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William McCrum: The Irish inventor of the penalty kick

William McCrum from Armagh was heir to a fortune but, thanks to the Wall Street Crash, he died a poor man. But today his legacy remains strong because of a suggestion he made to the Irish Football Association way back in 1890.

If you still haven’t heard enough about penalties this summer, discover the origin of the rule that has injected so much excitement into football over the past 100 years.

The making of a football legend

Born in 1865, William McCrum grew up just outside of Armagh in the picturesque village of Milford.

The town was established around a mill built by McCrum’s grandfather. Later on, the Victorian redbrick buildings that still exist today were constructed for the workers by his father – Robert Garmany McCrum.

Robert McCrum was an innovative linen merchant who amassed a fortune of millions. However, he remained prudent and God-fearing throughout his life. William, on the other hand, was quite different.

In an article for The Guardian, his great-grandson described him as a fun-loving personality who told funny stories, sang songs and loved sports.

“My great-grandfather is still remembered in Milford as ‘Master Willie’, as though he somehow never quite grew up,” wrote Robert McCrum back in 2004.

‘Willie’ liked to drive around town in his Rolls-Royce and was known for losing a fortune at the casinos of Monte Carlo. Generally, he was much better at losing money than making it.

As a managing director for his father’s company, McCrum spent years in London. But business wasn’t his strength and he was eventually pushed to the side. However, he excelled in other areas.

In his obituary, McCrum was recognised as a great scholar who graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1886. Later on, in 1909, he was also the High Sheriff of Armagh acting as the crown’s judicial representative for the area.

According to a local group promoting Milford as the home of the penalty kick, McCrum was a very active member of the community. He helped set up the town’s cricket and football clubs. Then, when his father opened a community hall, he got involved and encouraged the locals to take part in various activities. He also supported the Scout movement and was known for performing amateur theatre at the hall.

The wedding party of Harriette McCrum (sister) outside Milford House Gate Lodge 1898. Copyright Milford Buildings Preservation Trust.

A free-for-all on the pitch

In William McCrum’s time, football as we know it was still emerging. A standard set of rules only came into force when the Football Association was set up in 1863. This banned players from running with the ball in their hands or kicking the shins of their opponents. (Those who rejected these rules went on to play rugby.)

In Ireland, McCrum had a hand in founding the first Irish league and, in 1890, he played as a goalkeeper for Milford FC. Along with seven teams from Belfast, they took part in the very first Irish championship.

From his position in front of the goalposts at Milford’s sodden football pitch, he was unhappy to see that many defenders professionally fouled attacking players to prevent them from scoring.

So, as a member of the Irish Football Association, he proposed the introduction of penalty kicks to curb this practice. His idea was then submitted to a meeting of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in June 1980.

Consternation in Victorian England

In England, McCrum’s suggestion didn’t receive a warm welcome. The media dubbed it the “death penalty” and dismissed it as an “Irishman’s motion”.

Many felt penalties would slow down the game to an unbearable extent. Others believed it was obscene.

The well-known sportsman C.B. Fry, who captained the London-based Corinthian FC, described the idea as “a standing insult to sportsmen to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to trip, hack and kick their opponents and behave like cads of the most unscrupulous kidney”.

As Max Davidson explains in his book It’s not the Winning that Counts, the very notion that a player would cheat to gain an advantage went against Victorian thinking.

“The idea of awarding a penalty kick for deliberate foul play had a fatal flaw: it pre-supposed that a gentleman playing football was capable of deliberate foul play,” he wrote.

English sportsman C. B. Fry

1891: It all kicks off

Despite the objections, the first penalty was awarded at a competitive game in Scotland the following January. At their home ground of Broomfield Park, Airdrieonians FC were awarded the honour.

A few months later, in June 1891, the IFAB met once again to discuss McCrum’s proposal. At the Alexandra Hotel in Glasgow, the motion was put forward by an Irish delegate and seconded by an English one.

“After considerable discussion”, the penalty kick was introduced as IFAB’s Law 14 – as it still remains today. Handling the ball and tripping or holding players within 12 yards of his own goal line would result in a penalty. (At that same meeting, the board abolished umpires.)

English delegates seem to have warmed to the proposal after a farcical free kick at the FA Cup quarter-final between Stoke City and Notts County. But C.B. Fry and the Corinthians continued to object.

When a penalty was awarded to them, they sometimes missed on purpose. When one was awarded against them, they sometimes left their own goal unmanned in protest. It was a losing formula. Reportedly, Fry also tended to puff his pipe on the pitch during any pauses in play caused by these penalties.

An ever-evolving legacy

There is no record of McCrum’s reaction to the introduction of the penalty kick. In fact, the part he played was largely overlooked.

But considering his performance as a goalie, he may have regretted his proposal. During that first Irish championship, Milford finished bottom of the table with zero points. The team conceded 62 goals in just nine games and threw in the towel before the season ended.

Later in life, McCrum’s luck wasn’t much better either. After the stock market crash of 1929, he had to auction off all that he had inherited from his father. Just a couple of years later, he died poor and alone.

While his contribution to football wasn’t recognised during his lifetime, he is remembered today with a monument in Milford’s William McCrum Park. And with every controversial penalty decision, his legacy only grows.

This summer, as part Europeana Sport: Ireland’s Stories project, EPIC is inviting the public to share their sporting stories with us. If you have a photo, trophy or any kind of memorabilia to share, fill out this form or contact us for an interview: museum@epicchq.com

Header: William McCrum 1888 when High Sheriff of Armagh. Copyright Milford Buildings Preservation Trust.