Jerry Kerr – the Dundee United dreamer deserves to be honoured

Jerry Kerr, the man who created Dundee United  and led them to home and away victories over Barcelona. Picture: Hamish Campbell

Jerry Kerr, the man who created Dundee United  and led them to home and away victories over Barcelona. Picture: Hamish Campbell

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‘As a manager, he never swore, never lost his temper, was never rude to anyone. He was respected as a gentleman and there aren’t many managers of the modern game you can say that about.”

Rhona Haston, an elegant lady in her seventies, talks with warmth and passion about her late father, Jerry Kerr. I am meeting Rhona and her son, Ross, to hear more about this intriguing man. Rhona hands me several black and white photographs. Despite my keen interest in football, I am embarrassed to admit that I know next-to-nothing about the balding, well-dressed figure, sometimes sporting a trilby, nearly always puffing on a pipe, usually managing an affable smile. Yet this is a man whose achievements in transforming his club should be lauded in the Scottish Football Hall of Fame alongside Jock Stein’s Celtic triumphs and Bill Shankly’s galvanising of Liverpool.

Nutmeg Magazine 3 cover. Picture: Contributed

Nutmeg Magazine 3 cover. Picture: Contributed

Jerry Kerr’s record as manager of Dundee United from 1959 to 1971 was exemplary. As a condition of accepting the job, he insisted the team turned full-time. He dragged them from a lowly place in the second division to an established top-flight side, for the first time placing them on a competitive footing with Dundee. He managed the club’s money as carefully as his own, grateful for the cash delivered by the novel commercial concept of Taypools. Seeking ideas and value abroad, he imported a wave of Scandinavian players to complement the young Scots whom he would talent-spot himself. Kerr personally supervised the building of Scotland’s first cantilever stand at Tannadice. He was the first Dundee United manager to beat the rivals from up the road, the first to take the club into Europe and the first to secure victory home and away against Barcelona. Even the tangerine kit and the fans’ nickname of the Arabs originated under his watch.

So why is Jerry’s name not immediately associated with anything and everything we recognise of Dundee United today? Rhona’s voice cracks with sadness tinged with self-confessed bitterness, emotions unhealed by time: “It’s not a nice feeling. It was unpleasant and got more unpleasant. My father was airbrushed out.” Rhona describes the point in 1971 when her forward-thinking father knew the time was approaching for him to relinquish team duties: “Dad was coming up for 60. It was the start of the tracksuit managers. He was not a tracksuit manager but he realised that was what teams were doing.” Jerry recommended bringing in a young coach from Dundee, Jim McLean, to be manager of the team while he would become general manager. Jerry was not a man of ego, but he was a man of ideas, principles and determination, who was used to leading from the front. Within a year, the situation was untenable. He was pushed out of the club he had built, without fanfare or even thanks.

Indeed, it was rival club Dundee who took him under their wing. Jerry had a role with the SFA as president of the Second Elevens, a position that depended on being affiliated to a club. He was due to attend a meeting at SFA headquarters. “But by then he was away from United, they’d kept it very quiet,” Rhona explains. “The manager of Dundee, Dave White, phoned and said, ‘Well, we’re going down to Glasgow tomorrow, Jerry, and there’s space in the car for you to come’.” It was a sign of the respect in which he was held elsewhere.

No-one can deny that McLean built further success upon the stability created during Kerr’s 12-year managerial tenure. But as he did so he trampled Kerr’s foundations. Jerry was no longer welcome at Tannadice and he knew it. In all his remaining years, until he passed away in 1999, he never set foot there again.

Only when Eddie Thompson took control could Jerry’s name once more be associated properly with the Tangerines. The new owner hosted Rhona, her brother Gillon and the wider Kerr family at a pre-season match in 2003 versus Everton. At the request of the Federation of Dundee United Supporters’ Clubs, the main stand was to be named in Jerry Kerr’s honour, more than three decades after his unheralded departure. The supporters had earlier mooted the idea with Jim McLean, who reportedly dismissed it: “We don’t name stands after dead people.” Nowadays the wraparound cantilever structure hosts away fans, which perhaps explains why the name Jerry Kerr is somewhat familiar. Reflecting on the belated recognition, Rhona says: “Dad would be pleased now. I don’t know about mum. For a long time, mother and I were quite bitter, but dad never was.”

Like many of his more famous contemporaries, Jerry came from humble beginnings. Born in 1912, he grew up in Armadale, West Lothian. Jerry’s mother arranged an interview for him at the local Atlas Steel Works, “for an office job, with a collar and tie,” Rhona recounts. But the young man had an independent streak; he skipped the interview, instead finding work as a joiner at a firm down the road, “because he wanted to work with wood”. He stayed with the company for 30 years, progressing to a managerial role.

Kerr also enjoyed a lengthy playing career as a full-back, predominantly as a part-timer or amateur. From the age of 15 he turned out for Armadale Thistle, and at 17 he was picked up by Rangers. “He told me he had to turn up there in a bowler hat and spats, but he was probably having me on!” Rhona laughs. He played just once for the Ibrox club, enough to receive a silver goblet in celebration of Rangers’ centenary in 1973. He went on to play for Alloa and St Bernard’s before joining Dundee United in 1939 and captaining them to the War Cup final.

Jerry naturally graduated into management, first at Peebles Rovers then at Berwick Rangers. Competing with Dundee was already in his sights: his lowly team dumped them out of the Scottish Cup in 1954. Rhona, a teenager at the time, has vivid memories of this unusual squad. With a trainee minister and professor of maths among their playing ranks, they were known as the Wise Men of Berwick.

Jerry moved on to become manager at Alloa Athletic, Rhona assisting her father on his scouting missions. “I was at college and wanted to learn to drive. The only way was to go with him – up to the playing fields at Saughton and all over. I was with him when he saw John White.” Rhona is understandably proud that her father was the first manager to sign the frail but tricky inside forward, whom the Rangers chief scout had apparently watched 13 times. White went on to make a name for himself at Tottenham Hotspur, where fans dubbed him “The Ghost” because of his ability to appear from nowhere.

In 1959, Jerry Kerr finally achieved a full-time role in football, successfully applying for the manager’s job at second division Dundee United. Forget glitz or glamour. He brought his wife and mother to Tannadice to show off his new office. Rhona envisages the scene as her grandmother exclaims, “Oh, Jerry, look at that table, it’s got woodworm!” He calmly replies: “Mother, the whole thing is falling down. A table with woodworm is the least of my worries.” Bit by bit, Jerry took control and fashioned the club along his own lines. In his first season, the gamble of turning full-time immediately paid off and the team achieved promotion.

As for most of his generation, the war was a profound factor in making Jerry the man he was. He missed out on the first four years of his young son’s life while away in the army. It also shaped him as a football manager. Asked by Dundee Courier reporter, Ron Thompson, how he remained so calm while watching his team from the dugout, Kerr replied, “Well, I landed in Normandy on D Day. That was fear. I was in a hole, a shell hole, and I thought if I get out of this, nothing will ever make me frightened again. It’s only football.”

Such a dogged attitude and determination to succeed lie at the source of the “Arabs” nickname. In the harsh winter of 62-63, the Tannadice pitch was so deeply frozen it resembled a skating rink. Desperate to prevent a fifth postponement of the cup tie versus Albion Rovers, Kerr ordered industrial tar burners. These did indeed thaw the ice but also stripped the grass. Coarse sand was spread on top and the referee gave the go-ahead. With the surface resembling the Sahara, the home side completed a 3-0 win, supposedly “taking to the sand like arabs”. Fans embraced the concept and now many Dundee United supporters’ clubs incorporate the name and occasionally don the costume.

With his team struggling at the start of the 64-65 season, the manager was desperate to uncover talent. A local scout in Broughty Ferry helped Jerry explore the Scandinavian market through a Danish contact. The manager signed up five players as professionals: Finn Døssing and Mogens Berg from Denmark, Swedes Örjan Persson and Lennart Wing and Norwegian Finn Seemann. By this time, Rhona was married and Jerry had no hesitation in accepting help from his son-in-law, Robin. “When dad brought Finn Døssing over and got the papers signed, Robin took them and drove to Glasgow. When he got there, the SFA was closed so he put them through the letterbox. He phoned my father from a call box and left word that he had dropped the papers in. Dad said, ‘Just as well as he’s on the field!’ He never liked to do things wrong, but he would find roundabout ways of doing things right!”

Kerr’s Viking invaders contributed significantly to the Terrors’ success, helping stave off a potentially disastrous relegation. The following season they finished fifth to qualify for Europe. Prolific goal scorer Døssing, former firefighter and left half Wing, and future Rangers winger Persson all went on to feature in the United Hall of Fame. They blended well with home-grown talent, such as young Ian Mitchell and Dennis Gillespie, whom Kerr brought with him from Alloa.

In their first ever European tie, Dundee United were drawn to play the holders of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, Barcelona, with the away leg first in October 1966. “People didn’t have enough money to go,” says Rhona. “Mr Barton, then the owner of the Taychreggan Hotel in Broughty Ferry, hired a mini bus to take seven or eight supporters. This was a team that no-one had heard of, some of the boys had never left Scotland. They ran out to thousands of home fans and this handful. At the end, there was stunned silence apart from this wee group of diehards.” Kerr’s special blend of Scots and Scandinavians, having taken the lead in the 13th minute and doubled it from the penalty spot, hung on for a remarkable 2-1 triumph.

The return leg still boasts Tannadice’s record attendance 50 years on, some 28,000 witnessing the Terrors secure a 2-0 win. The aggregate score might have been even more embarrassing for the Catalans: United had two further goals ruled out for offside. Such a feat demanded better than the luck of the next round draw: Italian giants Juventus. Despite another packed house and home victory, the club’s first European jaunt came to a close. Towards the end of the same season, Rhona describes taking her two small boys to see their grandfather at Parkhead. “Ross was running up and down the corridor. There was a door half open and Ross ran in. Then dad appeared, ‘Oh come away out of there son, that’s Jock Stein’s room and he’ll be in a bad enough mood as it is, we’ve beaten them home and away!’” Celtic only lost two league matches that season, both against Kerr’s men. Just three weeks later, the Lions won the European Cup in Lisbon.

In an interview with the Celtic View in 1970, reprinted in 2000, Kerr shared some of the secrets of his success, describing the essential qualities of a good football manager: “He has to be able to build up confidence in his players – make a chap believe that he’s maybe a better player than he really is. You’ve got to be a morale-booster and a psychologist.”

Jerry was a well-known figure around Dundee. “I remember as a child, wherever we went, people would want to stop and shake his hand,” recalls Ross. “He could get away with parking on a yellow line for ten minutes with the blessing of the warden.”

Yet the most visible legacy of the Kerr era at Dundee United was not initially down to the man himself. Until the late Sixties, United played in white, with black as the occasional away kit. Jerry’s wife, Barbara, had a strong opinion on this. Rhona describes the conversation: “Mother said, ‘Don’t have them wearing white, it looks puny. I don’t like it.’ He said, ‘I can’t have them wearing black, it’s the second strip.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘change the colours.’ He said, ‘I can’t do that, we’re registered.’ She said, ‘You can do anything, Jerry, if you put your mind to it’.Really it was mum’s idea.”

The admirable character who did so much to shape the future at Tannadice, the gentleman who turned the Terrors tangerine, is now being properly remembered and celebrated at his club. The family are welcomed back and their memorabilia is on display in the recently opened museum. Managerial names such as Shankly, Stein, Wallace and Ferguson trip effortlessly off the tongue of Scottish football enthusiasts. It is surely time that the name of Kerr, baptised John, known as Jerry, joined them. I for one will be nominating him – about a decade later than he deserves – for the 2017 Scottish Hall of Fame.

This feature appears in Issue 3 of Nutmeg, a new print publication devoted entirely to every aspect of Scottish football. It is published quarterly and is available via subscription at www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk

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