3 English penalties which changed careers forever

Pelé once famously said, ‘A penalty is a cowardly way to score’. Strange sentiment for such a ruthless goal scorer, although his point stands. 12 yards – it’s easy enough, right? If only.

I look back at three moments involving penalties for England, including the pivotal circumstances surrounding them. They’re not all misses, and, don’t worry, it doesn’t include Gareth Southgate, nor Stuart Pearce.

During matches, England have been awarded 115 penalty-kicks, 82 were scored and 33 were saved or missed. It’s a paltry record, and one which doesn’t even include England’s horrendous performances in the dreaded shoot-outs. Some penalties were more memorable than others, and here are three examples which, for different reasons, proved to be unexpectedly defining moments in the careers of those involved.

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Zinedine Zidane stuns England in 2004 with an injury-time penalty to turn the match on its head, moments after he was physically sick in the penalty area

The tale of two penalties and the vomiting Frenchman
Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham
France 2-1 England – Estadio Da Luz, 13 June 2004

This match featured two crucial penalties, taken, at the time, by Real Madrid team-mates. One was missed, the other converted. I look back at the 2004 European Championships with huge affection. Our team’s performances in the early stages were some of the most impressive tournament football England has played in my lifetime. An 18-year-old, free-wheeling Wayne Rooney blitzed through elite defenders with ease, just a few weeks before his career-defining move to Manchester United. ‘I was just happy to be on the same pitch as Zinedine Zidane’, Rooney would later say.

Despite some hugely positive performances in the group stage, England made a stuttering start against France at the Estadio Da Luz, throwing the game away in injury time, having lead 1-0 with 90 minutes gone. John Motson recently said, ‘England could have won the game and, after all these years, I still can’t figure out how or why we lost it’.

While many point to Euro 96 as our best chance of silverware in recent years, we were helped by essentially playing each match as a home game in that tournament. In 1996, it felt the tectonic plates had shifted, the importance was greater than football – it felt like a crucial movement, culturally. It coincided with the ‘lad’ 90s of Skinner and Baddiel, Brit Pop and a merry post-Thatcher glee of the working classes. We very nearly won the thing in our home territory, but, as in 2004, yet again penalties p*ssed on the parade.

2004 had a different feel to it. Expectation was, surprisingly, only luke-warm leading into the tournament – the 18-month ban of Rio Ferdinand had dominated the headlines. The oft-discussed strategy of how best to accommodate both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in central midfield had become a mainstay in pub discussion, yesteryear’s equivalent of the inane ‘Ronaldo vs Messi’ debate.

It was so warming, though, to see England play with the shackles off, a series of explosive performances which put a young Wayne Rooney firmly on the track towards stardom. It was he who won the penalty in the second half of the opening match against France. With the score at 1-0 to England, following a headed opener from Lampard, Beckham was outfoxed by former team-mate Fabien Barthez, the Frenchman correctly diving to his right. Beckham had missed his previous penalty for England against Turkey, and would also miss the next against Portugal in the quarter-final stage shoot-out later in the tournament.

With 90 minutes on the clock, Zidane made a mockery of English hesitancy, converting a free-kick from the edge of the box. David James, England’s perennial weak link, told the BBC in 2012, ‘We did a lot of preparatory work before the game, and video analysis. Zidane didn’t feature in any of it. He hadn’t taken a free-kick for over two years, so he wasn’t considered a threat’. Truly astonishing.

A mix up between Gerrard and James led to Thierry Henry being fouled in the box, allowing Zidane to snatch the game from the penalty spot. Seconds before successfully converting the spot-kick, Zidane vomited on the ground twice in quick succession. Having seemingly offloaded the nerves, the Frenchman dispatched the penalty with ease to make it 2-1, coolly sending James the wrong way. In the post-match press conference that night, Zidane said, in characteristically modest fashion, ‘We can thank Fabien for making the difference’.

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Spiritual guidance and the ‘Sliding Doors’ penalty
Michael Owen
Argentina 2-2 England (a.e.t.) – Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, 30 June 1998

This game obviously became famous for two major incidents: Michael Owen’s stunning solo goal in the first half, and David Beckham’s red card for a petulant kick out at Diego Simeone.

On a warm evening in St-Etienne, this was yet another pulsating World Cup match between England and Argentina, the memories of the so-called injustice of the ‘hand of God’ still burning strong in English minds. In the shoot-out that night, the 18-year-old Owen successfully converted his spot-kick via the inside of the post. While it first appeared a routine conversion, such is the ignominy players receive following major tournaments, the importance of this penalty, for both Owen and England, cannot be overstated.

In February 1998, Owen became the youngest player to represent England for over 100 years, aged just 18 years and 59 days old. Also a prolific goal scorer at youth level, Owen quickly emerged as a trusted finisher for both Liverpool and England. Manager Glenn Hoddle was a big admirer in 1998, since then even declaring Owen as being in the top four finishers in England’s footballing history, alongside Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer – ‘Some might say he is even top of that list. His finishing was amazing for a young man’.

There was a palpable sense of English optimism going into World Cup 1998, to be held in neighbouring France. The relative success of Euro ’96 offered fresh buoyancy, perhaps football was coming home after all. England were a well-balanced outfit – sufficient squad depth and a deft combination of both grit and grace – adverse humidity and complications with time difference would not be an issue.

Paul Gascoigne was conspicuous by his absence on the plane, although, controversially, there was indeed a seat reserved for Hoddle’s faith healer, Eileen Drewery. It would be a theme – there were increasingly alarming signs of Hoddle’s spiritual beliefs infiltrating the atmosphere within the England camp, the players seemingly as dumbfounded by it as the rest of the country. In his autobiography, Graeme Le Saux details how the entire squad had strange medication left for them on their beds in the team hotel; a concoction of mysterious pills and tablets. The players seemed confused, wary of the legitimacy of taking such bizarre medication, but, fearing for their place in the team, they swallowed their pills and kept their mouths shut.

In the group stages, a comfortable 2-0 victory over Tunisia was quickly followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat to Romania. At 1-1 in this match, as a commentator for ITV, Kevin Keegan famously said, ‘There’s only one team who will win this now and that’s England’. Cue a late Romanian winner. Owen made his first start in the tournament in the decisive group match against Columbia, which they won 2-0 thanks to goals from Darren Anderton and David Beckham. An Argentina team brimming with experience and attacking flair were next up.

Penalties became the underlying theme of the match. Within 9 minutes, both teams had scored from the spot; Gabriel Batistuta opened the scoring, followed by a trademark Shearer conversion. It was Owen who won the penalty in the lead-up to England’s equaliser. Then came the moment which truly announced Owen to the footballing world. He twisted past Ayala and José Chamot, confidently taking a shot ahead of the onrushing Paul Scholes, and stroking the ball into the top corner of Carlos Roa’s net. A stunning individual goal.

At least three England players were still celebrating on the touchline when Javier Zanetti foxed the entire England wall to convert a cleverly-worked free-kick. In this month’s FourFourTwo magazine, Zanetti claimed the Argentinians had worked meticulously on that set-piece in training, and, a surprise even to themselves, the plan worked to perfection.

Two minutes into the second half, Beckham was awarded a red card for retaliation to Simone’s provocation, an act which caused a whirlwind of sickening death threats and effigies for months following the match. England hung on for the second half and throughout extra time. As Paul Ince and David Batty missed their respective penalties in the shoot-out, Owen confidently sent Roa the wrong way with his penalty, the ball clipping dangerously off the inside of the upper left hand post.

After his successful penalty, running back to his team-mates on the halfway line, Owen gave his trademark ‘rubbing hands’ celebration, followed by what looked like a ‘time out’ sign. He later confirmed that this was a symbol of the post and bar, and an indication of relief that the margin for error was much finer than he’d anticipated. The importance of this penalty should not be overlooked – despite Owen’s sensational first-half goal, such is the hysteria surrounding penalties in a World Cup, his rapid rise to stardom may have stalled before it fully began.

Owen would go on to enjoy a fruitful international career in front of goal. Several matches against Argentina proved to be memorable for varying reasons. In the 2002 World Cup, Owen won a penalty after being fouled by a long-haired Mauricio Pochettino, allowing Beckham to complete his redemption from the ghosts of 1998. In November 2005, Owen scored two late goals against Argentina in a 3-2 victory to England, to this day the best and most dramatic international friendly I’ve ever seen.

Due to Owen’s early rise into the senior set-up, it looked extremely likely that he would break Bobby Charlton’s all-time record. In the end, Owen had to settle for 40 international goals after being frozen out by Fabio Capello – a relative disappointment which fades into insignificance when compared with the tale of his fellow goal scorer and future BT Sport colleague, Gary Lineker…

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The failed Panenka and dreams of the all-time record
Gary Lineker
England 1-1 Brazil – Wembley Stadium, 17 May 1992

1992 was a turbulent year in the career of Gary Lineker, perhaps memorable for all the wrong reasons. Sitting at 46 international goals at the turn of the year, Lineker looked a certainty to reach 50 goals to finally break Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time goal scoring record. Things didn’t work out as expected though – it was a sorry tale which included, uncharacteristically, some fluffed chances and an awfully-taken penalty.

Even from his early playing days, Lineker has always been held in high regard across the nation. His good-natured and affable personality appealed to the masses, although he claims himself that the nationwide popularity didn’t truly start until after his Golden Boot achievement at World Cup 1986. He was polite, well-mannered and trustworthy in tournament football, and very rarely lost his cool when it mattered, which is what made his final matches for England all the more surprising.

Just before Christmas in 1991, Lineker announced that he would be playing for Japanese club Grampus Eight the following season, a sentiment which still sounds ridiculous to this day. The 1992 European Championships would be his final matches for England, with the all-time goal scoring record well within his grasp. The tide turned quickly though. Starting in February 1992, Graham Taylor dropped Lineker from the line-up for several international friendly matches, the Spurs striker losing his place to a young Alan Shearer. These were the first signs of cracks in Lineker’s relationship with Graham Taylor, a scenario which would apparently continue for years to come.

Despite his reduced minutes on the pitch, Lineker scored in tight encounters against France and the USSR in the early months of 1992. Against the latter, Lineker failed to convert an open chance late in the match, Merlin sticker-book legend Dimitri Kharine proving too difficult to beat. The record would have to wait. It was a matter of time, most of the nation thought. Taylor, somewhat unapologetically, said, ‘I want it out of the way as soon as possible’. Lineker was resting on 48 international goals, with several chances in the summer ahead to equal Charlton’s record.

An international friendly at home against Brazil was the perfect platform for Lineker to make history, one goal shy of the record. To add even further meaning, and in hindsight, added sting, it was to be his last ever appearance at Wembley. With eleven minutes on the clock, Lineker himself was brought down in the box. He went to chip the goalkeeper in a Panenka fashion, his feign had worked – foxing Carlos in Brazil’s goal – but his execution let him down. The ball floated pitifully into the goalkeeper’s arms and the chance was gone. The match finished 1-1, David Platt unfortunately being the only Englishman on the scoresheet.

Rather than backing his player, Taylor went on the offensive, ‘It’s almost as if Gary is a national institution who cannot be touched. You could argue that we played Brazil with 10 men – but you’re not allowed to’. Ostracising his star striker seemed both unfair and unproductive, especially with Euro ’92 rapidly approaching. Lineker dismissed his manager’s criticism after the match and explained his logic for the penalty, ‘I saw the goalkeeper commit himself early and tried to lift the ball over him… but I scuffed up some grass as I shot and couldn’t get any height’.

For the England camp, Euro ’92 in Sweden was an unmitigated disaster. With only 8 teams in the tournament, England finished bottom of Group A, with only one point and one goal scored. Key players John Barnes and Paul Gascoigne both missed the tournament through injury, proving to be great losses. 1992 was the last major tournament where victories gained only two points, meaning the matches were cagey and largely uneventful in front of goal. For Lineker, as well as his strike partner Shearer, chances were few and far between as England played out two goalless draws in the opening matches.

In the final match against host-nation Sweden, with the score at 1-1 and both teams chasing a winner, Lineker was hauled off in place of Alan Smith. Barry Davies famously said in commentary, ‘If England don’t make it to the semi-finals, what an unhappy end we are witnessing to Gary Lineker’s England career’. And so it proved to be, as Sweden scored with a fizzing effort from Thomas Brolin to send the Three Lions crashing out.

There was to be no fairytale ending for Lineker, nor indeed for Taylor – after failing to qualify for the World Cup two years later, he was unceremoniously sacked and, somewhat harshly, mocked in almost all quarters of the press. Ongoing speculation of a feud between the two men has since been firmly squashed. After Taylor sadly passed away in January of this year, Lineker paid tribute to ‘an outstanding manager, lover of football and a thoroughly decent man’.

Injuries to key players and a transitional period for the squad ultimately led to Taylor’s demise, culminating in a disappointing World Cup qualification campaign, although his apparent harsh treatment of Lineker, the nation’s beloved son, certainly didn’t help.

Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here

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