The Neverending Shootout

by Steve

I was only planning on staying up another ten minutes. I’ll just watch the end of extra time, I thought.

Liverpool’s 14-3 penalty shootout victory against Middlesbrough wasn’t the longest ever, but it wasn’t far off. There’s a near poetry, and a certain symmetry, to the game going to penalties after a last-gasp penalty in extra time. The briefest taster of what was to come. A moment of recklessness on Liverpool’s part, and nerve on Middlesbrough’s, to ensure we had the most dramatic finish that football offers.

But that was the weird thing with this penalty shootout. Shootouts are always nerve-racking, even when they are at the end of a League Cup second round game. There is survival at stake, not to mention the investment of the prior two hours. However, after a certain point, this shootout felt weird. The tension seemed to be replaced with disbelief. The players looked less worried, and more bemused. Anyone who can earn several thousand pounds a week playing football should be able to score a penalty. Virtually all of them did. Again and again. Over and over.

The shootout began to look like a training ground exercise. Even the centre-backs were scoring great penalties, high and well out of reach of the goalkeeper. Any goalkeeper wouldn’t stand a chance with penalties like those. The goalkeepers themselves seemed resigned to the futility of it all. They had saved one penalty each, but didn’t look like saving any more. For several kicks they seemed to just go through the motions – pick a side, throw yourself on the grass, pick the ball out the net. Or just watch the ball fly past and fall on your arse.

The shootout became less a test of nerve, more an exercise in concentration. Smiles broke out. Players got more confident. The penalties got better. The goalkeepers now just placeholders. The final penalty was wayward. The goalkeepers were never going to save one. It would take a break in the penalty takers attention, a penalty just too ambitious, not quite right.

An odd experience. A surreal spectacle. I sort of didn’t want anyone to miss. I also wanted to go to bed. And that I did. Finally.