I’ll be honest with you. I wasn’t happy that Marko Arnautovic picked up the ball when we were awarded a penalty against Bournemouth last month. I was ecstatic when he smashed it past Asmir Begovic, but the fact that Mark Noble had handed over the responsibility of taking penalties left me feeling slightly uneasy.
In the 50-plus years I’ve supported West Ham he is one of the few players I’ve actually felt confident would score after a ref had pointed to the spot. One report says Nobes made the decision himself after missing from 12 yards in a pre-season friendly. There has to be more to it than that.
His time as a regular starter is clearly coming to an end, and I believe the manager knows it makes sense to have a penalty-taker who is. A growing number of supporters believe that, even as club captain, Noble can no longer demand an automatic place. Reluctantly, I have to agree with them.
But there can be no argument about his ability as a penalty-taker – he’s one of the best we’ve ever had. In fact, he would be one of the five players I would ask to take a spot kick should my life ever depend on West Ham winning a penalty shoot-out. It’s unlikely to happen I know, but you never can be too careful and I think it pays to plan ahead.
Noble would be joined by Julian Dicks, Paolo Di Canio, Sir Geoff Hurst and finally the man I’d trust the most – the mighty Ray Stewart. I was tempted to include George Kitchen, who didn’t let the fact he was a goalkeeper put him off and scored five times from the penalty spot between 1905 and 1912.
Apparently, he is the only keeper ever to have scored on his debut. No kidding? However, he also missed three – and as it is my life we’re talking about here I’m not going to risk it.
Curiously, it was a goalkeeper who came up with the idea of penalties in the first place. William McCrum played in goal for his village side Milford FC in the Irish Football League. Judging by his first season, in 1890/91, he may not have been the greatest ‘keeper the world has ever seen. Milford finished bottom of the league with no points from 14 games, having conceded 62 goals.
However, the village had been built by his millionaire father, so it was unlikely he was ever going to be dropped. This was the time when the game was played by amateur “gentlemen” who never cheated. Only they did – and McCrum, as a ‘keeper, was perfectly placed to see them do it.
To counter some of the violence that was taking place in front of him, which could be startlingly brutal at times, he came up with a proposal that went before the International Football Association Board for consideration. What the man known locally as Master Willie suggested was: ‘If any player shall intentionally trip or hold an opposing player, or deliberately handle the ball within 12 yards from his own goal line, the referee shall, on appeal, award the opposing side a penalty kick, to be taken from any point 12 yards from the goal line, under the following conditions: All players, with the exception of the player taking the penalty kick and the goalkeeper, shall stand behind the ball and at least six yards from it; the ball shall be in play when the kick is taken. A goal may be scored from a penalty kick.’
You will notice that the infringement had to happen 12 yards from the goal line, rather than in the penalty area. There is a simple explanation for this; before McCrum came up with the idea of a penalty there was no need for a penalty area, so it didn’t exist.
Interestingly, a penalty would only be awarded after an appeal – in the way a cricket umpire cannot give a batsman out without first being asked – and the kick could be taken from any point 12 yards away, not necessarily a central spot. The idea did not go down at all well at first – particularly with his fellow players who dubbed it, among other things, the ‘death penalty’.
However, a year after the proposal was first made it was approved, with a couple of amendments, and became the Law 13 we know and love today. They say 13 is unlucky for some, and any ‘keeper facing the mighty Julian Dicks would probably agree. He scored 50 times in his 264 appearances for West Ham, which came in two slices.
The unlikely filling in this sandwich was a spell at Anfield, where he will always have the distinction of being the last Liverpool player to score in front of a standing Kop before they made them all sit down. The Terminator reckons that of all his penalties, he only ever tried to place two: one hit the post and the other missed altogether.
The rest he simply blasted with a ferocity that was staggering to behold. In all, he converted 35 of his 39 spot kicks while wearing claret and blue. Di Canio, of course, was a law unto himself when it came to taking penalties, just as happy to wait for the ‘keeper to dive and cheekily chip the ball into the space he had vacated as place it unerringly in the corner.
And who will ever forget his on-field squabble with the junior Frank Lampard over who would take that penalty against Bradford City? Geoff Hurst was brilliant from 12 yards. Like all penalty-takers, he made the occasional mistake. But the ‘miss’ that hurts the most wasn’t really a miss at all – it was an incredible save by the brilliant Gordon Banks in an epic League Cup semi-final against Stoke at Upton Park.
Banks later reckoned it was the best save he ever made, and it undoubtedly denied us a place at Wembley. Every football supporter has a handful of moments – good and bad – that they can picture in their mind’s eye with total clarity even though they occurred years ago.
For me, that penalty is one of them. And it pains me as much today as when I witnessed it from the North Bank. However, I can always cheer myself up with the thought of Ray Stewart’s spot kick in a pulsating FA Cup sixth round tie against Aston Villa at the Boleyn Ground.
Villa were a good side – they were fifth in the first division and the following season would win the League title. We were a good side, too – this was 1980 and we actually went on to win the Cup – but we were fifth in the second division and the feeling was that if we were going to get to the semi-final we had to get the job done at Upton Park.
It was 0-0 with next to no time left when Villa defender Ken McNaught handled the ball in the area. Stewart, wearing the No. 4 shirt normally worn by the injured Billy Bonds, picked up the ball that had been left unattended on the edge of the area while the Villa players debated with the ref and bounced it once before striding forward to place it on the spot that referee David Richardson had pointed to moments beforehand.
Nine paces backwards, a moment to compose himself, a short run-up and then the explosion of power that lifted Tonka off his feet as the ball hurtled past Villa keeper Jimmy Rimmer. It was a highly individual style of taking of penalties, but I never doubted it.
Just as I never doubted Nobes. Mighty Mark always had the assurance of a professional assassin when he put the ball on the spot. In all, he scored 31 and missed just four. The confidence he exuded did wonders for my blood pressure over the years. So moan all you like about his lack of pace and tendency to make rash challenges. When the time comes for him to call it a day, Mark Noble will deserve his place in the West Ham hall of fame. His penalties alone guarantee him that honour.
Brian Williams is the author of the best-selling Nearly Reach The Sky. His second book, Home From Home, charts the move from Upton Park to the London Stadium.