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05th Jul 2018

World Cup Comments: How Gareth Southgate changed England’s unhappy penalty ending

Melissa Reddy

“We’re trying to write our own history, and I’ve talked to the players about that. They write their own stories. We don’t have to be bowed by the pressure of the past…”

In Gelsenkirchen at the 2006 World Cup, Portugal goalkeeper Ricardo was practically willing their quarter-final against England to be decided on penalties, despite Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side enjoying a numerical advantage following Wayne Rooney’s sending off on 62 minutes.

His conviction stemmed from two solid sources.

“Did we play for the draw? Well, we didn’t take any risks because we were confident about winning the shootout,” the gloveman detailed in Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty.

“I spoke with Sven[-Goran Eriksson] before the game, and he told me: ‘I don’t want the game to go to penalties because I know my players don’t want to face you’.”

That bewildering comment from the England manager coupled with Ricardo’s successful improvisation against the Three Lions at the same stage of the 2004 European Championships – he removed his gloves to put Darius Vassell off before then converting the winning penalty – assured the ‘keeper that Portugal had a pronounced psychological edge in a shootout situation.

He was right. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher all missed from the spot with Owen Hargreaves the only player to beat Ricardo. Portugal had the luxury of botching two attempts to win 3-1 and still progress to the semi-finals.

Rewinding to those tournaments, through the prism of England finally triumphing in a shootout after failure from 12 yards in three World Cups and a treble of Euros, accentuates just how different Gareth Southgate’s approach has been in Russia.

At Euro 2004, Vassell did not want to be one of the takers, which he revealed to Ricardo seven years later when they became team-mates at Leicester City. “He told me that before the Portugal game he went to Eriksson and said, ‘Coach, if it goes to penalties, I don’t want to take one. I’m not prepared for it, I’m too young’. The guy was just a kid,” the goalie recalled.

Two years later, when Carragher couldn’t wait to get his attempt over with – not even waiting for referee Horacio Elizondo’s whistle – he revealed that he “didn’t realise” he needed the go-ahead. “I obviously don’t take that many,” the defender said, pointing out he’d only been tasked with two others in his career. England’s assistant manager Tord Grip erroneously believed Carragher ‘took one really well for Liverpool in the Champions League final.’

“It’s frightening to think England’s assistant manager could be so ill-informed,” the centre-back later noted in his autobiography.

It wasn’t meant to be like that. The freeze-and-falter from the spot was supposed to be stopped prior to those major competitions.

In 2002, Eriksson’s assistant coach Steve McClaren revealed that on the back of sizeable research, there would be greater preparation for penalties, which included mock shootouts. 

It sounded like exactly what was needed, but there didn’t seem to be an actual belief that studying and improving the process would make much of a difference.

“Sven has had some feedback from the FA on a recent survey about what methods are best for taking penalties,” McClaren said at the time.

“The problem with re-enactment is that you know it is so different on the night, when the pressure is really on. It simply comes down to trusting the players and their know-how.

“You can practise all you like, but it would never be the same as at the end of a big game with so much at stake.”

There had been a sense of practicing for the sake of it rather than to create a sense of assuredness: a thing to tick off rather than a strategy to take seriously.

The focus was also weighted on technique of strikes rather than the entirety of the process: taking your time, breathing mannerisms and strong body language – all elements Southgate and his backroom team focused heavily on with the help of team psychologist Dr Pippa Grange.

Compare and contrast the reaction of Frank Lampard’s missed penalty in 2006 to that of Jordan Henderson’s unsuccessful effort against Colombia on Tuesday night. On the former, Ricardo detailed: “When I saved it, I saw [Rio] Ferdinand and [Steven] Gerrard and they just went, ‘pffffff…’

“Their heads went down, and I knew we had the advantage. The best guy they have has missed. ‘What chance have we got now?’”

In ‘Sven: My Story’, Eriksson revealed at that point “all I felt was helplessness.”

Against Colombia at the Otkrytiye Arena, when Henderson’s sidefooted shot was saved low to the left by David Ospina, Kieran Trippier – England’s next taker – greeted the Liverpool captain with an extended arm on his way back to the centre circle as a sign of confidence and togetherness.

Southgate, meanwhile, did not flinch in the technical area and there was no dropping of heads. England maintained a sense of calm and control.

The 47-year-old,  who spent “a couple of decades” thinking about his decisive penalty miss against Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 96, has done what so many before him couldn’t do: “own the process and not be controlled by it.”

Glenn Hoddle didn’t bother preparing for spot-kicks in 1998. During Euro 2012, Roy Hodgson noted that “you can practise penalty shootouts until the cows come home” but it could have little to no impact.

“Maybe it’s just fate that we don’t win on penalties,” he then said after his side’s defeat from the spot against Italy in the quarter-finals.

Ricardo, meanwhile, once likened England’s shootout woe as “a film going round in their head … and they know how it always ends.”

Not this time.