As the World Cup gets into full swing, Robert Hume throws a spotlight on the Irishman who in 1890 invented the penalty kick — soccer’s most famous rule
A CENTURY and a quarter later, penalties continue to add great excitement to the game, and the field where the penalty kick was invented has been preserved with the aid of a grant from the EU.
In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa a total of 15 penalty kicks were awarded, nine of which scored. What awaits us in Brazil?
Before the penalty kick was introduced, foul play (or “freedom of expression” as it was called) went unpunished. Defenders would typically trip, hack down, and jump up and knee their opponents in the stomach; there were even instances of players being killed by over-enthusiastic tackling.
Enter William McCrum. “Master Willie”, as he was known, loved telling funny stories, taking part in amateur dramatics, and splashing his cash around — the complete opposite of his serious-minded and thrifty father, Robert Garmany McCrum, High Sheriff of Armagh, self-made industrialist and millionaire mill owner.
McCrum was born in 1865 and grew up in the Manor House, the most technologically advanced home in Victorian Ireland, the first to be lit with hydro electricity; its six bathrooms each had a Jacuzzi and Turkish bath, and there was a waterfall in the dining room.
The young man was mad about sport — cricket, rugby and especially football.
As goalkeeper and captain for Milford FC, co. Armagh, which played in the Irish Football League, William McCrum had plenty of opportunity to witness “excesses” and carnage right in front of his goal. Watching his team lose match after match in a league he had helped found, he became sick of the “win-at-all-cost” attitude creeping into the game. Players, he reckoned, needed “encouragement” to play fairly, and any offenders had to be punished. His solution: the penalty kick, which has since been copied by other sports.
His idea was ridiculed. Why on earth would a goalkeeper, of all players, want to be faced with a one-on-one duel in the 12-yard box? Surely it was far easier for him to prevent a goal when a blockable free kick was awarded.
McCrum introduced the penalty successfully into local matches, and managed to persuade the Irish Football Association to implement it. But when he submitted the idea to a meeting of the International Football Board it got a frosty reception.
The English FA was also appalled by the concept of a penalty, arguing that only gentlemen played soccer and gentlemen didn’t cheat. The press angrily condemned it as the “Irishman’s motion” or the “death penalty”.
When the football authorities accepted the penalty kick (Law13) in 1891, the impact on the game was dramatic. For a few nail-biting moments, the goalkeeper became the star of the show.
With his ambition fulfilled, Master Willie immediately married Maud Squires of Montreal — first female graduate of Toronto University. They had one son, Cecil, who was later Captain of HMS Hood.
Two years later, at the age of 28, he became ill and doctors told him he was going to die (his mother had died of T.B at 29). Leaving his wife, he went on a spending spree around Europe, passing a lot of time at the gaming tables of Monte Carlo.
But Maud got her revenge in 1902 when she ran off to the French Reviera with the dashing Major Heard. William’s father gave her an allowance, provided she did not divorce his son.
By then William was in London acting as agent for his father’s company. But Robert McCrum realised that William’s heart was not in the work, and he cut him out of the family business.
When his father died in 1915 William moved back to Milford House, where he splashed his inheritance on a Rolls Royce and cruised down Milford’s main street in it. The rest he gambled away — completely neglecting the family mill, which went bankrupt.
William died in 1932 an alcoholic, penniless and alone, in a boarding house in Armagh. Maud married Major Heard, the man she had ran off with 30 years earlier.
Today, the multi-billion pound game has almost forgotten McCrum, his name only resurfacing in pub quizzes.
Stuart Pearce, Gareth Southgate and Chris Waddle (England), and Roberto Baggio (Italy) all have good reason to curse McCrum for their spectacular penalty misses.
A lifesize statue of McCrum will soon replace the present small bust on its unwieldy plinth at Milford, “home of the penalty” — the most dramatic rule in world sport.
I am very grateful to Stephen McManus at the Milford House Museum for providing information for this article.
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