Who Invented Penalties And Were They Sick In The Head?

There's perhaps no other refereeing decision, in any sport, that causes the deep emotional reaction of the awarding of a penalty kick. When the call is made for a spot kick from 12 yards out, the response is typically either a flurry of expletives and impending sense of doom or the feeling of utter joy derived from receiving a blessing, depending on which side of the call you are.

And it seems these feelings are warranted — stats show that there’s a 75-80% chance of the penalty being converted.

Those who have played the game have almost certainly been on both the right and wrong ends of a penalty decision, and at some point in between the sobs or while gleefully fist pumping, you’ve perhaps wondered: “Who the heck invented this thing that is all at once so devastating and delightful?”

The answer is an Irishman named William McCrum.


Photo: @thepainterflynn | Twitter


Throughout the late 18th and early 19th century, McCrum had a hand in all sorts of things as a justice of the peace, a chess player and a linen manufacturer. Though he was a Renaissance man, McCrum is primarily remembered for his important contribution to the game of football.

For many years, he played as a goalkeeper for Millford FC in the Irish Football League. In June 1890, the goalie, as a member of the Irish Football Association, proposed the idea of the penalty kick to the International Football Association Board:

“If any player should intentionally trip or hold an opposing player or deliberately handle the ball within twelve yards of his own goal line, then the referee shall, on appeal, award the opposing side a penalty kick, to be taken from any 12 yard point from the goal line, under the following conditions: All players, with the exception of the player taking the penalty kick and the goalkeeper, shall stand behind the ball and at least six yards from it. The ball shall be in play when the kick is taken. A goal may be scored from a penalty kick”


The rule proposal was a response to the sinister and prevalent practice of defenders taking down attacking players to stop a goal. At first, football folks hated it and the new addition was dubbed “the death penalty.” Many were worried that players might act unsportsmanlike, feigning a foul in order to get a call. Imagine the nerve!

However, after several trial runs in games, the rule was officially approved as number 13 in the Laws of the Game on June 2, 1981.

  Early PK An early penalty. Photo: @AlambradoNet | Twitter

  An early penalty. Photo: @AlambradoNet | Twitter

With that, McCrum’s name was etched into the history books and generations of players and fans around the world would now know first hand the joys and sorrows of the penalty kick.

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