Mark Crossley: The tricks that made me the only keeper to save a Le Tissier pen

In Depth

Of course penalty-kicks were invented by a gambler. In 1890, Irish millionaire William McCrum first proposed penalties as a way of stopping the rough-and-ready methods of cynical defenders, who were partial to knee a striker in the stomach if ever they threatened to score.

McCrum, the man who later had to sell off the cotton mill from which he earned his own fortune to pay off debts wracked up on the tables of Monte Carlo, had given birth to football’s answer to Russian roulette. Get it right, you’re a hero. Get it wrong, you’re fucked. Proper fucked.

Think back to the most significant penalties you can remember and you almost always visualise the taker, and the agony or ecstasy that followed.

But what about the person stood all alone 12 yards away, facing not only the other 21 players on the pitch but also the thousands of fans filling three quarters of the stadium?

In episode three of the second series of GIANT, the award-winning Spotify Originals podcast produced by MUNDIAL, we’re given a brilliant insight into how goalkeepers think and feel when they find themselves staring down the barrel of a shot from 12 yards.

Stories From 12 Yards looks at three tales of penalty history, as told by the people that were there. The second of the three stories deals with the psychology and skill involved in saving a penalty, courtesy of Mark Crossley, the former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper who astonishingly kept out over 50% of penalties he ever faced.

Crossley saved penalties on some of the biggest stages and against some of the greatest penalty takers, but no matter what the scenario, his process was always the same.

With the ball placed on the spot and the opposition player ready and waiting, “I’m still telling the referee it wasn’t a penalty. I’m still probably going to get a drink out of my drinks bottle from the side of the goal. The referee is going to threaten to caution me if I don’t get back in my goal. I’ll get back into the middle of my goal as slow as possible.

“The longer you can delay, the more pressure you can put on the striker. For me, that gave me a better chance of saving the penalty and to go in to trying to save that penalty with the attitude of, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose, he’s got everything to lose.’ I believe mentally puts you in good stead.”

As the penalty taker starts his run up, “I’ve already made my mind up which way I’m going. I might have a look at your angle of approach. If you go extremely wide it’s very hard to hit the ball back across you. If you’re running straight at it I believe it gives the penalty taker a better option of which side to put the ball and to fool the goalkeeper.

“I want to catch your eye if I can. Whichever way I’ve made my mind up I’m going to dive, I’m going to try and make it look to you that I’m going the other way.”

In 1991, Crossley became just the second goalkeeper to save a penalty in an FA Cup final, thwarting the usually unflappable Gary Lineker after he had brought the England captain down in the 30th minute.

“He came through on goal one v one with me,” Crossley recalls. “I actually brought him down, but I’m playing mind games now. He’s already been delayed because I’m arguing with the referee saying I got a touch on the ball. I’m saying, ‘Don’t you dare be sending me off.’ I’m saying all the little things like that to the referee. It’s all part of the tactics to try and delay Lineker. 

“I’ve took a load of time getting there. I’ve took a load of time getting into my goal. I’ve took a load of time getting my feet on the line. In that time I’ve made my mind up, I’ve had a quick look up at Lineker, I’ve made my mind up which way I’m going, and I went the right way.”

Crossley adds: “At first he said it was a good height, ‘I hit it too high for the keeper,’ but then he actually came out and said not so long ago on TV that it was a really, really good save. And it was, it wasn’t a straightforward save.

“One of my favourite things to say was, ‘Don’t forget I’ve been watching you years, and I know where you actually put them.’ If you’re listening to me telling you that, it can’t do you any good.”

Crossley’s most significant penalty save came two years later, when he became the first and only goalkeeper to prevent Matt Le Tissier from scoring from the spot as Nottingham Forest won 2-1 at Southampton.

At the time, Le Tissier had converted all 20 penalties he had taken. Crossley’s save was the only blot on his copybook as he ended his career having scored 47 of 48 attempts.

“If you watch Matt Le Tissier’s run up to a football, it very rarely changed because he was that good at changing which way he was going to actually put the ball,” Crossley says. “He was technically probably the best striker of a football I’ve ever seen with his right foot, so he can change his mind at the last second as well. 

“If you see the penalty I actually feign to go to my left, then came back across right. It is probably one of the few penalties he didn’t stick right in the corner. Was that because of the mind games? Was that because of the movement? Was that because of the delay? That would be a question for him but, for me, it worked.

“I tweet and I keep saying, ‘Matt, you know I’m still living off this penalty save, mate. You want to see how many after-dinners I’m doing off the back of your penalty miss, or should I say penalty save.’

“[He was] arguably the best penalty taker, so you can imagine how proud I am that that is never ever going to be beaten and can never ever be taken away from me.”

Crossley is in his fifties now, his 24-year professional career came to an end in 2013, yet his reputation as a penalty-saving expert endures. It’s a status he still maintains with pride.

“I was known as a penalty specialist – I still am,” he says. “With my kids in the back garden I still am, mate. Believe me, they ain’t getting past me.”

Listen to Stories From 12 Yards on Spotify now to hear this, plus brilliant tales of Manuel Almunia’s dramatic save from Anthony Knockaert which led to *that* Troy Deeney goal, and Nick Stone’s beautiful account of his travels around Italy with his father during the 1990 World Cup and the priceless piece of memorabilia he will never part with.

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