Shelley Kerr’s long and winding road to the pinnacle

New Scotland women's head coach Shelley Kerr with Scottish FA Performance Director Malky Mackay at Hampden.

New Scotland women's head coach Shelley Kerr with Scottish FA Performance Director Malky Mackay at Hampden.

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Much has happened in Shelley Kerr’s life since she made her Scotland debut 28 years ago but the memories remain crystal clear. That means that she is perfectly placed to judge just how far the women’s game in this country has come since.

For many the evolution has not happened swiftly enough nor has it extended far enough, with critics slamming what they believe to be paltry media coverage, a lack of credibility and limited financial backing. But while Kerr would love to wave a magic wand and shine a light on the burgeoning talent, introduce professional leagues into the Scottish game and add strength, depth and monetary weight to the game here, she says people have to recognise that huge strides have been taken.

“I got my first Scotland cap, against England, in 1989 and the changes are massive since then. We played at Stark’s Park. We lost 3-0 and I came on as a striker, though I was a centre-back. We didn’t have as many games back then but we met in a hotel just the same, trained and then had the game.”

The ambition back then was to improve and develop and that is one of the few things to remain constant, according to the woman who has been appointed as the new head coach of the Scotland women’s national team.

Back then she combined playing with working in a factory and most her team-mates performed a similar juggling act. Now, almost three decades on, attitudes and opportunities are professional. The women she will now try to successfully guide through the World Cup qualifying campaign train on an almost daily basis, matching the regimes, without reaping the rewards, of many of the top-flight men’s teams. They take full advantage of nutritional information, sports science and strength and conditioning knowhow and many have made a career in the game, signing for professional clubs in USA, Iceland, Scandinavia and England.

“There have been massive changes and we are always trying to improve. We are talking about professional leagues but we have to remember where we came from. Even back in 2001/2002, Scotland were still a B category team. We had to beat Wales and I was in the team. We felt under so much pressure because it was so significant. That is not that long ago and that has been a major turning point. We were successful and became an A category team. A lot of good work has been done in the women’s game since then. We just need to make sure we continue in the same vein.”

Kerr knows that she is returning to the women’s game at positive time. This summer will be spent participating in the European Championships, in Holland. There Kerr will be no more than a highly interested cheerleader as current coach Anna Signeul sees out her contract and Kerr works her notice at Stirling University, where she has spent the past three years in charge of the men’s Lowland League side.

It is only after that tournament is over that Kerr will take the reins. The time between now and then will be spent behind the scenes, preparing and planning for the next major campaign. That will start just weeks after the Euros, and the SFA want their new charge to be ready to hit the ground running.

“We’ve been tapping on the door for a while now getting to the play-offs [of major championships] and not getting through. But winning becomes a habit. For the team and the players involved it’s a fantastic achievement and opportunity for them to get experience of playing in a finals.

“I know Anna and the group of players she has. I think they will be setting a target of getting out of the group. No player will be going into that environment just to make up the numbers. Not at this level. No chance.”

Kerr is considered a trailblazer. Her job coaching men, her achievements as a player and as a manager have ensured that. Having gained her Uefa Pro licence many believe she can eventually shatter the game’s glass ceiling. She won’t rule out a return to the men’s game or write off her chances of doing that some time in the future but she is more focused on the here and now. “I want to reinforce and emphasise how much being the women’s national squad head coach means to me. 
Certainly in terms of the environment I grew up in and the way I have come through.”

Sitting in Hampden, contemplating the job that lies ahead, it is all a far cry from those early days.

“I wasn’t allowed to play boys’ football when I was 13 so I played for a women’s team at 13 years old.” All because there was no real girls’ football, no other alternative.

“For me to see how much the game has evolved is great because there were not the same opportunities back then. There was no infrastructure and it’s pleasing for me to look and see where we are now. There have been a lot of positive changes. Of course there is still a long way to go but there has been a lot of progress.”

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