A harsh penalty

The situation occurs up and down the country every Saturday (and midweek).  A centre-forward weaves his way into the penalty area near the touchline. His/her way is blocked by the full-back and as the forward looks to go around him/her, the defender falls over and perhaps to cushion the impact, put both hands out. Those hands landed firmly on the ball, stopping it the forward progressing.

Unbelievably, the two people in the stadium who don’t see the offence are the two that mattered – the referee and his near-side assistant and wave play on. However, if you take a step back and put the rules to the side for a minute, it is hard to justify how an offence in that position actually warrants a penalty kick.

Whilst the handball occurred in the penalty area, it was in a relatively harmless position. The forward couldn’t have realistically scored from that position especially as another defender blocked his way to the goal. So why should that be considered a worse offence than one a few minutes earlier which results in a defendable free-kick when the same forward is cynically pole-axed on the edge of the penalty area almost dead centre?

Perhaps it is time we took a look at the rules around a penalty kick? At a time when the IFAB (the rule makers) are keen to tinker with the rules, how long before the spot kick as we know it changes? Whilst it is sure to cause controversy and the usual media outcry, perhaps it is for the best.

Before we consider the ramifications of any change(s), let’s go back 130 years when the idea of a penalty kick, credited to goalkeeper and businessman William McCrum, was presented by the Irish Football Association to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) 1890 Meeting. After a year of debate, the rule changes came into play at the start of the 1891/92 season.

However, the rules pertaining to the humble spot kick agreed by IFAB were very different to what we know today.  In the typed update issued to all football associations they laid out the new rules for the penalty kick:

  • It was awarded for an offence committed within 12 yards of a goal-line, with a horizontal line being marked on the pitch (the penalty area not introduced until 1902).
  • It could be taken from any point along the new line 12 yards from the goal-line.
  • It was awarded only after an appeal made by the attacking team to the referee in a similar way to how the fielding/bowling team in cricket make a appeal for a wicket.
  • There was no restriction on dribbling with the ball in a similar way to the old US-style shoot-out.
  • The ball could be kicked in any direction including backwards.
  • The goal-keeper was allowed to advance up to 6 yards from the goal-line – one of the reasons for the creation of the 6-yard box.

The world’s first penalty kick was awarded to Royal Albert FC in their Airdrie Charity Cup game at Airdrieonians in 1891 just four days after the IFAB rule change was ratified and announced. The honour to make history fell to James McLuggage who scored from the 12-yard line.  The first penalty awarded and scored in England came in September when “Billy’ Heath scored for Wolverhampton Wanderers in their league match against Accrington Stanley.

The rules as we know them today came into play from 1902 with the creation of the 18-yard box and whilst there has been changes to almost every one of the original rules, the basics have remained the same for over 115 years – an offence committed anywhere in the 18-yard box results in a penalty kick from 12-yards out, with the goal keeper not allowed to move fully off his line before the ball is struck.

But is now the time to rethink the rules? At their meeting in Aberdeen in March 2018, IFAB discussed the idea of making any follow-ups to penalties saved by the goal keeper or that strike the frame of the goal “illegal”. It is likely that in the next few years this will become entrenched in the rules of the game but perhaps one change could be under discussed in the next few years is that the penalty area is reduced from 18 to 12 yards, and made into a semi-circle similar to the hockey penalty area. Any offence committed in the area will result in a spot kick, taken from the point on the curve closest to the offence. The more central the offence, the better the angle the penalty taker has.

It may be a controversial change to one of the most recognisable aspects of the game but football needs to adapt. If our ficitious scenario would have resulted in a penalty  we, as home fans,  of course wouldn’t have complained.  But if that spot kick decided the game or even a title, a cup, a promotion or a relegation, would it have been a just reward for an offence that took place in an area of the pitch where there was virtually no chance of a goal?


  1. I’ve been saying this for years. You can be 19 yards away central to the goal and only get a free kick, but over 25 yards away in the corner of the area with a worse angle and get a pen. The area should be longer and narrower.

  2. Love the blog. However, must pick you up on this:
    The world’s first penalty kick was awarded to Airdrieonians in 1891

    You are not alone in getting some facts about the Airdrie match wrong. I trust the following, which I’ve just posted on Facebook, will help:

    Heard of James McLuggage? Me Neither.

    All the recent controversary about penalties for handball has led to several articles on how the rules regarding what constitutes a penalty kick have evolved. It has also shone a light on the fact that the world’s first penalty kick was awarded to Airdrieonians at Broomfield Park in March 1891, just three day after the rule was adopted by the International Football Association Board.

    Well actually, that’s not quite true.

    1. The first penalty was awarded to Royal Albert, not Airdrieonians, in the final of the Airdrie Charity Cup, and it wasn’t in March but on 6 June 1891.
    2. The match was played at Mavisbank Park, not at Broomfield; Airdrieonians’ famously raucous old ground didn’t even exist in 1891.
    3. The introduction of the new rule took place on 2 June, four not three days before the Airdrieonians v Royal Albert cup final.

    Otherwise, the introduction of penalty kicks and the first match in which a penalty was taken, seem to have been recalled with the requisite precision!

    The annual meeting of the International Football Association Board was held on 2 June 1891 in Glasgow’s Alexandra Hotel. The following proposal was agreed to:
    If any player shall intentionally trip or hold an opposing player, or deliberately handle the ball within 12 yards of 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 opposing goalkeeper, who shall not advance more than six yards from the goal line, shall stand at least six yards behind the ball; the ball shall be in play when the kick is taken; a goal may be scored from the penalty kick.

    Four days later Referee Robertson of the Kirkcudbrightshire Rifle Volunteers FC, suitably aware of the recent rule change, blew his whistle to start the Airdrie Charity Cup Final. A contemporary reporter takes up the story: “When fifteen minutes had gone, the referee pulled up (Airdrieonians’) Mitchell for throwing (Royal Albert’s) Lamhie, and granted a foul under the new law. McLuggage took the twelve yards kick and shot a goal, Connor failing by inches to get at the ball.”

    When the 125th anniversary of world’s first penalty was commemorated in June 2016 attempts to identify relatives of James McLuggage were unsuccessful.

    That’s a pity. If any relation of Mr. McLuggage had by some chance inherited his ability to score from twelve yards I can think of one particular Scottish Championship club who may have benefitted from such an association.

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