Recently, I was browsing through the “On this Day….” section of the newspaper when I came across the following mind-blowing piece of information:
“On this day in 1890, William McCrum, a linen manufacturer from Armagh, invented the penalty-kick.”
So amazed was I at this startling piece of information, I promptly spilled my bowl of Coco Pops into my lap. While mopping it up, I resolved to unearth the truth about this miraculous invention. Minutes of detailed research later, I came across a story that will have movie producers knocking on my door.
William McCrum was born in Armagh in 1860, the son of his parents. According to local folklore, he was present at the birth, as was his mother.
From an early age, it was clear that the young William [or “Dickhead” as his friends affectionately called him] was no ordinary youth. Instead of pulling the legs off daddy-long-legs, like normal boys, William would stick extra legs onto them and marvel at their increased velocity.
But it was his love of football, allied to his penchant for inventing, that brought about a revolution in the beautiful game. [In those days, of course, it was known as the “reasonably-good-looking” game.]
In 1884, the first breakthrough came when he invented the penalty spot, basically a lump of turf with a white circle painted on it. The prototype was a bit of a failure, as the circle measured approximately nine feet in diameter. However, when Alexander Graham Bell introduced him to the concept of “scale”, things really started moving. The penalty spot was unveiled to stunned crowds at the 1886 Scientific Exhibition in Paris, and McCrum’s moon was on the rise.
Despite the success of the penalty spot in Paris, McCrum was stung by criticism in certain quarters that his invention had no practical application in the real world. Enraged, he shut himself in his laboratory and only emerged three years later, tousle-haired and rather hungry. A watching world held its breath as he explained the concept of the “penalty kick” and its place within the laws of association football. When he had finished, thousands of cheering fans carried him shoulder-high through the streets of Dublin, before dumping him unceremoniously in the canal.
The first penalty kick ever awarded was in a game between Bohemians and Shelbourne at Dalymount Park in November 1889. The history books tell us that the Shels goalkeeper, Harry “Big Fat Bastard” O’Hara actually saved the kick from Paul Doolin. However, a furious row broke out subsequently with Bohemians protesting vehemently at the positioning of the penalty spot two yards from the corner-flag. An international tribune was set up to examine the issue and, in their report delivered three months later, they recommended that the penalty spot should lie “twelve yards from the centre of, and perpendicular to, the goal line” where, of course, it has remained ever since, except during the war years, when it was brought inside for security reasons. The tribunal also recommended that, whenever a penalty was awarded, the defending side should “protest vehemently at the decision” and that the referee should “listen intently to all cogent arguments put forward by the defending side and should be prepared to overturn his decision if so persuaded.”
Nowadays, of course, the penalty kick is accepted by football teams all over the world, with the exception of Burkino Faso, where defenders still prefer to apologise and pay a small fine.
As for William McCrum, a great inventor he may have been, but unfortunately he possessed all the business acumen of an amoeba. Had he patented or copyrighted the idea, he need never have manufactured linen again, and the “McCrum kick” or the “McCrummo” would have given sub-editors the world over much greater scope for headline writing. [“Few McCrums of comfort for Baggio”, “Southgate McCrumbles” etc etc] Just imagine the amount of royalties that could have been earned at, say, sixpence a penno, and you’ll get some idea of the amount of money McCrum passed up.
As it was, he died penniless in Athlone when a stoat attacked his nose. Thousands of people lined the streets of Dublin for his funeral and he was buried beneath the penalty spot at Glenmalure Park. He is now an integral part of the foundations of no. 43, Milltown Gardens. A fitting end to a great man.