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Peter Devine’s Penalty: Sport and the Power of Pathos

In 1991 Peter Devine was transformed from one of football's forgotten men into The Bloke Who Missed That Penalty.
Image via YouTube

Like nearly every single person who makes it as a professional footballer, Peter Devine was destined to be nothing more than a footnote in a discarded matchday programme.

By rights he should have joined the hundreds of thousands of men who vanish into the ether of memory, unremembered by all but the hardened few. He should, really, have become another name uttered by your grandfather on his deathbed as life flashed before his eyes. In a just world Peter Devine would have been a Zema Abbey or a Russell Pond or a Steve Slawson or a Glynn Snodin or a Chris Twiddy. But one fateful night, Peter Devine did this:


In that moment – that harrowing, slow motion moment, that moment Peter Devine must have lived and relived night after night since his reality was inexorably altered, that moment that became A Moment rather than just one of the billion moments that go unnoticed – in that moment, Peter Devine became Peter Devine The Bloke Who Missed That Penalty. Or, more realistically, just The Bloke Who Missed That Penalty. Peter Devine, the winger who played 21 games for Bristol City, eight in two years for Blackburn and 56 for Burnley, Peter Devine the winger who scored a total of seven goals in his 85 professional appearances, died that night. He was reborn as Peter Devine, the Bloke Who Missed That Penalty. This is his legacy. This is how he'll be forever remembered. This is the mausoleum he's been forced to live the rest of his days in, trapped by memory and videotape.

What initially – on the first, or fifth, or twelfth viewing – seems like just another funny football video (and, boy, who can get enough of those) is actually a harrowing portrait of failure. It is a stunning portrayal of what happens when everything that could go wrong does go wrong. You watch his penalty – his ultimate failure, his un-flying albatross in horror – in wonderment and amazement. How, you ask yourself, as you sit, ashen faced, how does someone fuck up that badly? How does someone make kicking a ball look so impossible, so farfetched, so utterly alien and bizarre?


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All of this leads us to thinking about the strange position sportsmen find themselves in. All of us make mistakes in the workplace. All of us, at some point, have found ourselves sat at a desk, red in the face, clammy in the palm, stomach doing vicious flips and arrowsprings over a fuck-up that makes us feel like the world's caving in under the carpet. We've all thought, "fuck, that's it, I'm done. Do I have time to print off a batch of Jack Monroe recipes and nick a few pens and stuff some teabags down my pants?"

The thing is, our failures are largely private. Most of us exist far beyond the unforgiving glare of the public eye, and as such, most of us, if we're lucky, accept the bollockings and the dressings down and let things blow over. Sure, we seeth internally with repressed rage, our blood slowly being replaced by liquid humiliation, but, y'know, we mostly just get on with things, certain that it'll be John in HR getting torn to shreds tomorrow.

It's different for sportsmen, though.

Performing in front of any kind of audience, in any form, is an exercise in potential humiliation. You are never so naked as when you're presenting yourself – and your 'self' – to the Other. A bum note, a weak gag, a fluffed mix – these are what we take away from concerts, comedy shows, and clubnights. These are what we remember because, at heart, we are creatures of cruelty. It's easier to pour scorn than offer praise.


When we go to the football what we really want to see, more than a tight and tidy 1-0 victory, more than a breathlessly end-to-end hands free basketball match, is fuck up after fuck up. We want to see ball boys lose their balls, referees falling over, goalkeepers taking confident swipes at thin air. We are animals baying for blood. Given how much we pay to sit in plastic seats on freezing cold evenings, warmed only by indignation and a hot dog, the least we deserve is a substitute falling over the advertising hoardings.

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Which is why we get such a thrill from watching Peter Devine's penalty – or attempted penalty, strictly speaking, as his effort is so ludicrously bad that it stops being an actual penalty and mutates into an attempted attempt at something that looks a bit like a penalty. It's a horrible, guilty, perverted thrill but a thrill nonetheless.

And just like all the best thrills, it reminds us of the pitfalls of simply being human. Failure – rank, desolate, abject failure – is something that can strike any of us at any time. As spectators, we consciously and unconsciously will it into being. Anyone who was there that fateful night at the 1991 HFS Northern Premier League Division One Cup Final, who watched him stutter into a half-run before rolling himself over the ball and then standing over it, back hunched and looking like the loneliest man who ever lived, probably pissed themselves with laughter. I would have done. You would have done, too. It's the best bit of unwitting physical comedy I've ever seen, and I once managed to break my nose while trying to untie my belt.

That doesn't make you or I bad people. It doesn't make life easier for Peter Devine either, but that's the nature of the game. Sport is barbarism with rules. As such, it's sopping with pathos. Peter, dear sweet Peter, we're sorry for laughing. But not really.