Kerr answers SOS for clash with Russia

IT IS easy to see why, when Michelle Kerr retired from international football last year, she was considered such a loss to the national team. Anna Signeul, the Scotland coach, describes her as "the most consistent player since I came here", and a "really British central defender" – with the emphasis on 'British' – for her "toughness on the pitch, and for her ability to communicate verbally and direct the other players."

In a scarily youthful side, Kerr, who came out of retirement to try and help Scotland qualify for next year's European championships in Finland, describes herself euphemistically as "one of the senior players."

No one will argue with that. She turned 39 last week, yet still turns out for Spartans – who sit top of the premier league – and tomorrow, in the European championship play-off against Russia at Tynecastle, she will captain the side on her 57th appearance for the national team.

Kerr exudes calm confidence, a little like the talismanic Julie Fleeting, for whom she is standing in as skipper, with the striker suspended for the first of the two legs against Russia. Fleeting's absence – which owes to an uncharacteristic booking in the recent 6-0 demolition of Slovakia – will be keenly felt, and could partly explain why the priority tomorrow will be to not concede a goal, to keep the tie in the balance for the second leg in Russia on Thursday.

"It's just important to be really focused," said Kerr yesterday, before the squad's first training session at Tynecastle. "We've come a long way over the last two years and we're on the brink of qualifying for a major championship for the first time. So we prepare for the first game, and then after that prepare for the second one. We're not even thinking about that one at the moment.

"It's taken a lot of hard work to get ourselves into this position, and we've made a bit of history even getting this far. But we don't want this to be the end. There's no denying it's going to be difficult (against Russia] but I'd say since the last time we played them we've improved massively."

The statistics back that up: in their last two games the Scots have scored ten, conceded none. And while the last encounter with Russia ended in a 3-2 defeat, that compared pretty well with previous meetings, in which Scotland were thumped 6-0 and 4-0. These days, says Kerr, the national team is "much fitter and more technically able".

Yet one of the challenges for the women's team is the lack of time together. They met yesterday afternoon for their first training session, giving them barely 48 hours to prepare for the biggest match any have played – the biggest match, indeed, in the history of the game in Scotland.

"That's the situation the women's game is in," shrugs Kerr. "A lot of the girls are struggling with jobs and families, and it's part time for us.

"But I hope that changes. The game has to go semi-professional, and I hope that Scotland reaching these play-offs can help change things. I'm not sure, but I think the Russians are part-time, if not full-time players, so we're under no illusions. It's a massive challenge.

"I'm the senior member of the team," she continues, "and it's absolutely the biggest game of my career – as it is for all the players. There's a carrot being dangled in front of us."

It is that carrot that persuaded Kerr to come out of retirement, though she admits to being a little puzzled, now, as she recalls her decision to stop. "I looked at the situation," she says, then pauses before adding: "I looked at my age, to be honest, and that was probably the wrong thing to look at. I was still playing at the highest level and doing okay. I was still enjoying it.

"I spoke to Anna in great depth (about returning] but it was down to me, and I looked at the team. It's a really, really young team, and if you look at any sporting team, they need a bit of experience. Some have a lot of caps, but they're young."

It is perhaps surprising that Kerr 'only' has 56 caps – as opposed to Fleeting's 105 (which have yielded 107 goals) – but the main reason is an eight-year lay-off, after the birth of her daughter. Incredibly, she won her first cap almost two decades ago, in 1989, since when she has played for Kilmarnock, Doncaster Belles and Hibs, before joining Spartans this season.

When she announced that she was quitting, on a Scotland tour to Cyprus in 2007, the rest of the team bought her some red wine as a retirement gift. "Otherwise they weren't allowed alcohol," points out Signeul.

"I said I'd leave the door open for her," adds the coach. "But when I told the other players she was coming back, they said: 'But we bought her red wine!' But I am very glad she came back."