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Spiers on Saturday: meeting UK senior football's first female manager

It was a great pleasure yesterday to chat with Shelley Kerr, the first female head coach in senior football in Britain.

Shelley Kerr is unfazed by becoming the first female head coach in British senior football. Picture: Mark Ferguson
Shelley Kerr is unfazed by becoming the first female head coach in British senior football. Picture: Mark Ferguson

She is steeped in the game, from her West Lothian childhood, and appears knowledgeable and self-confident stepping out as Stirling University's new manager in the Scottish Lowland League.

But will she be any good? Time will tell. If things start to go wrong, and the defeats pile up, then the inevitable talk will begin.

"If I start off badly I've got no doubt there's going to be plenty chat about it," Kerr says, sounding pretty unfazed. In the meantime it is thrilling and compelling to have a woman coach working in senior Scottish football.

The world is changing rapidly. Kerr's credentials for getting the Stirling job - from playing club football, international football, and winning two recent women's FA Cups as coach to Arsenal Ladies - were overwhelming. The reason there is all this fuss, of course, it because she is a woman.

Her appointment this week at Stirling has put down a fascinating marker. How long will it be now until we see a female manager working in the top league in Scottish football? It is thoroughly intriguing.

"People are asking, 'can she do it?' and 'can a woman really do that job?'" Kerr says. "But for me, it's nothing to do with being a woman. It's about my knowledge, my experience and my ability in football. I?¯don't really dwell too much on the genetics of it.

"Having played and coached in women's football, I?¯had always had aspirations to work in the men's game. For me, it wasn't that I?¯couldn't do it, I?¯just needed the opportunity to do it. Now one has come along and I'm really excited about it."

In point of fact, it all happened by accident. You could argue that, in resigning as head coach of Arsenal Ladies, Kerr actually left a bigger job than the one at Stirling. But this impressive character had other aspirations.

"It just fell into place - almost a coincidence," she says. "I?¯wanted to develop myself academically and had already applied to Stirling to do a course in sports management. I?¯wanted more education within me. My plan was that I'd combine a wee football consultancy business I?¯was starting - scouting, coaching and stuff - with my studies, just to make ends meet. But then the Stirling Uni football post came up, and I?¯applied, and I?¯got it."

It's actually not true to say she's spent all of her life in women's football. As a child her sheer exuberance for football forced her West Calder primary school to allow her to play in the boys' team.

She has also had a stint as assistant manager at Stoneyburn Juniors - hardly the Parisien left bank of the game. So Kerr has seen both camps, and it has informed her.

"Of course there are differences between men's and women's football. There's the difference in gender, in the genetics. The men's game is also quicker and more physical. Tactically, I?¯don't see much difference at all between the two spheres.

"But, in my experience, women are more emotional than men, and so you have to factor that in when you are coaching. Sometimes in women's football you make a decision which can have knock-on effects, where there might be an emotional response, and you have to consider that and handle it. With the guys, I?¯don't think that is such an issue. Men might think for five minutes about a decision - and hardly think at all about how it affects anyone else - and then just get on with it. So that aspect is different."

As our conversation meanders on, it becomes perfectly obvious that, in fact, the whole men/women thing in this context is almost irrelevant to Kerr. Somewhat foolishly, I?¯asked her if she felt intimidated.

"I've had a lot of experience in football - club football, international football, coaching Arsenal Ladies etc - which I?¯bring to my job," she replied. "I'm a comfortable and confident sort of person. I?¯don't have issues. I?¯don't really think about it in terms of 'I'm a woman'. A coach's job, for me, is about your ability and your personality, and about how you can convey that to your players. Can you get through to them and inspire them in the right way?

"People are asking, 'aye, but can she give them a blast when it's needed?' Well, look, I've played [59 times] for Scotland, I?¯was a centre-half, and people felt I?¯could do plenty talking or shouting on the pitch. So I?¯think I'll do okay.

"It's a relatively easy fit for me to be working in the men's game. It really is. I?¯feel very comfortable about it. I'm really excited."

We've seen more evidence in recent days about how backward and misogynist some aspects of men's football have remained. Kerr, however, is pretty robust and refreshing when it comes to the old prejudices.

"I'm not going to tell you I've never witnessed sexism in football - evidently, it is there," she says. "But I've never been put off by it, and if it happens, I?¯can cope with it. For me, that stuff has been pretty rare and it has never turned me off football."

It will be an eyeopener for the guys at Stirling Uni - this is going to be something different. No matter how you look at it, a male dressing-room at half-time, with 11 sweaty, cursing blokes crammed into it, and with a woman standing in their midst, is a new scenario.

"It's going to be a challenge, for me and for the players," says Kerr. "These are young guys, some of them living away from home for a first time, who are studying and playing football. It's going to be a challenge.

"People are going to be looking in, and asking how I'm doing as a coach. I've got no illusions about that. Say, two defeats after two games . . . there's going to be questions asked. But I've got a great support mechanism here and I'm relishing the challenge."

Let's see where we are one, two, three years from now with this story. Kerr has set a barrier-hopping cat among the tradition-bearing pigeons.

Let's see how high she can go. Very high, I?¯hope.

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