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The secret formula for winning penalty shootouts, according to England legends Stuart Pearce and David James

Is it really possible to prepare for the inevitable penalty shootout? We asked former England players Stuart Pearce and David James

The secret formula for winning penalty shootouts, according to England legends Stuart Pearce and David James
19 June 2018

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is very quickly becoming known for two things: penalties and last minute goals.

Due in part to the introduction of Video Assisted Referees (VAR), this summer’s World Cup has seen more and more incidents scrutinised during game time and, with this attention, an increased amount of penalties given during games. At the time of writing we’ve seen eight penalties in the group stages of the tournament, six of which resulted in goals for the penalty takers, including an almost crucial strike during England’s opening game against Tunisia - which saw Ferjani Sassi equalise against England in a VAR-influenced decision - before Harry Kane’s late winner for England in the 91st minute. 

The other penalties taken during the 2018 World Cup to this point have been: Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal vs Spain (scored); Antoine Griezmann for France vs Australia after VAR review (scored); Miles Jedinak for Australia vs France (scored); Lionel Messi for Argentina vs Iceland (missed); Christian Cueva for Peru vs Denmark after VAR review (missed); Luka Modric for Croatia vs Nigeria (scored); Andras Granqvist for Sweden vs South Korea after VAR review (scored).

The woe of penalties and the resulting pressure on players is a tale is an age-old footballing story where one kick could drastically alter the direction of a game and be forever recorded in the history books - either iconicisng or crushing the players involved. 

If there’s any national team that knows the weight and importance of a penalty shootout it’s the England squad. We spoke to former England international players Stuart Pearce and David James about what it’s like to step up and do the job, and whether there really is a secret formula to ensuring victory during a penalty shootout.

Stuart Pearce on his own World Cup penalty miss and how England can really prepare

“In Italia ‘90 and Euro ‘96 there was no defined order of penalty takers prior to us going to a penalty shoot-out. It was a voluntary scenario.”     

Stuart Pearce racked up an impressive 78 appearances for England between 1987 and 1999. During this time he took part in two of the nation’s most iconic penalty shootouts, one resulting in his famous Italia ’90 miss against West Germany, before his redemption: netting a goal during the Euro ’96 shootout against Spain (he also scored in the shootout of the semi-final of that tournament against West Germany)

“Losing a penalty-shootout is probably worse than losing a game in normal time. In some ways the pressure of the game has finished but you’ve still got a scenario where you know within the next five minutes whether you’re going back to the hotel to pack your bag and go home or continue on in the tournament and go to the next stage.”

“During Italia ‘90 [when Pearce missed his own infamous penalty], I think we felt as a squad that we could have gone all the way if we’d got past the Germans. We’d have probably ended up winning the World Cup, that was the feeling.

“For me, it ended up being one of the best lessons of being humble in success. From my point of view it probably stimulated me to have one of the best seasons I ever had for my club and on top of that it taught me another valuable lesson: to make sure that when we stand up and take penalties for our country, every player and every goalkeeper has practised well into the hundreds of penalties, so that statistically you know what you are going to do and where you are going to do it.

“The biggest problem England have had over the years in regard to penalty shootouts is not knowing who their five best penalty takers are because they’ve not done their homework accordingly. In both the penalty shootouts I was involved in ’90 and ’96 there was no clear, defined order of taking prior to us going to a penalty shootout. It was a voluntary scenario, which certainly in my time managing the U21s, was unacceptable. With the U21s we practiced penalties after every training session two years out from the tournament, just to know - definitively and statistically - who the best penalty takers were.”

“When I was managing the U21s I would always have a piece of paper that listed the best 1 to 23 penalty takers statistically and we would feed back to possible takers leading into a potential shootout.

“Joe Hart was my goalkeeper, but also one of the best five penalty takers, so he took a penalty. It’s as simple as that and then you start limiting it being a random exercise and it becomes a more fact-based exercise. The players would all know where their best penalty is.

“In these instances, if you look back over the years, the people who have missed penalties are the non-penalty taking individuals. Gareth [Southgate] was one of them, not a club penalty taker, David Batty, Paul Ince. All of these individuals didn’t take them for their club and it would be fair to say at the time, the country didn’t know if they could take a good, bad or indifferent penalty because they didn’t do the study or put the time into it after every training session. I found it incredible so I changed that when I was in charge of the U21s.

“I’ve no idea if it’s what other teams are doing but the one thing I do know is that whenever we’ve been successful in penalty-shootouts, the players that statistically have a better scoring ratio have tended to score more regularly than the ones who haven’t.”

Stuart Pearce is currently an ambassador for McDonald’s summer of Community Football Days 

David James on being the last man between your team and victory during a shootout

“Usually, keepers wish each other the best before the shoot-out. I didn’t during the Portugal game in 2010.”

David James appeared in goal for England 53 times between 1997 and 2010 and was the first choice goalkeeper for the team during Euro 2004 and the 2010 World Cup campaigns, the former of which saw the Three Lions exit the tournament following a penalty shootout against Portugal

“They say goalkeepers have nothing to lose in penalty shoot-outs. I disagree. Like a player scoring the winning penalty, a goalie can save the losing one. The odds are weighted against you, but you should still fancy yourself to be the winner – your side’s literal saviour.

“I saved two penalties for Aston Villa vs Bolton Wanderers in the 2000 FA Cup semi-final. I had my routine: I’d go off on my own, compose myself, then head over to the lads, save a couple, and win the game.

“Euro 2004, the quarter-final against Portugal. The game ends 2-2 after extra-time, it goes to penalties. I’m about to begin my routine. Then Gary Neville walks up behind me and starts shouting non-stop in my earhole. It was supposed to be positive, but I just wanted to tell him to give it a rest – I couldn’t compose myself. The sad thing is, I looked over at Darius Vassell and told him, “He’s doing my head in.” I don’t know if he heard me, but Darius went on to miss his penalty.

“Usually, keepers wish each other the best before the shoot-out. Ricardo and I didn’t during the Portugal game. Perhaps, I was still trying to get Gary’s voice out of my head. I watched on from the side as David Beckham ran up, slipped, and sent the ball over the stand. The worst worst bit is watching on, hoping you score to make a penalty save even more crucial.

“When it was my turn between the posts, it was a very clear competition: mano versus mano, versus him. And there’s only one winner.

“Everything went quiet – I can’t remember if there was any noise in the stadium. Deco scored - I couldn’t get close to the others. I fancied myself to keep one or two out, and I didn’t. Despite that, when Rui Costa blasted his over, we were level and Helder Postiga had to score his penalty to keep Portugal in it. I went down a fraction of a second too early and he chipped it down the middle – it was very, very frustrating.

“It went to sudden-death – Ricardo took his gloves off and saved Darius’s penalty. Then he stepped up for the final one. I knew I had to save it, or we were out. I committed too late and he buried it in the bottom corner.

“It was heartache, frustration, and tremendous disappointment. I didn’t physically save a penalty, and that annoyed me. I was there for one reason alone: to be able to produce, and I didn’t. In the dressing room I picked up my phone and there was a message from Robbie Fowler: “Unlucky Shilts.” It was a reference to Peter Shilton, who didn’t save one either in a shoot-out [for England vs Germany at Italia 90]. I laugh about it now, but at the time it was Final Destination stuff.

“We didn’t practise penalities much for Euro 2004, but there was plenty [of practice] at the World Cups I went to: in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Fabio Capello was massive on them – we’d practise every training session. Unfortunately, we didn’t win or concede a spot-kick at the 2010 World Cup - but I guarantee that this England squad will be practising in Russia. Gareth Southgate did it when he was manager of the U21s.

“There’s a theory that there’s no point practising penalties, that you can’t replicate the intensity and pressure of a shootout. But I argue that you can’t replicate the pressure of playing, so why even train in the first place? Ultimately, if you practise hitting it in the top corner again and again, you expect to hit it there in a game. And despite what many think, players don’t get penalties past the keeper every time in training. Not in my practise, anyway.

“Whether it goes in or not isn’t down to technique – the best players are more than capable of scoring penalties. It’s a mental thing. And if you’re not mentally on it, you won’t do what you’ve practised – an unstoppable penalty in the bottom-right corner suddenly becomes saveable, or misses the target entirely.

“Today, keepers will probably have a PDF of every penalty taken by every player, ever. They look for consistency among takers. If a player has gone down the middle before, the goalkeeping coach will know about it. That’s why you’re seeing more keepers stay down the middle.

“I’m actually a fan of shootouts. There’s a limited number of variables. It’s all down to how that guy strikes a ball on that one occasion. It’s clean, understood, it works. Sure, it’s frustrating when you don’t win. But that means you weren’t good enough to win the game in normal time. And it also means you’re in the knockout stages – better that than losing in the group stages.”

LG, partners of the England men’s team, and David James surprised residents of Wembley Grove, Birmingham, with free LG TVs and sound bars so they can live the game this summer. Watch the video.

Interviews by Alex Christian (David James) and Phil Catchpole (Stuart Pearce)

[Images: Getty]