Interview: Arsenal’s Shelley Kerr on taking women’s football’s biggest job

New Arsenal Ladies manager Shelly Kerr with Asenal Ladies general manager Vic Akers at the Gunners'

New Arsenal Ladies manager Shelly Kerr with Asenal Ladies general manager Vic Akers at the Gunners' London Colney training ground this week. Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC - Credit: Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Shelley Kerr has taken over as manager of Arsenal Ladies and knows expectations are high

“Just the 36 trophies in 20 years, no pressure then!” laughs Shelley Kerr as she prepares for her first match in charge of Arsenal Ladies this weekend.

The illustrious recent history of the Gunners is not lost on the former Scotland captain, who has headed south from her previous coaching job with the SFA based at Glasgow’s Hampden Park.

Champions of the revamped Women’s Super League for the last two years, and of the Premier Division for the seven years before that, league titles are taken for granted and cup and European success also expected.

“Arsenal have been the dominant force in women’s football in this country for a long time now and of course everyone wants to knock us off our perch,” says Kerr, 43, who has replaced Laura Harvey at the helm after the latter’s four and a half years in charge and will begin her reign with Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round visit to Nottingham Forest.

“But it’s a real privilege to be the coach of Arsenal Ladies, a privilege and a challenge that I am really looking forward to.

“Getting to the top is always hard, but staying there and maintaining that success can often be harder, and there is always a pressure that comes with it.

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“But that’s why we are in the game. When you learn to handle that pressure and come through it, it makes you better players and that’s what you have to do to be at the top level.”

Kerr knows all about wanting to knock Arsenal off their perch from her days playing for Doncaster Belles, one of the Gunners’ main rivals over the years.

Kerr also won 59 caps for Scotland and captained her national side during a 19-year international career. The tough-tackling defender only stopped playing at the age of 39 after a club career that also included spells with Scottish sides Hibernian, Kilmarnock and Spartans.

“There’s an exceptionally talented group of players here and I know a lot of them very well, having played against quite a few of them both at club and international level in my days with both the Belles and Scotland,” Kerr continues.

“We have an experienced, professional group of players, some of the best players in Europe, and it’s up to me to keep getting the best out of them.

“Of course Vic Akers is still here too and any manager or coach would want to utilise his experience and knowledge. He has been fundamental to the success of Arsenal Ladies in whatever role he has been in, and hopefully he will continue to be.”

Kerr is still in the process of moving south, and admits she has not had long to find her feet since leaving her role as technical and development programme manager for women’s and girls’ football in Scotland, where she helped develop the careers of two of Arsenal’s rising stars, Kim Little and Jennifer Beattie.

It promises to be a baptism of fire for Kerr, who officially started in her role on March 1 and has only had one training session with her full squad. Half a dozen of her leading players – Kelly Smith, Steph Houghton, Alex Scott, Rachel Yankey, Ellen White and Jordan Nobbs – have all been playing for England in the Cyprus Cup and are not due back in London until today.

While Sunday’s cup tie against Forest should be safely negotiated, on Wednesday Italian side ASD Torres come to London for the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final, with the second leg in Sardinia the following week.

Having gone out in the semi-finals last year, European progress is a priority for the Gunners who have not won the elite women’s tournament since it was called the Uefa Women’s Cup back in 2007.

The Women’s Super League season then begins on April 14 and Kerr admits: “The Super League has looked an exciting prospect from the outside looking in. The criteria is in place, and the media attention it has been getting has been great for the game.

“There has been a knock-on in interest from the Olympics and we know our job at Arsenal Ladies is to produce the best team we can, to maintain the support that we have and attract new supporters to the women’s game.”

“The Olympics were amazing for women’s sport in general, and football was part of that,” says Kerr. “Of course Arsenal Ladies had lots of players involved in Team GB who had a great experience at that tournament.

“We have a different game to the men’s game, it’s a different product but that showed how popular it can be. It’s important that we build on the profile that was generated by Team GB at the London Olympics.”