STUDYING Hearts’ penalty statistics this season reinforces the need to solve a growing problem. Ten spot-kicks in total, only four converted, and just one from six in the SPL. Craig Beattie added his name to this lamentable record by missing against Rangers to further highlight a season-long irritation.
Hearts require to fathom a way round the issue quickly. Europa League qualification may depend on it during their remaining four critical league fixtures. Then there’s that side issue of an all-Edinburgh Scottish cup final with Hibs, which itself has a reasonable chance of being decided by penalty kicks.
Beattie became the fifth Tynecastle player this season to miss from 12 yards on Saturday, following Jamie Hamill, Eggert Jonsson, Ian Black and Fraser Mullen. He struck probably the most vital penalty of all against Celtic at Hampden Park the previous week but could only watch with regret as the ball rebounded off Allan McGregor’s crossbar this time.
There would appear to be one rather obvious solution to all of this. Perhaps it’s time to give Rudi Skacel a turn. Indeed, it seems bizarre that the predatory Czech has not stepped forward before now. He is Hearts’ top scorer, after all, and is idolised for the very knack of rippling goalnets. He would be regarded as a fairly safe bet in light of Beattie’s recent miss and of the fact Hamill will not play again till next season because of a cruciate ligament injury.
“Skacel has the sweetest left foot I’ve seen for many years,” said Jimmy Sandison, the former Hearts midfielder who commentates on matches for the club’s website. “When he gets an opportunity to strike at goal he just does it so well, whether it’s through a group of players or from 35 yards out. He is one of the best strikers in the Hearts squad so there’s a huge debate as to why he doesn’t take more free-kicks and penalties.
“I wouldn’t chastise Craig Beattie for missing his penalty at the weekend. He scored the one in the semi-final. To be fair, he was slightly unlucky clipping the bar. Half a centimetre lower and it’s in the top of the net and everybody is saying it’s a wonderful penalty. I still think he should take our next penalty.
“Thereafter, if Beattie misses between now and the end of the season, I see no reason why Skacel can’t take one. He strikes a wonderful ball and you know that, even from 12 yards, it would be drilled in. Even if the goalkeeper gets to it, with the weight he puts behind it, he could knock the goalkeeper into the net at the same time. If Beattie is confident enough to take Hearts’ next penalty then great. But after that, it has to be Rudi Skacel.”
Skacel has only been a reluctant penalty taker throughout two spells at Tynecastle. In season 2005/06, he scored 17 times but only stepped on to the spot once. That was during the shoot-out at the end of the Scottish Cup final against Gretna – he scored.
His only other penalty in a maroon shirt came last September at Somerset Park, when Hearts lost 4-1 on penalties to Ayr United in the League Cup. He failed to convert that night, as did Danny Grainger. At 32, the responsibility of scoring from 12 yards is something Skacel could surely adapt to given the magic and power lurking within his talented left foot. It all depends on his willingness.
“Maybe he doesn’t want to take them,” continued Sandison. “I knew a lot of guys when I played who never liked taking penalties. They never got involved, just left it to others who were more confident. Perhaps Skacel is like that. When you look at history, it might be more to do with him not wanting to.
“But, as you get older and more mature, there comes a time when the more experienced players have to take a penalty. A cup game might go to a shootout and, even if they aren’t amongst the first five, I think the older lads have to expect to take a penalty. They should practice that during the week just in case.
“The Hearts players will need to know who is where on the pecking order before the cup final and I’m sure that will be crystal clear. I would think they will have three or four guys in a pecking order at the moment. The players will know who is next. Craig Beattie is up at the top and I would be surprised if he doesn’t take the next one because of the miss against Rangers. It wasn’t a poor penalty, he was just slightly unlucky.
“I wonder where Skacel is on that pecking order. That’s the big question. Most of the supporters would love him to take a penalty, but maybe he isn’t keen. Penalties have certainly been a problem for a while at Hearts. When we got the penalty at the weekend we all expected Beattie to take it. If he hadn’t, you look down the team and ask yourself who would be next. I think 90 per cent of the home support would say Skacel has to take it. I’m sure he would know that himself.
“Rudi is well respected and loved by the fans. He must be thinking he’s close to taking one. If the next penalty gets missed, people will want him. If he doesn’t take the next one he might need to have an answer for the rest of us because we will all be asking the question.”