A Brief History of Seven Penalty Shoot-outs

Where were you when history was made? Memory being what it is, it’s likely that in years to come the bare details of who you are and what you were doing when the defining moments of social history happened will be shaped and coloured into the image you would most like to claim was your own. However, I have what I suspect is a near-eidetic memory for my own life, and therefore I won’t have any choice but to admit that when England finally won a penalty shoot-out, I acted like a complete tit.

I seem to have a knack for missing the moment by a hair’s breadth, but in some ways that makes my memories even more vivid, as if the mundanity of everyday life highlights the kaboom of history like the Trinity test in the Alamogordo morning. For example, when the Berlin Wall fell (or rather the Saturday evening, since it opened late on a Thursday night), we were having a family party. When the USSR collapsed in August ‘91, my elder sister and I were arguing over a game of Ludo. I thought Princess Diana’s car crash was a joke, since I was told about it in a pub car park and didn’t find out it wasn’t for about four hours. 9/11? I was watching Playhouse Disney while babysitting my niece. 

And Tuesday 3rd July 2018 was no different. Long day at work, brief tea and then on with the football. But make no mistake, in my own personal history, I will always remember where I was when England finally broke the hoodoo. This is not to say I expect them to win them from now on (there’s a depressing inevitability about the hype), but I seem to have been waiting a lifetime for the national side to man up and treat twelve yards as just that, rather than the gap between the bottom step and the gallows. 

It’s not even that I don’t like penalty shoot-outs. When they don’t involve my team, they’re grimly fascinating dramas (and for some bizarre reason, Aston Villa seem to be okay with them, notably beating sides like Internazionale, Juventus and, erm, Bolton and Tranmere) but I’ve resigned myself to misery when it comes to England. I’m an old hand, see, and my formative England memories are steeped in penalties. Removing the win against Spain in Euro ‘96, I’ve seen us take and lose six tournament shoot-outs, so I thought here, I’d give you a personal history of what I was doing at the time. I warn you, this might be a bit of a downer in the run up to a quarter final. 

1990 - the daddy. The shoot-out by which all shoot-outs should be judged. The heartbreaker. And actually, it was all rather fun for the nine year-old me. I was only just getting into football at the time, and as England were quite good I had no idea about Hands of God, Keegan flicked headers or Gordon Banks having the shits. I didn’t watch the game - I was performing at a Walsall schools choir competition - and as my immediate family were not football fans, I had no idea just how big a deal reaching a semi-final was. In hindsight, the fact we all watched the Belgium game and were gobsmacked by David Platt’s last minute hook over the shoulder should have told me the country was at hysterical levels of expectation, and if I didn’t pick up on that, maybe my dad almost crashing into somebody’s house when Lineker equalised against West Germany as we made our way home was a clue. There’s a small area of Bloxwich known as ‘Lineker Corner’ which made me smile every time a driving lesson took me that way. 

For some strange reason I was the only one interested in the rest of the game, and for other reasons unknown I watched it sat on a small set of stepladders in the middle of the living room. I don’t know what the significance of them was - maybe they represented my nascent climb into the world of mature pain - but probably were more to do with DIY. Little kids like messing with things, I guess. 

So I wasn’t too hurt by this one, because I didn’t know why it was a bad thing we had lost, or that it was a loss at all. Football is a simple game but fandom revels in the arcane, and so I was expected to know instinctively that we had been robbed of something untouchable. Now I can barely stand to watch the footage of that night, and it’s the one thing I’d change as an England fan. Maybe I know in my water that I may never see us win anything, and 1990 was the chance. But I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I would enjoy the thought of being alive to see it, and maybe it’s better that way. 

No, it isn’t, is it? 

1996 - Undoubtedly the one that makes me feel worst. In 1996 I was a mixed-up little chap, self-conscious to the core and halfway between puberty and adolescence. In a way that would become horribly familiar, I began to align my life to football, as many people do, but especially those who don’t have much to shout about in their day-to-day life. In hindsight, my life was easy, but because I didn’t have a Super Nintendo, or could play for the school team or had kissed a girl, I was miserable. It was cookie-cutter misery, absolutely predictable, but I felt it all the same. 

For reasons which frustrate me now, I invariably wanted to be friends with boys who used me to feel better about themselves, and I let them do it so I would feel like I had proper friends. Meanwhile, boys I should have been friends with (and girls, I bet) were seen as not worthy of my time. I tried to bury anything which might make me unpopular, so I replaced my pictures of Melissa George, who I fancied the arse off of, with Pamela Anderson, who didn’t make me feel anything at all. I went into town on a Saturday afternoon and arsed about not buying anything, even though doing that bored me rigid. Now I feel that I’ve always been about five years behind my maturity curve, which as I near my forties is a good thing, but when I was fifteen wasn’t good at all. Boys at my school were having sex and ‘seeing people’ from schools miles away. I was still poring over the Sunday Sport a friend had given me for my birthday. 

Being the only Villa fan in my immediate circle fostered my independent streak. In a manner repeated from the national team, when I became a Villa fan it was all sweetness and light. Within a year of me going to Villa Park, we finished second in the Championship and our manager was poached for England (that doesn’t happen any more; only the players get filched). In 1993 we almost won the title again, and in the following season I saw us win our first trophy in eleven years. In 1995 we almost got relegated, but by the time of Euro ‘96 we had bagged another League Cup, reached an FA Cup semi final and finished fourth. That was seen as a bit of a failure. 

Inexplicably, the majority of that England-dominated Villa team were overlooked internationally, aside from our captain Gareth Southgate. He made the England squad, and I was very proud of that fact. Villa were good, England were favourites for the cup, and the summer was beautiful. For the first time since I realised I needed it, the sun was shining on me. I remember the last episode of Fantasy Football League, when they played the video to the as-yet unreleased ‘Three Lions’. I had videoed the series, and watched it at least ten times before going to bed. 

When England murdered the Netherlands 4-1, there were no maybes. We were going to win the thing. The penalties against Spain were tense, but at that stage I had no reason to worry - being cursed was not a thing as it would become after that summer. I was happy for Stuart Pearce, but didn’t appreciate the significance of the relative ease with which we progressed. Like my adolescence, I was keen to get on with things. 

I watched the semi-final against Germany at my house with my best friend Owain. I guess for moments of great trauma you should have a wingman, and who better than someone who’s known you since you were three or four? At the time we were competitive, but he seemed to be maturing at a much faster rate than I. That made me feel crap, but later I came to realise he spent every Friday evening with me, had an identical computer which played exactly the same games, always invited me to the TI to play football even though I had zero ability, and rarely took the piss out of Villa even though his Liverpool side were so fond of sticking three goals past us whenever we met. 

We actually started watching the match as a full room, but as extra time set in me and Owain were the only ones left. In total darkness (Wembley was coloured under streetlamps, even though the light hung around until after ten, as it does every summer), we watched the players step forward and put them away. Then Southgate, my captain and representative, walked forward, and I knew he was going to miss. Damningly, I think I could take a better penalty than he did. He scuffed it like he was trying to miss it, not to try and trick the goalkeeper but because I think he had a fatal disconnect between his mind and his body. He hit it like a practice golf swing, accidentally clipping the ball without meaning to. Of course, the German scored and they won. 

Football’s never really been the same since, for me and I suspect a great many others. England winning their own European Championships was a perfect dream - right in the sweet spot between Britpop and New Labour, when the skies were blue and there were no traffic jams and we all had a lust for life. But then childhood ended, we became adolescents, and realised football wouldn’t come home just because we wanted it to. 

1998 - Only two years had passed, but I was in sixth form for this one, my parents managing to time my conception just right so international football tournaments would happen in the middle of mock exams rather than during times when I had to have genuine anxiety. World Cup ‘98 was great - it had expanded to 32 teams, and the kits, players and football had a genuine verve and vibrancy which felt like maybe 1970 would have done for those young at the time. Gone were the overworked polyester nightmares football was obsessed with at the start of the decade - Brazil looked like Brazil, Holland were brilliant orange and France went back to the future with an homage to their ‘84 Euro win. England’s kit, predictably, was clunky. 

A lot of this tournament was watched alone, in my bedroom, sat in baking heat as the boiler shared my space. Because of weathering, my main window wouldn’t open without a series of almighty punts to the frame, and I watched one game (Austria-Cameroon) sat on my windowsill, sanding down the wood to stop me from putting my hand through the glass. 

For me, this feels like a musical World Cup. I was slowly finding my own voice in the music I liked, mining my sisters’ collections for material and swapping my Shoot league ladders for adverts cut from Melody Maker. I’d started buying my own clothes, spending most of my money in a terrible sell-through megastore called What Everyone Wants because it represented value for my money. But the main difference between now and two years prior was that I had started to grow upwards instead of just expanding, and so woke up one morning the right side of six feet tall and with size ten feet. 

However, this just made me feel awkward and so I eschewed the second chance at cool I had been given, preferring to picture myself as everyone’s little brother’s friend. This was a problem, as I had recently shed one five year infatuation for a girl for another, which would last until I left and was well into my twenties. So I was awkward, unhappy, and unsure where I would go after the cocoon of Aldridge School at last squeezed me out. 

To compensate, I pretended nothing mattered. So I spent most of my days at sixth form making up jokes, playing football in the playground, ignoring work and making compilation tapes of all the music which I didn’t understand. Everyone seemed to love the World Cup, which helped. After Euro ‘96 there was a feeling that England had laid the foundations, and this time we had United and Arsenal’s double winners, and an England striker in Alan Shearer who just couldn’t stop scoring. This was the fringes of what would become a Golden Generation, where hype outdid cohesion, but it didn’t feel that way. David Beckham’s fringe was a thing to like about him rather than castigate him for. 

A mixed group stage had put us in Argentina’s path, and what a game it was. There’s an argument for saying it’s England’s most dramatic match at a finals (but how much more dramatic do you want beyond a World Cup Final with extra time and a hat-trick?). Everyone knows the broad strokes: Owen, red card, disallowed goal. But as a neutral it had everything bar the kitchen sink. But even at penalties I didn’t think we’d lose, because we were the team, weren’t we? Everyone loved English football. We had the coolest Prime Minister. Even the Royals were likeable. 

Then Brian Moore famously asked Kevin Keegan if David Batty would score: he said yes, then Batty didn’t, and England went out. In sporting terms that seemed like the end of the century, right there, and I seem to have forgotten on purpose a lot of what happened between then and about 2006, because of university and a job which forced me to work on Saturdays, and because I’d picked the wrong teams which allowed me to enjoy it without bitterness. 

I punched a wall after we lost. It hurt for about half an hour, but I put a bandage on it anyway, so people would ask me about it and I could seem interesting and troubled. In actual fact, I looked like a twat, and neither of the girls I pined for were in the least bit interested. 

2004 - I was twenty-three by now, and homeless. That’s literally - on June 13th, 2004, the day England started the European Championships, I was awoken to discover the family home on fire. So there I was, standing only in a pair of shorts, watching my father throwing a bucket of water into the doorway of a room that was quite clearly nothing but flames, while the ceiling scorched and burned above his head. Life slows down at a point like that. 

I’ve always hoped I’ve avoided a penchant for the dramatic but there really is no way to describe the situation as anything other than life-threatening. I recall standing there, in a daze, thinking very clearly what a waste it all was. Life, everything I owned, everything I had planned or hoped might become planned in the future. And here I was, about to die, and I was to all intents and purposes bollock-naked. That’s a paragraph to advertise the autobiography, right there. 

People rarely ask me about what happened that morning. I think they think it’ll upset me, but it doesn’t. I don’t think it really upset any of us, not in the way you’d expect. It was a wrench to lose all of our stuff, but it was only stuff, and had it happened a few years later even the photographs would have been salvageable. Later that day, sat on picnic chairs watching the firemen douse all of our possessions for the umpteenth time, a reporter from the Walsall Advertiser turned up for the scoop, finding us all amenable and remarking that we were the happiest family who had ever survived a house fire. Either he figured it was an insurance scam or we were in massive shock. 

So yes, I survived. After half a second’s reflection I shifted my arse, hugging the floor, and suffering naught but a water blister. By the time we’d watched the place burn to the ground floor, it was mentioned that maybe I needed some clothes, and so repaired round the corner to Owain’s house to ask to borrow some clothes, because the house was on fire. If his mother Jeanne’s reaction was a sight to behold, it had nothing on my line manager’s, who had to take in my news that the one-in-eight Sunday that I was required to do would not be possible because my pass had probably melted. 

As the day wore on, we went to my grandparents’, and the first thing I did was stick on the football. A forgettable Croatia-Switzerland match saw me through to teatime, after which six members of my family crammed themselves into my sister’s council flat. England conspired to lose to a Zidane-inspired France while my father beat himself up about what he could have done to save his family, not realising that at the very least, he had literally saved my life by jolting me out of my lethargy. 

At the time of this tournament, I had started a relationship which would subsequently last for six years, delivering me from an extended adolescence into a dark and fearful adulthood. I experienced strong emotions for the first time: love, lust, jealousy, fear, paranoia, elation, confusion, possessiveness. I had had none of these between perhaps that first penalty shoot-out and meeting said person and didn’t know how to deal with them properly when they appeared. This was also the reason why I spent three years away at university and retreated immediately when the course finished. 

So this one is confusing to me, and I haven’t quite worked out if Euro 2004 and its familiar notes were necessary for my personal growth. In actual fact, it happened at the right time for lots of reasons; a distraction, a reason to not feel guilty about my happiness, a way to get me out of the flat, even if it was only to the pub. I had grown limbs which I would shortly realise were too long and awkward for the cage I had created to hold my life. 

I knew what was going to happen during that shoot-out. It was like a greatest hits from the three losses which had come before: controversial disallowed goal, young genius diminished by the bigness of the occasion, England’s talismans stepping forward to claim history as theirs. Plus a Villa player missing one of the penalties. But of course, that was always going to happen, too. 

I watched the game in Bar Sport in Walsall, in my brand new England away top. Afterwards, a bloke stuck a video camera in my face, claiming to be from “the news”, and asking me to give my thoughts on what had just happened. I ranted about how England always get fucked over and all the usual gubbins, and then he disappeared, without asking for a signature of consent. The footage never saw the light of day, like whatever else he shot in the bar that evening, at least as far as I could tell. So a confusing moment got absorbed into a confusing time, and I can only assume that whoever shot it and for whatever reason saw that I was stark-staring bonkers and deleted it immediately, lest he should catch what I had. 

2006 - Life playing at being a grown-up had its disadvantages. I assume not everybody had the difficulties adjusting to adulthood without a manual as I did, but now a lot have time has passed I can see that some haven’t accomplished it at all. This is not to say I have, but the latex in the mask is stretched a lot tighter in others than you saw when you were younger. How can I be an adult? I still have clothing I bought when I was twelve, for Christ’s sake! 

At the time of the 2006 tournament I had been faking middle age for the better part of two years. I had a steady relationship, with a child in tow and a cat which decided its pleasure in life would be to wind me up at every opportunity. Because the feasting-on-clouds stage had passed in the blink of an eye, we were now at a point where we were too far in to end things but not far enough from the beginning to assume it wasn’t anything we couldn’t work through. There was a considerable age difference of ten years between us, something which if you’re horizontal doesn’t seem insurmountable, but stood up had quickly become a problem. 

Using my ‘five years behind’ formula meant that emotionally I was about ready to finish university, yet found myself over three years into a job which I was bored by and invested in a relationship which was as unrewarding as it could be fulfilling. Nearly splitting up became an annual thing, until it eventually went south four years later after one of us did the decent thing. 

Ironically, it had been during one of our happy periods that I suggested the idea that I could solve my itchy feet by taking a sabbatical to travel around Germany during the 2006 World Cup and then write a book about fan culture, with a view to making my career in writing. You might see this as the point at which the potential me started to solidify into the ideal me, but in all honesty I’d not missed a World Cup since that 1990 semi final and I wasn’t about to start now. 

What an embarrassing thing it is to admit that you made a huge life choice based on the possibility of missing Togo-South Korea, but that’s the person I really was: wanting to do something wild and crazy before I got bald, fat and middle-aged. Some of the photos I took of myself during the trip show how daft I was - I was twenty five but in some pictures look about twelve, and to begin with I felt it too. 

But I persevered with the project. I sourced all the hostels I stayed in, read all the books and articles I could, kept a scrupulous diary, learnt HTML so I could update a website on the fly, and rode the goddamn rails looking for my future self. I even had to speak to strangers, which for a man repeatedly challenged as autistic by my dear partner was as intimidating as it gets. 

By the time England reached the quarter finals, where this shoot-out against Portugal saw us eliminated, I’d acclimatised so effectively I was like a combat veteran, finding gaps in crowds and fences, looking for an angle. I had no problem marching up to people and demanding they add to my colourful tapestry; I was more than happy to take ownership of a dorm room by washing my clothes in the only sink and then hanging pairs of pants and socks from every hanging option. 

In the gap between the second round and the game in Gelsenkirchen, I’d taken myself off to a hamlet in the Black Forest for a little r&r. I saw nobody for two days, holing myself up in a single room like Willard, daubing an England flag with slogans and existing on cans of Coke and pots of frankfurter balls. One of the days, I went for a walk in the forest behind my hostel, walked for about two hours into the wilderness, and wondered what would happen if I just kept on going. 

Instead, I returned to the World Cup with my website-adorned standard, and got bussed out to a huge screen in the middle of a field in what I hoped was still Gelsenkirchen (for some reason, the organisers declined to open the official fan park), and stood in searing heat hoping England would play well for once. Instead, what happened was that Rooney got a red card for a stupid stamp on a pair of Portuguese knackers, and I spent most of extra time being repulsed by a drunk man eating a jacket spud which was more cheese than potato right next to me. Everyone there was sunburnt, drunk, pissed off and worried, but we had British commentary, so swings and roundabouts, really. 

Each penalty - miss and strike - was punctuated for me by a scally who looked as though he’d walked into Jeff Goldblum’s pod with a bag of pork scratchings, who thought I was incapable of keeping count of the score without somebody’s hand slapping it across my spine. It was the worst set of penalties England have ever attempted, with both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard missing one, and as we made our way back to the nearest city, the fans looked like one long soup queue, desperate for sustenance. 

So I came back five days after the tournament ended, wrote my book, didn’t get it published, and continued to write to very little attention until I took a job at the local hospital to stop me feeling guilty that I hadn’t got anywhere with the writing. Within weeks of my return, we were at the dumping stage again, and England had appointed Steve McClaren as manager. Like I said, nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing. 

2012 - And so we come, incredibly, to the last time England lost a penalty shoot-out in a major tournament. I think, by now, we’re all used to the disappointment of them, and losing to Italy is no disgrace. Joe Hart being chipped by Andrea Pirlo is, after all, the natural order of things. 

The fact that it was a six year gap between penalty heartbreaks was mainly due to the comical crapness of the England team, who collected at least half a dozen of the most decorated players in the history of the British game and conspired to turn them into hungover trash in a handful of different territories. In 2008 they had somehow taken a humiliating footrace with Croatia and Russia to the last fixture, in which another Villa connection, this time on-loan goalkeeper Scott Carson, was deceived by the unforeseen physics of a bouncing sphere. I think he’d been getting into existentialism, having been at one stage a future England ‘keeper, then a loanee, and now he actually was England ‘keeper, simply couldn’t compute the transition. 

England made the 2010 World Cup, under the authoritarian Fabio Capello, inexplicably transforming a nine-win qualifying record into abject contempt for the shirt, the fans, the manager, the hosts and themselves. What a pity that France melted down that same year, since we couldn’t enjoy it while having our arsch handed to us by a rampant, mocking Germany. Goalline technology would have perhaps taken a different course from the 4-1 hiding in Bloemfontein had Frank Lampard’s equaliser been given, but at least it forced FIFA’s hand; so shamed were they by this blatant miscarriage of justice that it only took them another four years to try and solve the conundrum it posed. 

Another thing that melted down at the World Cup was the aforementioned relationship. I’m not surprised, really: this was the second consecutive World Cup in which I’d wangled work and personal life around meaningless football matches, only this time I’d also become obsessed with sticker albums too. I collected stickers so that I may never look at them again, like everybody, but maybe because by this stage I was so miserable that if I couldn’t eat it, smoke it or glue it onto paper I wasn’t interested. 

We unofficially broke up the day England scraped their way through the group by beating Slovakia; I legged it home from work and was averagely overjoyed by Jermain Defoe’s winner, and then after coming in from my parents’, was simply asked if I was happy. I perhaps should have lied again, but I was tired of lying after all these years, and it all came spilling out. I collected up my shit, went back home, and within a week we were officially done. 

Only that’s not how it ended. After the requisite thinking time, I was desperate for that final meeting to finish so I could cry about it, and was halfway to tears when all of sudden the doorbell went and it was her, wanting some of her university course files from the family computer. So I didn’t get the Hollywood finish, and weirdly we got on better after that than we had in years. At least until she told me less than a month later that she’d found somebody else, and it became obvious to me that there had to have been an overlap, and I suffered a complete nervous collapse into the darkest few days of my life, which I did my best to make as short as possible in a number of ways. These are the times the eidetic memory doesn’t help you, when you vividly recall downing any liquor you can get your hands on, and sitting in the park opposite somebody’s flat in the middle of the night, sobbing and hoping you don’t actually see the images which are keeping you to a maximum of twenty minutes’ sleep in a day. 

I was twenty nine at the time, with no job, no girlfriend and no prospects. Of course, I got better. I got a new role which involved talking to strangers and I grew about ten feet tall in confidence. I was dating for the first time, falling in love with everyone I met and not being arsed by the time I walked back through the door and went to bed. It was exciting and frustrating, but it was what I needed. I got a lot of that teenage angst out of my system. 

I wouldn’t ever claim it was all for the best, since the terrible emotional pain was precisely that, but being independent, both spiritually and financially, encouraged me to make the break from home. I lived alone for the first time, in a beautiful flat above the Arboretum, got a mildly obsessive running habit, dropped stones in weight and met another girl, who is the polar opposite to what I was used to. I wrote my first proper novel, started work on about another three, and was a little bit proud of myself. 

Of course, that’s not the whole story, but then who am I? I’m a bloke who still treats the World Cup like Christmas morning, who plans Saturdays around club football and harbours bitterness towards ninety-one other league clubs, plus a good dozen non-league ones which have had reason to piss me off over the years. It’s been enough to get here from there, from the depths of suicidal despair to a place approaching contentment, with the occasional raucous bellow when the unexpected happens. 

Then, on Tuesday 3rd July 2018, England won a penalty shoot-out. Their seventh in a proper tournament (technically, it was their eighth if you count the King Hassan II Cup before France ‘98, but I don’t) It made me incredibly happy. I’m starting to think dopey, young man’s thoughts again. I’m beginning to think I can dream of bigger things. So I wrote this, to you, my future self, to remind you that not everything has to end. Sometimes things can begin. 

I hope they do.


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