s a bit of a shame that somebody has to lose that way, but personally speaking I don’t think it’s a bad idea.”



Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007