by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
14 September 1891: Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Billy Heath scores the first ever penalty in the English League
The first penalty in the English League was taken and scored on 14 September 1891 in the league’s fourth season. The penalty taker was Wolverhampton Wanderer’s forward Joseph ‘Billy’ Heath, and came during their 5-0 victory over Accrington at Wolves’ ground Molineux.
Before the penalty kick was introduced the punishment for an infringement within two yards of the goal was an indirect free kick two yards from the goal. This usually resulted in no benefit though for the attacking team as it was easily blocked by a defending team lining up in front of the ball. As football was getting more serious and the rewards greater, defending teams were finding it more fruitful to commit a foul to stop a clear goal attempt and accept the free kick than to let play continue.
Penalty kicks in front of goal had long been applied in rugby and the concept of awarding a penalty goal for fouls within two yards of the goal-line had been discussed and rejected at a Sheffield FA meeting in 1879. The idea of a penalty kick in football appeared to have first surfaced in 1890 thanks to an Irishman called William McCrum.
McCrum played as goalkeeper for Milford Everton in County Armagh. They finished bottom of the first ever season of the Irish Belfast District League in 1890/91 without gaining a single point from their 14 games, and conceding 62 goals and scoring only 10, but it appears that McCrum’s imagination was better than his goalkeeping. He was a member of the Irish FA as well as Milford’s goalkeeper, and, having grown tired of watching carnage unfold when the ball got close to the goal as defenders tried everything to stop attackers, he instituted the penalty kick in local matches. The penalty was awarded if a defender deliberately tripped or held an opponent, or handled the ball, within twelve yards of his goal. It involved a shot against only the goalkeeper and, unlike all other free kicks at the time, you could score a goal directly from it.
He had persuaded the Irish FA to submit the idea in 1890 to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) which consisted of the FAs of the English Welsh, Scots and Irish game and whose task it was to standardise the rules. They initially discarded the idea pouring scorn on it and the proposal was reported in the press condescendingly as the “Irishman’s motion.” Seemingly to the public school educated amateurs in control of the English FA who held the principles of fair-play above everything, it was unthinkable that a player would ever deliberately prevent another one from scoring. Just a few years before in 1887 Montague Shearman had written in a book called Athletics and Football that it had been proven necessary to have hardly any rules surrounding foul play in football because there rarely was any. The penalty kick proposal so outraged the Corinthians’ captain C.B. Fry that he was reported as remarking that it was “a standing insult to sportsmen to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to trip, hack and push opponents and to behave like cads of the most unscrupulous kidney.”
However a series of controversies saw the FA having to rethink its position quite quickly, especially after a blatant goal-line handball by John Hendry, a Notts County defender, in an FA Cup Quarter-Final game on 14 February 1891 against Stoke, which prevented a certain goal and a last-minute equaliser. The uproar that followed saw the IFAB pressured into drawing up Rule 13 on 2 June 1891, and the penalty kick was born.
The new rule required two lines to be marked across the field, 12 and 18 yards from each goal line as the penalty kick was to be given for offences anywhere on the pitch 12 yards from the goal line. The kick could be taken from any position on the 12-yard line, and the opposition players had to stand behind the ball at least 6 yards from it, except naturally the goalkeeper who was allowed to advance six yards off the goal line.
These arrangements lasted until 1902, when the penalty kick rule was changed to cover offences 18 yards from the goal line, but within a 44 yard-wide area known as the “penalty area,” which we know today. The penalty spot was now fixed, 12 yards from the goal and in the centre. Only one more change was made when in 1937 the ‘D’, or penalty arc, was added to ensure that players standing in the centre were still the correct distance from the ball.
When the penalty was first introduced it stirred up some strong feelings. There were reports of keepers protesting by standing to one side of the goal while the kick was taken, while some strikers even kicked deliberately wide. There protests were in vain though and writing in his book The Association Game in 1906 the FA secretary Charles Alcock admitted that while “such a severely repressive measure as the penalty kick” had been introduced with much regret “it had proved to be a necessity.”
Little is known about Billy Heath the man who took that first penalty kick at Molineux. He played just 8 times for Wolves, scoring four times before moving to Arsenal, where despite only playing 12 times he again he left his name in the record books by becoming the first ever player to score a hat-trick for Arsenal in the league in a 4-0 win over Walsall Swifts on 11 September 1893.
While Heath’s details may have mostly faded into obscurity, the name of the penalty-kick innovator, William McCrum lives on. He seemed to have enjoyed the high life and, having blown the family’s not inconsiderable fortune he died alone as a penniless alcoholic in 1932. However he is not forgotten, and a memorial bronze bust has been built in Milford on the actual site where he played and dreamed up the penalty kick to commemorate his contribution to the game of football.