HUDDERSFIELD TOWN will have tread carefully at Crystal Palace next Saturday, when they face a side who have won an amazing 12 penalties in their 21 Championship games so far this season – more than twice as many as any other side in the Premier or Football Leagues.
But at least they will head to Selhurst Park for a Sky Sports-televised test which kicks off at 5.20 with the best spot-kick stopper in the club’s 104-year history in the shape of Alex Smithies – and more than decent back-up in Ian Bennett.
Smithies was up to his old tricks again last Saturday, when he thwarted Chris Eagles from 12 yards during the entertaining 2-2 draw with Bolton at the John Smith’s Stadium, his 10th save from 19 penalties faced in open play.
The 22-year-old, of course, also stopped two before putting away the crucial kick himself in the never-to-be-forgotten 8-7 shoot-out win over Sheffield United in the League I play-off final at Wembley in May.
Bennett, meanwhile, has made seven penalty saves for Town, putting him joint-second on the all-time club list with inter-war star Bob Hesford and one above Brian Cox, who played between 1982-88, and Steve Francis (1993-99).
Smithies, an ever-present this time after an injury-plagued couple of campaigns, set the tone back in December 2008, when he denied Southend’s James Walker on the way to keeping his first clean sheet in what was his fifth appearance for the club in a 1-0 League I win at Roots Hall.
“Saving penalties is Alex’s forte,” said teammate and fellow academy product Jack Hunt.
“He’s probably won us more points than anyone else. Out of 21 games so far, he’s possibly only made one real mistake, the first goal against Leeds.
“Alex has saved us many times with the shots he’s stopped and crosses he’s come for.”
Much of second-placed Palace’s forward threat comes from much-vaunted Wilfried Zaha, but they also have a tricky operator in former Plymouth and Bristol City man Yannick Bolasie.
Blackpool boss Michael Appleton, whose side forced a 2-2 draw at Selhurst last Saturday, noted: “Everyone in English football knows what Palace’s wingers are about.
“You just have to try to do a job on them.
“They are two quality players and I have nothing but praise for them.”