Feb 21, 2018

The Trinity Goalkeeper Who Saved Modern Football

William McCrum invented the penalty kick, but also lived a life largely confined to abject failures.

Cormac WatsonDeputy Sports Editor

It was, curiously, a tweet from Trinity Sport that inspired the writing of this article – a distinguished black-and-white photo of a mustachioed gentleman leaping off of a smartphone screen, alongside a few words celebrating the man in the picture, William McCrum. An alumnus of Trinity, McCrum is credited with the creation of football’s penalty kick.

I was shocked by this revelation. Not only did the penalty revolutionise football, the idea also seeped into hockey, Gaelic football and hurling. It provided a check on the violence that had permeated football and gave players an incentive to play fair. How was it that no one in Trinity seemed to know about William McCrum?

To understand the story, I needed to visit the place where McCrum’s life began – a small village called Milford just outside of Armagh. Milford had been built by Robert Garmany McCrum, or RG McCrum, William’s father. RG ran the linen factory in Milford and was the employer for most of the workers in the village. A great innovator, Milford linen was, at one point, renowned worldwide.


After arriving in Milford, I met Stephen McManus, a local historian who runs the Milford House Collection, an assortment of memorabilia belonging to the McCrums. McManus knows more than anyone else about the family, with the possible exception of his dad, Joe, who is also an expert. They led me through McCrum’s life and explained in fascinating detail how the penalty kick came into being.

McCrum graduated from Trinity in 1886 with a Bachelor of Arts. He was noted by his lecturers as a particularly talented and hardworking student, and, despite the source of his future fame, he was more likely to be found in the library than any of Dublin’s elite clubs and societies. Nevertheless, he was a keen sportsman at home, and played a leading role for Milford FC, his local club.

McCrum was a goalkeeper, but not a very successful one

McCrum was a goalkeeper, but not a very successful one. Milford, who competed in the top league in Ireland thanks to McCrum’s administrative talents, lost all their games. Nevertheless, McCrum would turn out to radically change the game he loved.

Football in McCrum’s time was a radically different game to the spectacle played out on our TVs today, its participants a far cry from the prima donnas who roll around on carpet-like surfaces seemingly at the drop of a hat. Back then, deaths on the pitch were fairly common.

Perhaps with this in mind, or perhaps to create a dramatic scenario akin to the drama of acting on stage, McCrum came up with the idea of awarding the team who had been fouled a penalty kick.

The idea was initially laughed at and dubbed the “Irishman’s motion” when the Irish Football Association (IFA) proposed McCrum’s idea at the annual meeting of the International Football Association Board. The reasoning was that football was played by gentlemen, so the idea that a player would stoop so low as to deliberately commit a foul was outlandish. Its members promised to discuss the rule at the next meeting, but according to Joe, “they threw scorn on it”.

By the next year, however, they had changed their tune. After more casualties on the pitch and with the increasing obviousness of the fact that free kicks were essentially worthless as players could simply stand over the ball, the Board came around to McCrum’s idea and adopted the rule.

The breaking point had come in the final of the FA Challenge Cup between Notts County and Stoke City, when a Notts County player stopped the ball from going into the net with his hand. Stoke were awarded a free kick mere inches from the goalline. A goal would have levelled the game, but instead of being able to tap the ball home, they were impeded by the goalkeeper (legitimately) standing over the ball, making it impossible to score.

A change in the rules was needed. At the next meeting of the board the “Irishman’s motion” was passed unanimously, and McCrum’s place in the history of football was cemented forever.

The true nature of McCrum’s life, though, is not reflected by the glory of the penalty kick or his time in Trinity. In truth, he led a sad life riddled with tragedy and ending in squalor.

William was raised by his father, a stern but ultimately caring man. RG was a believer in the temperance movement, so when he built Milford for his workers, he banned any pubs. RG was liberal-minded when it came to cross-community relations. He refused to build a church in the village to avoid hostility between Catholics and Protestants. When the Orange Order came knocking, he refused to let them build an Orange Lodge on his land, instead building the “Institute” which acted as the social hub for all members of the village, Catholic or Protestant.

This integration helped foster a peace between Protestants and Catholics, a tolerance which has lasted up to the present day. During the Troubles Milford was peaceful, virtually untouched by the sectarian violence that was rife across the rest of Armagh. The relative harmony of Milford is a testament to RG’s social vision, something identified by Joe McManus during our interview: “He was a businessman in every way. He had foresight and vision. He was way ahead of his time.”

A statue of McCrum in Milford.

If RG was a paragon of Presbyterian virtue, William was far from it. A gambler and a drinker, he once racked up a debt of £60,000 on a trip to Monte Carlo. In today’s money, that equates to £6 million. His father despaired over these indulgences. A strict Presbyterian, he would have had no time for the “good life” William was bent on having. Nevertheless, RG’s letters to his son betray a genuine concern for his well being, and this caring side is demonstrated by his decision to leave Milford House to William when he died.

McCrum’s relationship with this father was summed up well by Stephen McManus: “It’s like the story of any family. The father works hard to make it and the son enjoys it. The son never turns out the way the father wanted him to turn out.”

However, when it came to cross-community relations, McCrum and his father were cut from the same cloth. Like his father, McCrum never joined the Orange Order, and Joe McManus describes him as “a very reasonable and broad-minded person”. He allowed Catholics onto the football team and socialised with the workers in the village. A wealthy man such as McCrum being so friendly to workers would have been rare at the time, but it has in retrospect made him widely popular in the community. Even today, William is the favourite of the McCrum family in the village.

Hindsight, though, is beautiful. In reality, McCrum died a million miles away from the “good life” he had chased, as far removed from his sporting successes and the halls of Trinity as it was possible to be. At the time of his death, McCrum was penniless, overweight, probably an alcoholic, and living in a bedsit on Victoria St, just up the road from the Milford House Collection run by Stephen McManus. Although unconfirmed, it is said that very few people attended William’s funeral – a sad end to what should have been a great life. So why did his life end so miserably?

One possible explanation is the difficulty of his upbringing. McCrum’s mother died tragically of tuberculosis in 1869, having spent the previous two years in Bournemouth in a futile attempt to get better. Left alone to raise the four-year-old McCrum after his wife’s death, RG’s work appears to have come before his parenting, and his strict approach to raising his son undoubtedly had an effect on McCrum’s psyche.

This extraordinary man lived a life that many at the time probably saw as an abject failure

In adulthood, McCrum’s own marriage was an ill-fated affair, as his wife, Maud, abandoned him for another man. She ran off with their child to the French Riviera after years of alleged infidelity on her part. He had married Maud a year after the penalty kick rule came into being in 1890, and by 1903, she was gone.

The final straw was probably the Wall St Crash in which William lost his business and his income. The Wall St Crash coincided with the decline of the linen boom, decimating any chance he had of salvaging the business. He turned to drink for solace, dying a couple of days before Christmas in 1932.

I probably wouldn’t know any of this had it not been for a media storm about William McCrum in the 1990s and 2000s, brought about, in part, by Joe McManus. The explosion of interest in the invention of the penalty kick is a bizarre story.

Milford Football Club’s pitch sits behind Joe McManus’s house. Years ago, the council wanted to sell off the land to build a new housing estate, but, rightfully worried that it would destroy the character of the town, McManus dug up the story in a last-ditch effort to stop the housing development.

The English and European media lapped it up. They were outraged by the idea that the pitch on which the penalty kick was invented would be dug up, to build a housing estate of all things. The council backed down under this pressure and struck a deal with McManus, building only some of the houses it had previously planned and leaving most of the field intact. The field now exists as a park of sorts, featuring a statue of McCrum and some information boards telling the story of McCrum and the penalty kick.

Stephen McManus also showed me Milford House, formerly the home of the McCrums. Once known for its grandeur and modernity, it is now a shadow of what it once was, left in ruin and decay. After losing everything in the Wall St Crash, the house was handed down to various institutions, including a school and a hospital.

Finally, it was given to the council and sold off in a deal that has massively irked the McManus family and the trust they run to preserve the legacy of Milford and McCrum. The main aim of the trust is to protect the house and restore it to its former glory, an aim seemingly not shared by its current owner.

Yet another outlandish twist in the tale of William McCrum came in 2015, when the disgraced ex-president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, commissioned the renovation of McCrum’s grave. With Blatter then embroiled in the grubbiest of controversies, it is anybody’s guess whether the restoration was executed out of genuine reverence, or, more likely, out of a desire for the good publicity it would bring.

During the heyday of the McCrum family, RG would light up the avenue leading to Milford House with electric lights, unheard of in 19th-century Ireland. People from across Armagh would flock to Milford at night to see the lights. At that time, the village RG McCrum built was the home of technological advances, industrialism and a close-knit community.

Milford is a changed village now. The linen factory is long gone, as are many of its workers. The original villagers continue to fight the housing developments that threaten Milford’s identity. It is an uphill battle.

It was well into the evening when I left the McManus family and Milford, determined to do the McCrum family justice in my article. On the bus journey home my head was awash with the stories I had heard.

Trinity never fails to amaze me. When you look into its history you will find a treasure trove of fascinating, unknown people who have done amazing things and changed the lives of millions of people. William McCrum falls firmly into that category.

This extraordinary man lived a life that many at the time probably saw as an abject failure. But in truth it was a resounding success in its own right, and his contribution to association football puts millions of fans on the edge of their seats every week. Furthermore he managed to protect his hometown from the violence that permeated Northern Ireland during the Troubles. For that and for the penalty kick, the name of William McCrum should roll off the tongue of every Trinity student in the same way the names of Burke and Wilde do.

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