An ‘Irishman’s Notion’ – William McCrum & Penalty Kicks In Soccer

With a name unlikely to be recognised by the majority of football fans, the Irishman William McCrum was responsible for one of association football’s greatest innovations: the penalty kick. McCrum hailed from Ballynahone Beg just outside Milford (a village built by William’s own father R.G. McCrum) in County Armagh. McCrum was a wealthy linen manufacturer, one of the managing directors of McCrum, Watson & Mercer, and he resided at Milford House, now known as Manor House, which became the first private residence in Ireland to have electricity. The Milford Football Club was established in 1885 as one of the founding members of the Irish Football League, with McCrum, a Trinity College Dublin graduate, playing as the team’s goalkeeper.

The club finished pointless and bottom of the table in the league’s inaugural season of 1890/91, conceding 62 goals in just 14 games. Around this time McCrum submitted a proposal for a ‘penalty kick’ to the Mid-Ulster Football Association who in turn brought the concept to the Irish Football Association. Next it was proposed by his colleague Jack Reid to the International Football Association Board who were the ultimate arbiters of the laws of the game. The Board accepted the proposal and so the ‘spot kick’ was officially introduced to the sport.

Milford FC

Previously referees were empowered to award a goal if, in their opinion, a goal had been prevented by the wilful handling of the ball by the defending side. Clearly, a very subjective approach could be given to the application of such a rule. The I.F.A.’s Jack Reid played for the Ulster Football Club and Cliftonville as a centre-forward (winning 6 caps for the Ireland national team) and saw merit in the introduction of McCrum’s motion from his own experiences playing football at local and international level. However there was initial uproar at McCrum’s invention and it was met with much derision, dismissed as an ‘Irishman’s notion’ and even led to some in the British press to label it as the ‘death penalty,’ as critics felt it would serve as a death knell to the game. Even when it had been formally introduced to the games code, many refused to accept it as part of association football. One such critic was C.B. Fry who stated that the penalty kick was ‘a standing insult to sportsmen to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to trip, hack and push opponents and to behave like cads of the most unscrupulous kind’.

The tipping point in favour for the new rule came in February 1891 after an FA Cup quarter-final game between Notts County and Stoke City. County’s Scottish full-back Jack Hendry denied Stoke an equaliser in the denying minutes of the tie by handling the ball on the goal-line. The resulting free-kick was repelled as the County goalkeeper deliberately stood directly in front of the ball and blocked it without recoiling. County won the tie by a single goal and continued their journey to the final and defeat against Blackburn Rovers. After 12 months lobbying for the introduction of the penalty kick, Reid proposed the rule and extolled its advantages on Tuesday 2nd June 1891 at the International Board meeting in Glasgow. The proposal was seconded by representatives from England who were now in favour of the introduction of McCrum’s idea. The rule (called Rule 13 and later ‘Law 13’ was worded:

“If any player shall deliberately trip or hold an opposing player or deliberately handle the ball within 12 yards of his own goal-line, the referee shall, on appeal, award the opposing side a penalty kick, to be taken any 12 yards from the goal-line under the following conditions:

All players, with the exception of the player taking the penalty kick and the opposing goalkeeper (who shall not advance more than six yards from the goal-line) shall stand at least six yards behind the ball. The ball shall be in play when the kick is taken and a goal may be scored from a penalty kick.”

During the playing days of McCrum and Reid, the penalty demarcation line extended across the whole breadth of the playing field at a consistent 12-yard distance from the goal-line. Initially referees did not award penalties discretionally, rather they based their judgement upon appeal by the teams themselves which was a policy later amended due to players, understandably, appealing constantly.

William McCrum

So in 1891, a penalty could be taken from any point along the 12-yard line with the goalie allowed to move up to six yards away from his goal-line to defend it, while outfield players had to wait at least six yards behind the ball. The field markings that we are familiar with today were introduced in 1901 and the ‘penalty arc’ or ‘penalty D’ in front of the box was established in 1937 after being requested by several European associations. During the era between 1891 and 1929, the goalkeeper could move from post to post till the rule was introduced that they had to stand without moving their feet. The ‘penalty arc’ was introduced as for years a player standing behind the penalty taker was not ten yards from the ball, which was due to the earlier rule stipulating that a man had to be six yards behind.

McCrum’s invention stood for little in the midst of a chaotic personal life. He was eventually shut out of the family business as he had to sell the Milford cotton mill, then he spend his days gambling forlornly in Monte Carlo. McCrum died on 21st December 1932, alone and penniless, in his native county. Match of the Day host Gary Lineker visited the grave of the Armachian who invented the penalty kick in the late ‘90s and said, ‘He has got a lot to answer for… And would you believe, of all things, he was a goalkeeper.’ However, the best assessment of McCrum’s vision for the penalty kick as a method for curbing foul play on the pitch comes from his great-grandson, the writer Robert McCrum, who wrote:

“The penalty kick, of course, is the kind of penalty that only a goalkeeper could have invented, a supreme moment of drama and self-sacrifice that places the goalkeeper, generally a bystander, at the centre of the stage. Yes, it stacks the odds against the goalie, but it does make him, heroically, even tragically, the star of the show. “

Master Willie (as William was known by villagers in Milford) was not just a sporting show-off. He also devoted hours of recreation to amateur theatricals in the Milford village hall, the McCrum Institute. So it seems more than apt that a man with the flair for the dramatic should devise a rule that has created moments of great agony and unbridled ecstasy, a rule that is central to the game of soccer as we know it today. Whether you are or are not a fan of the penalty kick, you cannot question its undoubted ability to create the sort of tension that, depending on the flight of the ball or the movement of the keeper, can make or break a season and define a player’s career. 

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