Wolves penalty king Kenny Hibbitt has backed Ruben Neves to succeed again from the spot – as he endorsed Nuno Espirito Santo’s rotation policy.
Midfielder Neves was criticised by head coach Nuno for his saved attempt from 12 yards in the 1-0 Europa League win against Slovan Bratislava.
Neves proved he had no hang-ups about his miss when scoring a brilliantly-worked goal in the convincing 2-1 victory over Aston Villa in the following game, before the international break.
Hibbitt, who holds the club record for most successful penalties in a season with nine in 1974-75, is a big fan of Neves and is convinced the Portugal international will score his next spot-kick.
“It was disappointing to see him miss one but he had the confidence to take it and he was never going to pass that up,” said Hibbitt, who succeeded Jim McCalliog as Wolves’ regular penalty taker in the early 1970s and scored 114 goals in 574 games in gold and black.
“If you miss the target or the goalkeeper saves it, you have to live with that, but most of the time, Neves will score them.
“When some players line up to take them, you can sometimes sense even from their run-up that they’re not confident in taking them.
“I don’t get that feeling with Ruben. He’s a brilliant midfielder, an excellent passer and striker of a ball and I would give him the ball again because he has the confidence to put it away.
“He’s not one who dwells on the ball, he has a good football brain, he sees things early and his mindset is good with excellent concentration.
“Personally I’d like to see him get in the box more because with his technique, he could get even more goals, but Nuno knows him better than I do and knows how to get the best out of him within the framework of the team. Neves is a top player.”
Hibbitt, who is the referee’s assessor for Wolves’ trip to Bournemouth this Saturday, believes Nuno’s rotation policy on penalties – Raul Jimenez had scored the previous three times before Neves’s miss – makes sense in the modern game with teams having so much information on each other.
“I’m not against rotation at all,” said the Molineux midfield legend. “With the exposure on every player at every club, everyone is keeping an eye on each other.
“Goalkeepers can do a lot of homework on players who take penalties, so it makes sense to have more than one regular taker.
“If you only have one taker, it gives the goalkeeper food for thought, so rotation of the kicker helps.
“That said, there are a few Manchester United players who have missed penalties – Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba have missed them – and I believe that’s because the keepers have done their homework.”
But Hibbitt admits he wouldn’t have liked to have shared the duties in his heyday.
“If it would have happened in the 70s when I was taking penalties, I’d have had a problem with it,” he said.
“I scored penalties against a lot of goalkeepers, but if I was playing now, the goalkeepers would know exactly what I was going to do with the ball.
“But I’m not sure it would have happened in our day because unless your game was on Match Of The Day or Star Soccer, goalkeepers wouldn’t necessarily know how you were going to take your kick, but nowadays, every game is covered and everything analysed.”
Hibbitt says for him, the key to scoring penalties consistently was to be single minded and clear-headed.
“Once I put the ball down, I knew where I was going to put it,” he said. “And as soon as we were awarded a penalty, I wanted to take it. There was no thinking ‘oh no, where am I going to hit it?’
“I remember when we played Coventry in the FA Cup quarter-final and we were 1-0 up (in March 1973, the last officially recorded 50,000-plus crowd at Molineux).
“John Richards got pulled down in the box in front of the North Bank and I couldn’t wait to take it.
“I loved it, knowing all our fans were behind the goal willing me to score. I wanted to score for them and share the feeling with them when the ball hit the back of the net.”
Hibbitt says the only time he passed up the opportunity to take a penalty for Wolves was in the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham at Hillsborough in April 1981.
The Yorkshireman had already scored with a left-foot volley from the edge of the box to cancel out Steve Archibald’s opener before Glenn Hoddle’s free kick put Spurs ahead again.
Then came the controversial last-minute spot-kick when Hoddle was judged to have brought Hibbitt down.
“The only time I bottled it was in the semi-final at Hillsborough,” he recalled. “I was absolutely knackered and I had an understanding with Willie Carr that if I ever didn’t fancy taking one, he would take it instead, and he put it in the top corner, as cool as you like.
“I’d scored our first and I could have had both goals but that didn’t concern me. I was shattered and their keeper probably knew where I was going to put it anyway.”
On Monday, Hibbitt celebrated 51 years since he signed for Wolves and it’s a decision he recalls as clearly as it still fills him with pride.
“It still feels like yesterday when I signed,” he said. “I think that shows just how much I enjoyed playing for Wolves.
“It was a marvellous time. I didn’t set out to do what I did; I just went out to do the best I could every game, but I have realised since from talking to supporters who watched us, how important the work a player puts in means to them, and how well they respond to anyone who works hard.
“I didn’t play well in every game but I always remembered the words my father told me when I was very young: ‘Always listen and work hard’ and tried to put that into practice.
“The fans work hard all week for their wages and come to be entertained on a Saturday, when they expect players to work as hard as they do during the week.
“They don’t want to see players moping about, shaking their heads and moaning, they want to see 90 minutes’ hard graft. That’s what I always tried to do.”