Recently, I was browsing through the “On this Day….” section of one of the national newspapers 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, to leave no stone unturned in my quest for the story behind the one-liner. 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, though he apparently remembered little of it.
From an early age, it was clear that the young William [or “Stupid” 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.
The McCrumms moved south in 1870, when the Great Linen War between Ireland and Peru brought the industry, if not to its knees, at least to its ankles. Soup kitchens were set up at the corners of streets until people got fed up with soup and demanded quiche twice a week. Thousands of people took the boat to Liverpool, but were forced to bring it back again by customs.
Jessie McCrumm, his wife Kylie and their large-eared son William settled in what is now Diswellstown but was then a vast expanse of flax country. With his own hands, Jessie built a two roomed cottage by the road to Coolmine, and then built a garage with someone else’s hands. It was only after five years of hard toil and graft that the family realised that the bounteous fields around them were in fact full of weeds, not flax.
Such setbacks appeared not to have greatly troubled young William. After a hard day’s gathering nettles, he would come in, eat a bowl of warm water and then retire to the shed for a full evening experimenting.
Of course 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, with whom he corresponded on a regular basis, 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 newly-built 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 Blanchardstown, before dumping him unceremoniously in the canal.
The first penalty kick ever awarded was in a game between Verona and Castleknock Celtic at Ye Olde Football Stadium (now Power City) in November 1890.
The history books tell us that the Celtic goalkeeper, Harry “Big Fat Hape” O’Hara actually saved the kick from Mr. Geoghegan(a gentleman.) However, a furious row broke out subsequently with Verona protesting vehemently at the positioning of the penalty spot two yards from the corner-flag.
An international tribunal 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 a stoat with haemorrhoids. 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 penalty, and you’ll get some idea of the amount of money McCrum passed up.
Disenchanted, McCrum ran away to sea, but got lost and ended up in Westmeath, where he carried on an affair with a pretty young badger-baiter until she found out. Returning home, he experimented for a while with the concept of centre circles, hoping to emulate his previous success, but a raid by the Black and Tans and the ensuing destruction of his efforts, saw years of work go up in flames. (The centre circle was only introduced after McCrum’s death by Dutch inventor Ruud van Driver)
As it was, he died penniless in Laurel Lodge when an affronted stoat attacked his nose. Thousands of people lined the streets of Blanchardstown for his funeral, which by some unfortunate route-planning fiasco, formed part of the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Fittingly he was buried beneath the penalty spot at Ye Olde Football Stadium, in a service that “touched even the hardest of hearts,” according to the Irish Times, though Bishop O’Malley had to pause the ceremony several times to control his giggling. William McCrum is now an integral part of the aisle between the dishwashers and the vacuum cleaners.
A suitable resting place for a great man.