Some people describe them as the ultimate test of a footballer’s nerve.
But for Jose Baxter, the Sheffield United midfielder, penalties have always been a pleasure not a bind.
“I think enjoying them, enjoying taking them, might be half the secret. That’s what I think in my case at least.
“I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m willing to bet, if you look at most people who volunteer to do it, that’s probably going to be the case.”
If Nigel Adkins’ side are awarded a penalty at Bury tonight, and if Baxter is on the pitch, it will require a grip firmer than Chris Morgan’s handshake to wrestle the ball from his grasp. The odds on referee Stuart Attwell pointing to the spot are actually pretty high with only three clubs winning more in the competition this season before last weekend’s round of games.
Baxter, United’s go-to-man before a combination of injury, experimental selections and an infelicitous off-the-pitch incident saw Billy Sharp step into the breach, has scored all four of his efforts so far this term but warned Ian Lawlor, the Bury goalkeeper, to expect the unexpected.
“My technique changes, it doesn’t stay the same,” Baxter explained. “What does stay the same though is the fact that, once I’ve decided where the ball is going to go, I won’t be swayed into doing something different at the last moment.
“Really, I do whatever I feel is right at the time. I know goalies do their homework so, to be honest, I do my homework on them as much as they probably do on me. If I’ve taken one against a particular ‘keeper before, then I’ll know about it. I know what they’ll probably do but, because I like to mix things up a bit, they can’t say the same about me.”
“Equally, if I take penalties a few days apart then the goalie will be wondering if I’m going to put it in the same place or somewhere different,” he continued. “I might, I might not. Who knows?
“I’ve played with lads who are great players but who don’t like taking them and that’s fair enough, each to their own. If you don’t want to take it, then don’t take it. You shouldn’t be forced. But always give credit to the lads who do step-up in a shoot-out, no matter what happens, because it’s an added responsibility for them.”
Baxter, aged 24, could emerge as an influential figure for United over the coming weeks as, following Saturday’s victory over Doncaster Rovers, they attempt to force themselves back into the play-off positions. This evening’s contest, rearranged due to Bury’s involvement in the FA Cup, is the second instalment of a pivotal trilogy with the potential to make or break the visitors hopes of reaching the Championship next term. Baxter, a player possessing the skill and the savvy to perform at a much higher level, is among a handful of options at Adkins’ disposal capable of injecting some flair into a game-plan which, largely due to a poor run of results over the Autumn period, has focused on industry rather than invention in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, how best to utilise Baxter’s talents is a problem which has taxed both the 50-year-old and his predecessor Nigel Clough.
“The gaffer said he likes me in that number 10 role,” he said. “To be honest, I’m just happy to be out there playing but, yes, that’s a position I enjoy. I’ve played there a lot down the years and so I think I know the position and how to play it. It’s a little bit like a cheating position in a way because defenders don’t know whether to come out of the slot and close you down or stay and leave you in space. You’ve got to be clever and realise when they are going to come at you or close you down from behind. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy being in there.”
If Baxter does feature against Bury, it will be the 201st appearances of his career which, seven seasons after making his senior debut for Everton only 191 days after turning 16, has exhilarated and exasperated with equal measure.
“For me, to leave Everton, it wasn’t a brave decision. It was easy. There are lads there now who are 23 or 24 and haven’t played a first team game. I train hard to play football on a Saturday afternoon in front of fans. I didn’t enjoy working my socks off all week and then watching a team from the stands that I wanted to play for.”
Which probably explains Baxter’s desire to involve himself in every aspect of United’s matches, penalties included, after joining them from Oldham Athletic in 2013.
“I don’t mind the responsibility or that added bit of pressure. Like I say, to be honest, I quite enjoy it. It doesn’t put me off or worry me at all.”