Shelley Kerr was in bed by 8.45pm on Wednesday night. Emotionally and mentally spent. “I don’t think I have been to bed that early since I was at school,” she said, “but, honestly, I was knackered.”
Unsurprisingly, qualifying for the World Cup can take it out of you and less than 24 hours earlier the Scotland manager had counted down the final, anxious minutes of an enthralling and ultimately successful campaign, and celebrated as the women’s national team booked their place at next year’s finals in France.
She managed very little sleep in the aftermath of the team’s 2-1 triumph over Albania, which when combined with rivals Switzerland’s draw with Poland was all that was needed to top their qualifying group, but she was definitely in dreamland.
A player who was capped 59 times for her country, captained it on several occasions and netted three goals in an illustrious career that only ended when she was 39, she hung up the boots in the wake of another Scotland near miss.
That was in 2008 and the misery of losing a play-off for the European Championships to Russia on away goals was compounded by a long and fairly sombre flight home. A decade later, she touched down at Edinburgh airport with a team that was now not only veterans of the 2017 Euros but a squad of players who had stepped it up yet another level and earned the right to prove their worth on the world stage.
“I retired after that [play-off in Russia] and it was a long journey home but it was probably less painful for me because at least I was allowed to have a glass of wine because I had retired! But, on reflection, looking back at Russia, we probably weren’t quite ready at that point. I think you get what you deserve in football.
“So this is such a massive achievement from everyone involved, especially with just one team qualifying automatically, it is superb. The journey back was an early one, we had to be up at 2.45am and without going into the details, let’s just say there wasn’t much sleep! But even then, that was a much more pleasant journey home!”
The journey to the top has been a long one, for Kerr and the women’s game in general, but there is an unrelenting momentum in the progress of both.
While participation numbers continue to grow rapidly, with 12,500 female players now registered in Scotland compared to 6,500 just five years ago, there are 12 girls-only Schools of Football being operated around the country, a recognised player pathway through the various age groups and a national academy programme that allows players to train like professionals while still studying for academic qualifications. Add to that a greater push and wider opportunities for female coaches to attain their UEFA C and B licences and the resources are there in a way they never were even when Kerr was still playing.
The vast majority of the Scotland squad now play professionally, in England, on the continent or in the USA, and the experience of playing alongside and against some of the world’s best players has bolstered their belief, sharpened their focus and honed their ability, says Kerr, who has seen them mature as players and people since she took over from Anna Signeul after the Euros last year. But, while a professional set-up is still a dream for the future in Scotland, Kerr says the contribution of the domestic clubs should not be understated.
“If our best players are migrating then you can’t avoid that just now, we can’t say to a player that we want them to stay and miss out on going professional but one thing it does do is give our younger players the chance to play at senior football quicker.
“Even though some are at top clubs now, they all started off somewhere and the entry-point clubs in Scotland should take credit for developing the players and we should be proud of the pathways we have had in place as well. They are all instrumental in the journey.
“Maggie Wilson was my first coach and Fiona Winchester and they were the first people to text me on Tuesday night. Those for me are the moments that make it all worthwhile. There are so many people who have worked so hard in girls’ and women’s football and what we have achieved is not just for the here and now, so many people have worked so hard for so many years to put women’s football on the map in Scotland and to get us to this point, so this is for them as well. It is for everyone connected to the game.”
With a record crowd of more than 4,000 watching the national side beat Switzerland last week, there is a product there that is attractive to more and more people and another major finals appearance and greater success can only accentuate that.
“Forty-odd years ago we had one league and look at where we are at now in terms of the infrastructure, so it’s not just about supporters. Look at League 2 in men’s football and it is not populated by teams with big supports. But we do need to bolster resources, financial and human resources. Can we get the men’s clubs to support the women’s teams more than some of them do at the minute? St Johnstone recently bought into having a women’s team and things like that are crucial. The SWF is moving forward and trying to get investment and looking at clubs, many having some players who are semi-professional. That is a real starting point for us. We now have club licensing criteria where clubs have a standard they have to adhere to and that will hopefully help raise the professionalism and profile within our domestic game.
“There is a lot of work being done but it is just going to take time for us to pull everything together but I can see good progress that’s for sure.”
In the meantime she is plotting a positive experience in France next summer in the hope that her team can provide the conveyor belt of talent now coming through some role models to look up to and experiences to aspire to.
“I said after the game this is what dreams are made of. I was very fortunate to play for my national team and on a few occasions even captain it but to lead them to a World Cup…” she chuckles to herself… “even when I say that it still seems unreal. I am passionate about football, not just girls’ and women’s, and I’m passionate about my country and I want Scotland to do well.
“I’m never happy to just be there. As a person, I always want to win things. It is a massive achievement for us to get there but what we want to do is give a good account of ourselves. That is back-to-back tournaments now and we want to build on that.”
But they have already managed something special. If that hadn’t registered with Kerr immediately, it did when she popped in to visit her parents on Thursday.
“My parents are in their seventies and they are working class and extremely grounded but I think their words were, ‘Christ, are you trying to give us a heart attack?!’ My mum is virtually teetotal and my dad had said after the game: ‘Will I put the kettle on?’ But she said ‘I think we should be having something a wee bit stronger!’ I think she treated herself to a wee dry martini, so it must be something special because we’ve even driven my mum to drink!”