Ciarán Murphy: Gaelic games need the shame of penalty shoot-outs
Kicking 45s to decide a game is too honourable, we need the human fallibility of spot-kicks
Penalties. For better or worse, it’s one of the great set-pieces, in the theatrical or cinematic sense, in all of sport. From Stuart Pearce to Chris Waddle to Roberto Baggio, and through to David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane (although we never really held it against them, did we?).
The GAA are in the market for something similar, and it appears as if penalties, the ultimate test from 11 metres, isn’t doing it for us. In the O’Byrne Cup semi-final between Longford and Meath a couple of weeks back, we got a vision of the future, and it was five alternate free-kicks from 45 metres out, taken from the hands or off the ground.
This launched a spirited debate in some quarters. Speaking the day after the game, Longford’s star man Michael Quinn told us he decided not to take one because he was already fleadhed out from 90 minutes of football and didn’t fancy taking a swing from distance, before having to watch his team lose 2-1 in the shootout.
Quinn preferred a straight penalty shoot-out, in the style of Daniel Timofte and Packie Bonner, and inspired by that conversation, listeners to our podcast got in touch in their droves with alternative ideas. There were many takers for the adoption of the soccer set-up, and in truth, there’s a lot going for it. The only drawback could be that it’s lifted straight from soccer, which might not play well with those for whom cultural leakage from the garrison game is to be avoided at all costs.
One refreshingly leftfield suggestion included a list of names, ranking your six best free-takers from one to six. If you were ranked your team’s best free-taker, then you faced off against your opponents’ best free-taker, and if you were your team’s second best free-taker, then you faced off against their second best free-taker, and so on.
If you won the toss, then you could choose any position on the field to take your kick from, and your opponent would have to take it from the exact same spot. Then your opponents would have the choice for the next pair of free-takers, and so on and so forth, until a winner was found. I loved this idea, for no other reason than it is gloriously intricate, almost wilfully so . . . what if your opponents’ best free-taker is left-footed, for instance?!
There was a fresh spin on the old ice-hockey method, also seen in the North American Soccer League of antiquity, where you gave a player eight seconds to run from half-way (or more realistically, the 45 metre line) and shoot for goal. The GAA spin was that you could go for a goal OR a point, thereby rewarding those who fancied a stab at glory by aiming under rather than over the crossbar.
It was interesting to hear fatigue playing a part in Mickey Quinn’s decision not to take a 45 metre free in Navan earlier this month. Realistically, he has a point – even someone as well-conditioned as an inter-county footballer would be struggling at the end of 90 minutes.
And that, I think, strikes to the key reason why I think we haven’t found the right suggestion yet to end games “on the day”. It’s too much of an achievement for people to kick these 45s. Many people would baulk at the idea that it’s too difficult to kick 45 metre frees under no pressure (or physical pressure, at least) – they’re inter county footballers, they should be well able for it.
But think of Owen Farrell or Johnny Sexton in rugby – are we really backing them to kick 95 per cent of penalties from the halfway line . . . even guys as dedicated to dead-ball perfection as those two? It’s at the limit of many people’s distance, and therefore it doesn’t give us what we need by way of drama.
Because the great thing about penalties in football is that we can see how easy it is. Come on, professional footballers? From 11 metres out? It’s a piece of cake! The only possible reason for a professional footballer to miss a penalty is because they bottled it. There is an element of shame in missing a penalty – and there’s just not enough of that in a 45 shootout.
Hard as it may be to admit, what we come for isn’t a show of sporting excellence. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a chance for us to watch truly talented sportspeople wilt under the pressure, like a mere mortal. That’s why people who have no interest in soccer find themselves drawn like a moth to a flame to penalty shootouts. It’s human drama, not sporting drama.
So my problem with 45 shootouts? They’re just a little too honourable for my liking. Bring them all in to 11 metres out, and then see who blinks first.