‘Kick From the Penalty Mark’ – The Invention of the Penalty

Willie McCrum

Outrageous. Offensive. Outlandish.

The pretentious playboy son of a Presbyterian merchant. An amateur actor. An upstart. A failed goalkeeper.

An idea which undermined football and the values of Victorian society.

An idea which punished the team for the error of an individual.

An idea dismissed as, “The Irishman’s motion.”

It was called the ‘Kick From the Penalty Mark’.

Willie McCrum had invented the penalty.


The rules prior to his idea were that an indirect free kick inside the box would be given for any foul play. This meant that one could not shoot directly but had to pass first. So naturally the opposing defenders would charge towards the free kick taker and block any shot. It wasn’t a particularly fair system – where was the deterrent for a defender committing a foul? McCrum had a front seat to it all – he was the Milford FC goalkeeper in the first year of the Irish Championship in 1890. That’s not to say he was particularly effective in his role – he wasn’t. Unfortunately Willie conceded 62 goals in 10 games and saw his beloved club sit rock bottom of the league by the end of the season.

McCrum hung up his gloves and committed himself to reforming the game, to righting a wrong. His radical idea was that a penalty kick could be given for tripping, holding or a handball within a twelve yard line stretching across the pitch. The subsequent penalty kick could then be taken at any point along this line. It was directly in between the 6 and 18 yard lines. The goalkeeper could stand up to 6 yards from the goal line.

McCrum took the idea to the Irish FA Secretary named Jack Reid. He had been a forward for Cliftonville in Belfast and was capped six times by Ireland. Reid then took the idea to the International Board (A precursor of FIFA) but was met with scorn. The idea was dismissed as ‘The Irishman’s motion’ or ‘The Irishman’s notion’ depending on who you read. Given McCrum’s propensity for amateur dramatics and reputation as a gambler (He once squandered the modern day equivalent of £6 million on a trip to Monte Carlo) was easy fodder to his critics. His proposal added a level of theatre and drama that Victorian football men did not care for.

Yet within the year FA Cup action compelled the law makers to change their minds. In the 90th minute of an FA Cup quarter final a defender did the unthinkable. He deliberately handled the ball to stop a clear goal. Think Luis Suarez for Uruguay in the 2010 World Cup. The subsequent indirect free kick was easily blocked by the goalkeeper and outrage ensued. Four months later the ‘Kick from the Penalty Mark’ was introduced.

The majority of fans simply could not accept that a footballer would deliberately act in an ungentlemanly manner. The principle than the collective should be punished for the mistake of an individual did not cut the mustard. Corinthians (The English team whom their considerably more successful Brazilian counterparts are named after) would never take a penalty. They also would remove one of their players if an opponent was injured or sent off. And it was only in their 41st year that they took part in a competition which was not for charity.

As for the penalty shoot out? It was either created:

  • In 1962 in a Spanish Cup final between Real Zaragoza and Barcelona
  • By a retired German referee named Karl Wald in 1970
  • For the Israeli FA Cup in 1965


You will have to read ‘Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick’ by Ben Lyttleton for a deeper study.

You can visit the home of Willie McCrum in Milford House, Armagh and discover the fascinating history of his family.


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