‘If Noble had scored, it would’ve been a risk worth taking – but he didn’t’

Last month, I wrote about our ongoing penalty woes, and the fact that in the absence of regular penalty taker Mark Noble, we don’t have a ‘go-to’ player for that position. Perhaps, given events that took place at the London Stadium against Manchester United, I should reconsider my opinion somewhat. I’ve gone from thinking we’re not very good at penalties to thinking that we’re hopeless at them.

My take on what happened in the match? I think Moyes made a brave decision, which just didn’t work out. Put yourself in his shoes. You’ve got a reliable penalty taker sat on the bench, who scores virtually every one that he takes, and a team on the pitch which is full of inconsistent penalty takers. What do you do?

I can completely understand the rationale for bringing him on, although as I watched him arrive onto the pitch I remember thinking: ‘He’s not up to the speed of the game.’ But then, it’s one kick of the football — did he need to be?

If Noble had scored that penalty, he would have become even more of a West Ham legend and Moyes would have been hailed as a tactical genius. It didn’t work out, so the decision looks foolish, but some of the vitriol that was said in the immediate aftermath seemed way out of order to me.

Yes, the result was frustrating, but it really wasn’t the end of the world like some people were making out. We lost. We move on. We win together, we lose together. Personally, the closest that I’ve ever seen to developments like that was in the final of Euro 2020, when England brought on penalty-takers in the last moments.

It didn’t work out then, and so I’m not really surprised that it didn’t work out for us either — but it could easily have gone the other way. This will be chalked down to a lesson learned, I think, but having missed four out of the last five penalties that we have taken, my view hasn’t changed: we need a reliable penalty taker, and quick. In short, we need another Noble, in his prime, from the spot.

It’s easy to forget just how reliable we were when Noble was on spot-kick duties (another reason why I’ll forgive Moyes on this occasion, as clearly he hadn’t forgotten). His record stands the test of time: in 2020, he was rated as the player with the second highest conversion rate for penalty kicks in the world over the last 20 years.

His 90.5% conversion rate was only beaten by Robert Lewandowski’s rate of 91.1%. What a statistic. And that’s not a handful of penalties, by the way — that’s 38 penalties scored in his West Ham United career, with only five missed since 2009 (and only three missed in the last eight years).

I have no idea how he became quite so good at them, but I was always glad that we had him in the side — the fact that we now don’t have a reliable penalty taker is highlighted by his exclusion from the team. The penalties that really made a difference stand out. We didn’t automatically win each time Noble scored a penalty, but one where it was pretty much the last kick of the game always stays in my memory.

To be honest, I don’t think that there was ever a Noble penalty scored that generated the sheer elation than that which he netted against Liverpool in 2009. It was 0-0, and in the last minute, Ljungberg was fouled in the box and Noble stepped up.

I remember thinking: ‘This is never in doubt’ — and it wasn’t. Watching Phil Thompson’s face on the TV as Noble’s penalty was smashed into the net was a particular highlight — and it would be pretty churlish of me not to point you in the direction of YouTube, where there is a video of said facial expression. It’s priceless. Many words will no doubt be spoken about Mark Noble when he retires — not only in this magazine but also elsewhere — so I will save the tributes for later in the season.

However, I will say this, and apologies if I’m repeating a message from last month: we sorely need a reliable penalty taker. That said, although it hurt at the time, looking back now I don’t really care that Noble missed against Manchester United — we know we’re a decent side and he’s done enough to ensure his place in club folklore. His reliability from the spot is one of the main reasons I will miss Noble very much when his playing career ends this season.

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