Hearts in a spot of bother over penalty drought

Fraser Mullen was the latest Hearts player to miss a penalty
Fraser Mullen was the latest Hearts player to miss a penalty
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When the man who entered the Guinness Book of Records as football’s penalty king offers advice on spot-kicks, Hearts, one of his former clubs, would be well advised to pay heed.

Four Hearts players have each missed a spot-kick in the past six weeks, the latest victim being young debutant Fraser Mullen during Saturday’s narrow Scottish Cup win over Auchinleck Talbot. Edinburgh-born Stuart Gauld, who played 22 games for Hearts in the early 1980s and once scored in a shootout defeat to Hibs in the East of Scotland Cup, went on to net 24 successive penalties – a then world record – during a career in Irish football that was largely spent with Derry City.

Gauld, 47, is now settled in Derry while his parents and siblings remain in Edinburgh, and he is only too aware of the Jambos’ recent misfortune from the spot. He suggests employing an experienced penalty taker, such as Jamie Hamill, is the most effective solution Hearts could use.

Full back Hamill began the season as Hearts’ designated taker of spot-kicks and initially maintained the sort of form from 12 yards that he showed while with Kilmarnock, where a ten-goal haul last season included seven penalties. Hamill opened his Jambos’ goal account from the spot in Hungary against Paksi in the Europa League qualifying round and doubled his tally in similar fashion in a 2-0 SPL victory against St Mirren.

A rare missed penalty against St Johnstone at the beginning of December – during a home match Hearts went on to lose 2-1 – drained the 25-year-old of confidence in his once unerring ability to convert from the spot. Consequently, Hamill was reluctant to take on the task of equalising with a last-minute penalty against Celtic – which Eggert Jonsson missed to leave Hearts without a point – and by the time he was mentally prepared to return to spot-kick duty, during last week’s Edinburgh derby at Easter Road, team-mate Ian Black was so determined to gain reason for showing off a T-shirt message to the Hibs support that he grabbed the ball before Hamill had a chance. The Irvine-born defender then missed last weekend’s 1-0 win over Auchinleck, where Mullen, who only recently turned 18, assumed the role of penalty taker but saw his effort saved.

It is imperative, says Gauld, that a player with such a fine record from 12 yards as Hamill regains responsibility – permanently – as the go-to man when Hearts earn a penalty.

“He might have been saying, ‘I don’t fancy it’ after he missed one,” says Gauld. “If you lose your confidence, you’ll run up and change your mind and when that happens the ball can go anywhere. He’d just need to score a couple and he’s off and running. I’m sure when he came from Kilmarnock, where he had scored penalties, he couldn’t wait to take one for Hearts. But, because he’s missed one, he’s thinking, especially because he’s a new player, “I don’t want to get the fans on my back”.

“If you miss one, I think you persevere. If you miss two, you’re barking up the wrong tree, unless you’ve maybe had a run where you’ve scored a few. You shouldn’t be taken off penalties automatically. There again, you see it in shootouts where boys won’t take penalties and they get forced to in sudden death and often miss. If you don’t fancy it, you shouldn’t have to take one.”

In such pressure situations, there is often a call for a more experienced member of a team, the balanced been-there-done-that head, to take the lead. The wisdom of bestowing the burden of a penalty on a teenager making his first senior start, albeit one who has dispatched spot-kicks on numerous occasions for the Hearts under-19 team, stimulated plenty of debate after Mullen’s miss against Auchinleck.

Gauld says: “If Fraser Mullen does score in that game, his career could take off big style because of the boost of confidence. But I would say, because of the run [of missed penalties] that Hearts are on, the older boys should step forward. With a young boy making his debut, if you’re 5-0 up you say “Go ahead son, make a name for yourself”. But when it’s tight a more experienced player should step up.

“I was 21 and full of bravado when I took my first penalty. Some of the older players at Hearts have more to lose. You can read crowds the older you are and tell the way some things will go against people, and sometimes you’re better taking yourself out the firing line.”

Throughout his senior career, regardless of whether he was a rookie in his early 20s or a seasoned pro a decade later, Gauld became the natural nominated taker of penalties. Even after he lost his sense of invincibility after a miss on the final day of the season that cost Derry City the top-flight title in 1995, Gauld returned two weeks later to score what turned out to be the decisive goal from a penalty in a cup final. He confirmed himself as a cult hero at Derry, gaining many admirers of the sort of resilience and mental strength that will be required by whichever Hearts player has the unenviable job of not becoming the fifth consecutive player to miss from the spot.

“Hearts are at the stage where whoever takes the next penalty is scared,” he says. “There will be ones who shy away, but one or two who fancy it. It’s all a mind game, where the first thought is: “Please don’t let me miss it.” Their luck has to change – it’s just a hoodoo that has to be broken.”