WHEN Helena Costa was appointed manager of French side Clermont Foot 63 in May it was accompanied by much fanfare.
The first female coach of a professional men’s team, she lasted just 49 days in the job before she quit, citing the old obstacles of sexism and tokenism. With games arranged behind her back and players signed without her knowledge, she said it was obvious to her that she was to be “the face of the club” minus any real power.
Her view that she was nothing more than a publicity stunt earned more credibility when the club immediately replaced her with another women (Really? Given the paucity of top-level female coaches, they found two who legitimately outshone every male applicant?)
It means the focus now switches to Shelley Kerr, who was last week named as the new manager of men’s Lowland League side Stirling University.
The circus on the continent will lead to scepticism from some, her gender will immediately provoke resistance from others, but forget the old “show us yer medals” and check out Kerr’s qualifications and character and it’s clear that the reasons for appointing her were ethical and credible.
She shakes her head when it is suggested that her situation might be likened to that of Costa’s. “The university has always been forward thinking so there’s not any danger of anyone having that perception,” said the 44-year-old who has been capped 59 times for the national team. “It’s not a gimmick. They were quite clear that they wanted someone to drive the programme forward and they wanted someone with various skill sets. They have deemed that it is me and it wasn’t because I’m a female.”
She is not wheeled out by the public relations department, looking like she has just emerged from a magazine shoot: her hair is tied back, she has the university tracksuit on, and is lugging enough “homework” around in her laptop bag to give men twice her size backache. This is work attire, and as she chats to members of the St Johnstone squad who train on campus, the respect is evident. She is one of the boys and more than comfortable in this environment. The media coverage generated has, no doubt, been a happy by-product for the university, but giving her the job was not a stunt. She is a football manager. Not a female football manager, simply a manager, and one with the CV, the qualifications and the long-standing passion and dedication to the game to back it up.
After an illustrious playing career that reaped those many Scotland caps, it is management that holds the latest challenges. As player/coach of Kilmarnock, Hibs and Spartans women’s teams she learned her trade before taking on a full-time role in charge of Scotland U19s and then Arsenal Ladies. She supplemented that hands-on experience of management with a dedicated progression through the coaching courses, eventually becoming just one of a handful of women in the UK to earn the pro licence.
But learning alongside the latest crop of young managers, gaining that top qualification along with the likes of Alan Stubbs, David Weir and Gary Locke, and getting pointers from the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Andres Villas Boas is one thing, but this is yet another step into unknown territory.
It has been so for so much of Kerr’s lifelong marriage to the game and she is less fazed by it all than anyone. It’s not the first time she has coached guys, having helped out at Stoneyburn Juniors for almost a full season. Keen to get to the highest level possible, it was always the route she wanted to take and she says there was no caustic backlash from the players or the punters. Apparently, it was also more straightforward to coach in the men’s game where there is less emotion than the women’s version.
“Sometimes, in my experience, you’re not dealing with one female, you’re dealing with two or three because they are so close-knit. With the men you can deal with individuals and they have been easier to deal with. Two qualities I pride myself on are that I am organised and disciplined and that’s the way I want my players to be and my teams to be. If you have those qualities in life, whether it’s a sporting environment or a business environment, you have a better chance of success. But as a manager another massive thing will be the recruitment of players.”
It’s also about personality, not just knowledge of the game. Kerr is blessed on both counts. These days football management is a far more holistic endeavour. Addressing those on the coaching course, even Ferguson admitted that times, like society, have changed. Gone are the days of ready respect, discipline and the acceptance that the stick is a better motivator than the carrot.
“I want to focus on developing the guys who are here and it is difficult for them to combine playing and training with degree and masters courses,” said Kerr. “They train in the morning before classes and at night, they are also young and many are away from home for the first time, so there are a lot of factors to consider. It’s not just about putting together a training session, all these other things have to be factored in so we can get the best out of each player.”
Mother to a teenage daughter who has inherited her love of the game, Kerr will also combine her football role with studying for a masters in Sports Management. “My daughter Christy laughs about it, she says I’m not a mature student, I’m a very mature student. But I know she is very proud of me!”
The studies came before the job, the quest for a degree fuelled by insinuations from people who should have known better that she wasn’t as academically qualified as she could have been. “Doing the degree is about satisfying the part of me that wants to prove people who make those kind of judgments about me wrong.”
Most of Kerr’s earliest memories include a ball. She was the youngest of four children and both her brothers played. “I looked up to them, so from as early as I could walk, I had a ball at my feet and they really encouraged me which was great and I actually ended up even more passionate about the game than they were.”
Whether nature or nurture, those early days helped develop her personality and her football skills. “Because my brothers were older and the guys they played with were all older, if I wanted to compete I had to try like mad, so the early signs were there of my drive and determination. It is almost like you are trying to prove a point and it was like that from an early age. My brothers were tough on me and would kick lumps out of me just like anyone else. I never got any favours, which was good.”
If football was to be an enduring passion it wasn’t one where formal dalliances were easy to come by. She played for her primary school team but local clubs wouldn’t countenance a wee lass playing alongside boys, so she admits she would cry if the weather forced a fixture call-off and she was denied her only match- day fix.
At high school, rules back then prevented her playing in the team, but she got her mum to ask if she could at least join in with practice. “The boys were all fine about that and the only downside was that I was training with them but I couldn’t play.” Like someone in need of something stronger, those sessions took the edge off the cravings but never satisfied them.
So she turned to the fledgling women’s leagues and juggled jobs and motherhood with her career, she fought adversity and she won. Now she has the breakthrough she has worked for.
“From an early age, nothing has really deterred me or turned me away from football. There have been obstacles in the way but my family have always been very supportive. Even when I came home from school with ripped tights my mum would just say ‘have you been playing football again?’”
No other manager in the men’s game could tell that story. But whether it’s ripped tights or torn trousers, Kerr aims to prove that the grounding was the same and that that is all that matters.