In History, Sport, Words

word of the week

JFK, Neil Armstrong, Lady Di, Eric Dier… You will never forget where you were when you watched England win their first ever World Cup penalty shootout.

You might not know this, though: who took the first penalty in the first ever shootout in English football? Read on for the answer.

I was a month short of my first birthday when England won the World Cup, so I have no recollection of that dim and distant moment of satisfaction. Every World Cup since, however, has left an indelible mark, an association of words that can be triggered by the mere mention of a year.

1970: Banks. Pele. Walking pace. 1974: Not there. 1978: Not there. Ally’s Army. Kempes. 1982: Robson. Tear gas. Schumacker. 1986: Hand of God. 1990: Gazza. Penalties. 1994: Diana Ross. 1998: Becks. Owen. Penalties. 2002: Ronaldinho. 2006: Penalties. 2010: Humiliation. 2014: Worse.

You’ll notice how the words become fewer and the word ‘penalties’ proliferates. No wonder we lost our national marbles this week and even people who normally decry the game as silly have been caught humming Football’s Coming Home in supermarket queues. It felt like an exorcism โ€“ not that I’ve ever undergone an exorcism but I’ve seen the film and I’m pretty sure that’s what it must feel like โ€“ an unbridled outpouring of demonic torment and an inpouring of relief, elation and, after a few moments’ reflection, beer.

Never has a shootout carried such drama, not even that famous little skirmish at the OK Coral back in 1881. For a start, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday took their shots before the Clanton-McLaury gang had their go, and secondly, two of the gang legged it out of Tombstone with the score standing at 3-0, thus forfeiting any chance of a comeback and leaving the spectators feeling understandably short-changed.

The idea of settling disputes with firearms, from which the word ‘shootout’ comes (although it wasn’t coined until the 1940s), was very much a 19th century thing. Duelling had been around since ancient times, when slighted Egyptians used to set about one another with hand tools, resulting in either a messy death or a remarkable feat of craftsmanship. The Great Pyramid of Cheops was once believed to have been the byproduct of a particularly protracted duel between two feuding families of stonemasons from Cairo.

Throughout the centuries, duelling was observed by the upper classes as the noble way to defend one’s honour, with the sword taking over from the mallet and chisel as the main weapon of choice. But come the 19th century, all the rich boys wanted a pistol and so thrusting, parrying and slashing gave way to shooting. The verb ‘to shoot’ had its origins in the Old English ‘sceotan’, which had a number of violent definitions, the most gentle of which, ‘to send forth swiftly’, became the root of all shootings, from arrows to bullets to footballs.

There were rules, of course. You couldn’t just go up to someone, accuse them of spilling your pint and shoot them there and then. Not like these days. It had to be a fair fight, fought on equal terms, with seconds and a doctor, in a place where the rozzers turned a blind eye. And just in case something went wrong and one of you actually hit, you needed to have a good excuse ready as to why you were lugging a dead aristocrat around the foggy streets of London on a cold November night.

For duelling was both obligatory and illegal. By the end of the century polite society seems to have realised the absurdity in this and taken to settling disputes with fists, the recently drawn up Marquess of Queensberry rules providing the new moral code. Thus the settling of feuds became sport, taking many forms, including football.

The shootout as a means of settling football matches was established in 1970, when Manchester United (clue for you) beat Hull City from spot kicks in the little known and short-lived Watney Cup โ€“ the first cup competition, incidentally, to be named after its sponsor, the Watney Mann brewery. Prior to that, they had experimented with methods including the toss of a coin and the drawing of lots. Can you imagine if Tuesday’s match had culminated in Eric Dier striding forth from the half-way line, taking a deep breath and carefully picking a straw from the referee’s clenched fist? Not quite the same.

The concept of a shootout to decide drawn football matches had been mooted a century earlier but had to be shelved after Royal Engineers, one of the pre-eminent teams of the time, got the wrong end of the stick and tried to settle an FA Cup tie against Preston North End with a howitzer.

These days, penalty shootouts are two-a-penny, a reflection of modern life, when no-one has time for a replay any more. Back in the 1970s, life (and the economy) stopped for football. In 1971, Oxford City and Alvechurch found time to play each other six times in 17 days in an effort to settle an FA Cup tie. The fans, who also found time to keep turning up to the various neutral grounds, were treated to just one goal in the last three games, the first two of which went to extra time. One goal in 330 minutes! And the winners were knocked out in the next round. Different times. Different values.

Mind you, penalty shootouts are no guarantee of a swift conclusion. In 2005 an FA Cup replay between Tunbridge Wells and Littlehampton required 40 spot kicks before Tunbridge Wells clinched it 16-15. Another shootout in the Namibian Cup went to 48! It would have been quicker to replay the game. And if you took an infinite number of monkeys and trained them to take part in an infinite number of penalty shootouts, they would produce a shootout that lasted forever… while writing the complete works of Shakespeare at the same time.

So bless our boys for nailing it in five and sparing us the soliloquies.

Answer: The first person to take a penalty in a shootout in English football was none other than the legendary George Best. He scored, of course.

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