Leading one of the most prestigious clubs in women’s football requires a specific level of personality and Arsenal Ladies manager Shelley Kerr certainly knows a thing or two about character building.
After a 19-year international career that saw her win 59 caps for Scotland, the former Doncaster Rovers Belles defender began to focus full-time on coaching. It was in 2008 that she last pulled on her national team’s jersey and her work in charge of Scotland Under-19s and as part of the senior side’s set-up impressed Arsenal Ladies General Manager Vic Akers.
Shelley took over in February from the outgoing Laura Harvey who moved to the National Women’s Soccer League for its inaugural season with Seattle Reign. In her time at the helm so far she has won the FA WSL Continental Cup and FA Women’s Cup, also reaching the UEFA Women’s Champions League semi-final and finishing 3rd in the FA Women’s Super League despite a point deduction and with a league-best single defeat.
Arsenal hold pride of place in the upper echelons of women’s football thanks to 40 major honours in their 26-year history. The weight of expectation although important has not been at the forefront of Shelley’s thinking. She chooses instead to combine faith in her players and colleagues with self-belief and tenacity.
“I don’t really see it as pressure I just see it as a challenge. I think you get to a certain part of your career and if you don’t relish these kinds of challenges you’re in the wrong job.
“It’s about making yourself stronger and allowing yourself to thrive. It’s been fantastic and I’ve learned a lot about myself.”
The life of any sportsman or woman brings a need for sacrifices and women’s footballers are as good an example as any. Accepting the biggest opportunity of her career so far was the easy part for Shelley but there is a side to it away from the touchline and training field that has a real impact.
“The biggest thing is relocating and uprooting my family to London. I was brought up in a small village called Polbeth and even though I’d travelled in my career I’d stayed there all my life.
“Juggling that with what’s probably the highest professional job in women’s football has been a big challenge but a fantastic one.”
Shelley was recently named as one of the nominees for the FIFA World Coach of the Year for Women’s Football alongside such names as Euro 2013 winner with Germany, Silvia Neid, and VfL Wolfsburg’s Champions League-winning coach Ralf Kellermann. She attained the elite UEFA Pro Licence at the start of the year and she has come a long way since the beginning of her playing days.
The women’s game as a whole continues to gather greater support and exposure but for Shelley who played the majority of her club career in her homeland it was quite different when she started out.
“It was extremely difficult and because of my age there was less funding and support when I played. I had to juggle working full-time with being a mother and also training.
“It was very tough but I think it can work in your favour in building your character and making you more determined to succeed. I played international football until I was 39 and I’m really proud of that because nothing beats representing your country.”
The idea of the interviews on here is to connect the player or individual’s career, life or personality to music. For Shelley, there is a little bit of a link to be found in her response to the next question. Choosing the career teammate she would record a cover version of a song with, she went for a legendary Motown track and a former Scottish forward who won 141 caps for her country.
The song seems fitting with how Shelley got through the challenges of her playing days with her love for the game and the support of those closest to her inside and outside of the game.
“It’s a very difficult one! I think the song would have to be Marvin Gaye (and Tammi Terrell) ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ and the player would probably be Pauline Hammill, who was my roommate.”
Although her on-field career finished strongly Shelley had taken an extended break from playing after her daughter was born in 1996. Her influence also shows up today in Shelley’s music listening!
“I really like a varied selection and I’m really open-minded with music but I was born in 1969 so I do tend to go back to some of the older stuff. I like Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston I think was fantastic, but I’ve got a 17-year-old daughter so I can’t help but listen to the newer music as well!
“I think the first record I had was Elton John (and Kiki Dee) ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ and I was probably about six or seven.”
With the majority of interviews on here looking at the player’s perspective it is rare to hear from the manager. A playlist that allows the team to get into the zone ahead of a game can be invaluable so how important is music for the Arsenal squad?
“They’re really big on music and Alex Scott is the regular DJ – she does a very good job. Being a former player I know how much of a motivational tool it is and how it can help you to relax before a game.
“Towards the end of my career with technology being more portable it was always part of game preparation. It would be on in the car, on the bus or you’d listen to your own personal music.
“I really valued it but the hard part is trying to appease the whole team! I never played the team’s music, I was one of the oldest players in the latter stages of my career but I put a few requests in sometimes!”
As manager of Scotland at the UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championships in 2010 Shelley coached the likes of current Arsenal star Kim Little and a recent interviewee on here, Montpellier’s former Gunner, Jenny Beattie. Three others spring to mind for her though when it comes to looking back on her national team colleagues’ singing and performing.
“Thankfully I haven’t had to sing ever! Pauline Hamill loved music, she’s a wee bit younger than me, she could hold a note or two and was quite good with the lyrics.
“Suzanne Grant and Stacey Cook used to dance a lot too.”
An extremely successful player back in Scotland, Shelley began her role with Arsenal by taking stock of the playing personnel at her disposal. She decided to value the success of the club and opt for continuity as opposed to making wholesale changes. One of those in the ranks is a genuine great of the women’s game, Kelly Smith, and although injury has put her out of action in Shelley’s time in charge she has made a big impression as a player/coach.
“She’s fantastic. Early on in my employment with Arsenal I identified Kelly as someone who could do a combined role as player and coach.
“It’s not always the best players who make the best coaches but she’s got so many qualities and is so knowledgeable and talented that I think she’ll be a fantastic coach. The downside has been that as a player I’ve not had the opportunity to really work with her and she’s only played 30 minutes for me because of injury.
“I’m really looking forward to mentoring her though and she’s already added such a lot to the role with the players.”
Arsenal are currently in the midst of their preparations for the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie with Glasgow City, which will be played this Saturday at The Hive. The return fixture is next Wednesday in Scotland and the Gunners are in goalscoring form after an 18-2 aggregate win over Kazakhstan’s Kairat in the last round.
Domestically, Arsenal were unable to retain their FA WSL crown as Liverpool Ladies, fresh from going full-time and adding some notable signings, finished as champions. Arsenal were deducted three points in September for playing ex-England midfielder Katie Chapman, who was unregistered after the birth of her third child, against Liverpool. This meant they finished below the impressive Bristol Academy in 3rd, although they did beat them 3-0 in the FA Women’s Cup final in May.
In April, Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League in the semis by eventual winners Wolfsburg but further success was secured when they defeated Lincoln Ladies in the FA WSL Continental Cup final in October.
Naturally, everyone looks to Arsenal as the favourites in English women’s football and although the WSL title was beyond them in 2013 Shelley remains particularly positive.
“Obviously there’s still two games to go but I look back on the season and I’m really, really proud of the achievements of the players. We had other clubs bridging the gap at the start and it’s been a transitional phase but we’ve got a core group who’ve been at the club for a long time.
“We’ve been combining that with developing and bringing others through, which you need to do, and I think the players have done fantastic under the circumstances. We’ve restructured the reserves, got to the semi-final of the Champions League and won the domestic cup double.
“Maybe people will look in and think it hasn’t been a successful season but others have invested and there’s no other team who only lost one game. I love working with the players on a daily basis and I try to be creative with coaching.
“We train four times a week now which is brilliant and I love having more contact time with them. The facilities at the training ground at Bell Lane are absolutely first class.”
The media coverage of the WSL was improved further last season and Shelley was one of the faces seen frequently as a result. Hearing what the players and coaches do to unwind in the time away is not always possible so besides family time how does Shelley get some respite from the job?
“I love walking my dog Cooper – that always gives me thinking time. He’s a Weimaraner but since I’ve moved I’ve not been able to take him with me yet.
“I still like to go to the gym two or three times a week to de-stress and keep in shape.”
In the last question, Shelley put together her 5-a-side line-up of the best players she has ever worked alongside during her playing days. The rule is that the team should include the player themselves and in Shelley’s all-Scottish selection she decided to play once again at the back with someone she looked up to the most as a youngster.
“The one defender I would choose would be Fiona Winchester. I played alongside her as a young kid and idolised her.
“I’ve never seen a player with the attributes she had as a defender. I think if she played now she’d be one of the best in the world.
“For a keeper I’d go with Gemma Fay. She’s not the tallest but she’s the most-capped Scottish player of all-time and in 5-a-side she’d be world-class.
“Two more – here comes the difficult bit! I’d have to have Julie Fleeting as a striker because she can score from nothing and that’s a fine art.
“(In midfield) I’d probably go for Kim Little, I know she can play as a forward as well. She’s got absolutely everything – speed, endurance and she’s creative and mobile.”