LONDON — Maybe it’s bad luck. Maybe it’s unconscious bias. Maybe it’s subpar skill. Maybe it’s conscious bias. Maybe a new strategy is needed. Maybe it’s a far-reaching conspiracy. Maybe the fates are cruel and unknowable.
The maddening streak currently playing out for Bristol City, a mainstay of English soccer’s second-tier league, the Championship, since 2015, has defied explanation for everyone involved, and the sense of grievance stacks higher with each passing game.
It has left the team and its fans wondering: Will Bristol City ever earn a penalty kick again?
Though every team and its supporters can point to injustices they believe referees should have corrected with the award of a penalty, that surest of soccer’s goal-scoring opportunities, Bristol City’s drought has long passed inexplicable and is nearing record-setting. It has been 65 games, or 461 days, since Nov. 6, 2021, the last time a Robins player lined up to take a penalty kick.
The team’s mystified manager has complained to the board that oversees referees. Fans have assembled videos of questionable calls. Amateur statisticians have created charts to demonstrate how ludicrous the streak has become. For a teamthathasn’t been in the Premier League since 1980, and which is currently 17th of 24 teams in the tightly packed Championship standings, the statistical anomaly has become, somehow, a new form of pain to endure.
Championship teams are typically awarded a penalty kick about once every nine games, according to Rob Fernandes, a Bristol City fan who crunched the numbers on a website dedicated to tracking the drought. Even before the current streak, Bristol City had lousy penalty luck: The Robins had a 46-game streak immediately before the current one, meaning they have been awarded only one penalty kick in their last 111 games.
Fernandes said that his research shows the team isn’t out of the ordinary on metrics that might be associated with penalty kicks — it is in the middle of the statistical pack in touches in the area and fouls awarded, for example — but for whatever reason, whistles have stayed silent when it most counts.
“I still don’t believe there’s something untoward going on,” he said. “It’s just statistically ridiculous.”
How statistically ridiculous?
No official statistics are kept on the subject, but in 2018, The Guardian uncovered a 72-game streak by the Irish team Galway United. Since then, Port Vale, a team in England’s third tier, played 73 games without a penalty kick in 2021 and 2022.
In October, the CIES Football Observatory, a research group in Switzerland, ranked Bristol City dead last among hundreds of teams in 31 European domestic leagues, averaging 1,834 minutes played per penalty kick since 2018.
Marton Balazs, an instructor at the University of Bristol’s school of mathematics, approached the question as a matter of probability. If teams can expect a penalty in one out of every nine games, the odds of going 65 games without one are one in 2,113, he said.
Now imagine you watched a soccer team’s first match, and you wondered how many games you’d have to watch before seeing them play 65 games without a penalty kick. You would be waiting on average 19,009 games for the feat, he said.
The staggering numbers give credibility to the sense of bafflement from Bristol City supporters, but Balazs said the statistical event itself is not unexpected.
“There are lots of clubs out there, and there are lots of games played every year,” he said. “The fact that somewhere in the world something like this happens is not that unlikely, because these games are going on all the time, everywhere.”
That is likely to be little comfort at Bristol City, where fans are waiting impatiently for the big moment. The next chance comes Saturday, when Bristol City hosts Norwich City.
Ryan Morgan, who runs the team’s social media accounts, said he has had the tweets for when the penalty finally arrives written and saved for months, with a few different possibilities, depending on the game situation.
The team’s fans have been mostly lighthearted about the phenomenon, he said, but they are “very, very aware of it.”
Paul Binning, a 45-year-old fan in Cardiff, said Bristol City fans already had plenty of reasons to feel aggrieved. A four-decade absence from the top tier of English soccer will do that: Being a Bristol City supporter, Binning admitted, requires a certain sense of gallows humor.
“There’s an element of feeling that these things go against us, and these things just don’t happen to us for whatever reason,” he said.
About 130 miles north of Bristol in Stoke-on-Trent, there’s a fan base that understands the feeling.
Mark Porter, the chairman of the Port Vale Supporters Club, was in the stands on Oct. 8, 2022, when his seemingly cursed team ended its 73-game streak with not one, but two penalty kicks. Even though the team was successful during its penalty kick drought, earning a promotion to League One, “the longer it goes on, the worse it becomes,” he said.
When the referee whistled for a penalty to end the streak, “the fans were overjoyed,” he said. But, deep down, everyone knew what was coming: The penalty kick sailed wide.
So when the second penalty came in the second half, a lot of the fans couldn’t bear to watch, Porter said. Some dug their face in their hands, while others turned around completely.
When Ellis Harrison put his shot in the back of the net, “you could see the relief” among the players, Porter said. Asked what advice he would give Bristol City fans as their excruciating wait goes on, he said they should do their best to stay calm, for the team’s sake.
“Whatever will be will be, that’s it,” he said. “The more you worry about it, the more you stress about it, the more the players pick that up.”