No.1 son’s team capped off a season in which they won every league match with a cup run. The final was played on a bright, blustery spring afternoon – cherry blossom swirling across the pitch to give a brief wintery feel. The venue was a local non-league club ground, several steps up from the public park environs the teams normally play in, with their undulating fields, haphazard grass-cutting and careless dog owners.
The match fulfilled one of the cup final archetypes that all football fans will recognise. The stronger team (‘our’ one) dominated possession, created chance after chance, but couldn’t score against dogged, determined opponents with a hero-in-the-making in goal. Mid-way through the second half, the archetype shifted. In a rare break out of their own half, the other side’s lone striker ran past ‘our’ central defenders and struck the ball firmly past the keeper.
The match reverted to type, with no.1 son’s team piling on pressure and with ten minutes left, equalised from a corner kick. More chances were saved or missed before full-time. The game re-started with 20 minutes of extra time. Despite the rolling substitutions, the size of the pitch had tired both teams so that a sustained attack was beyond them. Penalty shoot-out.
“This will end in tears,” was the conclusion my touchline pal and I reached as the players gathered in the centre circle for the penalty prelims.
No.1 son’s team were to maintain their perfect season, winning the shoot-out 5-4. The image at the top of the post shows him driving his penalty into the top left hand corner of the goal.
The other side’s second penalty taker steered his shot wide, lifted his hands to his head and walked slowly back to the centre circle without showing his face. There he sat, staring at the grass, amongst his teammates, who were presumably offering their support. His miss, as he must have feared, as all of the boys dreaded for themselves, was the difference.
I question the value of a penalty shoot-out in a junior match, where the result has no further consequences. Earlier rounds in a knockout tournament do need a winner for the competition to progress; I’ll return to that subject shortly.
Having joint cup winners is to me an entirely legitimate result for the teams that cannot be separated over full and extra time. The trophy can be shared; the individual statuettes would just need ‘finalist’ inscribed on them all, instead of one-half; both teams can celebrate. I see nothing to be gained from spoiling one or two young lads’ days, as almost always happens in a shoot-out.
I imagine proponents of a definitive result arguing that youngsters should not be sheltered from the harsh truth of life and its repeated sifting into winners and losers. I think kids know that well enough. Everything they do is imbued with competition: school, gaming, appearance, getting noticed by girls. Why not, in these rare instances when the score remains tied, show magnanimity and recognition that the contest, not the result, is all important?
“They don’t take it that seriously,” may be another rebuttal of my idea. Many, I agree, probably don’t, and can stride on after a penalty shoot-out miss, walk tall in the playground on the following Monday and savour the opportunity for another chance to take a penalty. Others, though, do not. The coaches, I observed, selecting their five penalty takers, are not overwhelmed with volunteers. It’s a stress that many boys (indeed, professional footballers) prefer to avoid.
Several weeks after the final, I took my younger son to play a cricket match. There were puddles on the pitch and storm clouds overhead. The game would normally have been called off before bedtime the night before, but this was a cup-tie and a definitive result was needed. The method used, a bowl-off, is cricket’s equivalent of the penalty shoot-out. Bowlers deliver a single ball at an undefended set of stumps. Whichever team hits the stumps most often wins the tie-breaker.
The situation was tense, the boys were anxious during the match. One team was delighted and the other disappointed at the end. There was a key difference to the penalty shoot-out that made it less likely that a single player would feel the burden of responsibility for defeat. Instead of each team fielding five players (as in a penalty shoot-out), all eleven in each cricket team had to bowl. The greater number of competitors and efforts means that the margin between teams is a lot less likely to be a single point. The individual is a smaller part of the team score and gains protection. With all players participating, it is more of a team event.
This should be the model for penalty shoot-outs in junior football. Involve the whole team. Do less to isolate individuals. Try not to spoil one young lad’s day.