If Shelley Kerr is the slightest bit fazed by her new appointment, as the first woman to manage a senior men’s team in Britain, she does not let on. On Saturday afternoon the former Arsenal Ladies manager will oversee Stirling University at home to Dalbeattie Star in the Lowland League, the fifth tier of Scottish football under the new pyramid system.
“I’ve always had aspirations to work in the men’s game,” says the 44-year-old. “I’ve never hidden that fact. I knew it would be difficult [to get an appointment], not just because I’m a female but because you’re competing with so many different experts in the game. Thankfully for me Stirling University have given me that opportunity.”
After the clamour that surrounded the appointment – and swift resignation – of Helena Costa at Clermont Foot this summer, does Kerr worry that some might interpret her achievement as a publicity stunt? Kerr scoffs. “I know it might sound bad but I’m not remotely interested in what people think. For me Stirling University are a forward-thinking education establishment. It’s a brilliant environment here and I’m thrilled to be on board.”
There has long been debate over Britain’s first lady of football, Droylsden and Fisher Athletic setting out their claims, but in Kerr we have a genuine appointment. A manager who saw a position advertised, sent in her CV, was shortlisted for an interview and beat 14 other applicants, all men. “She was the stand out candidate from a very strong application process,” Stirling’s sporting director, Raleigh Gowrie, says.
Kerr was introduced to the team on Tuesday, her players talking excitedly about getting to work with a Pro Licence coach, a rarefied thing at that level of football. “So far the guys have been great and I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Kerr says. “I’ve coached a men’s team before, Stoneyburn FC, a couple of leagues below where I’m working now and I never had a problem. I was assistant coach there for a season. I also trained with men. It was great I absolutely loved it.
“I think when you go out there and start using your experience and your skill-set it’s about you as a person and a coach rather than your gender.” What about the school of thought that women do not have the authority to coach men? Kerr laughs. “Oh, if I need to have a little bark now and again, I’m quite capable of doing that.”
Kerr says she does expect some differences in coaching men’s football. “Not in terms of tactically or technically but I think we’re made up different. In my opinion it’s maybe a bit easier,” she says with a grin. “Sometimes as females – and I can only talk from my experience – we’re a little bit more emotional, so maybe one player gets affected by another player and so on. From what I have seen the guys are not like that.”
The former centre-back grew up in a tiny village in the hills of West Lothian. Her older brothers played football and she instinctively followed suit. “I’d come home with ripped tights from playing football at school but my mum and dad just let me get on with it. I was the only girl in my village to kick a ball, the only girl to play in my primary school team. I’ve always been a little bit different. I was more into football than my brothers were, I had more passion for it and because they were older I had to try harder. It’s where my determination came from.”
An impressive playing career followed, winning 59 caps for Scotland, despite a nine-year break in her mid-20s when she had a daughter, Christie, and worked as a section manager for Mitsubishi. After returning to football in 2000 and turning out for the Doncaster Belles Kerr continued playing for Scotland until the age of she was 39.
It was coaching that she really dreamed about. Even in her playing career she was feted by managers as someone who could read the game and organise others on the pitch. “Probably my team-mates would say that I was always trying to be a coach when I played.”
Kerr undertook her first coaching badge as a teenager and was given the Scotland Under-19s job, before joining Arsenal as a virtual unknown (Kelly Smith admitted to googling her name when the announcement was first made). Three trophies in 18 months followed but Arsenal Ladies were no longer the dominant force in the women’s game and the club were under increasing pressure to compete with new investment at Liverpool and Manchester City. Just days before Arsenal’s FA Cup final Kerr handed in her resignation. The plan, she says, was to study at Stirling and set up her own football consultancy. Then she saw the Stirling job.
Supported throughout her career by two senior figures at the Scottish FA in Jim Fleeting – father of Scotland international Julie Fleeting – and Donald Park, who oversee the Uefa license course in Largs where José Mourinho and Andre Villas Boas famously studied, Kerr also keeps in touch with her peers from the Pro License course. “Alan Stubbs, who recently took over at Hibs, David Dunn, Graham Alexander, David Unsworth, David Weir, Lee Bullen, Gary Locke, they’re all always at the other end of a phone. You gather in a network of contacts that you know you can share best practise with. And sound off with – that’s usually what I do!” she says laughing.
If Stirling can top their league they face a play-off – with the winners of the Highland League – to make it into League Two football. With her players subject to the academic cycle, it is a tough ask but Kerr will not rule it out. Does she expect to face any problems along the way? She is resolute. “I haven’t had any negativity at all so far. I know that’s going to come. No matter what, you can’t win every single game, so you know you’re going to get some negativity somewhere along the line. But that doesn’t faze me. That’s just football.”