Arsenal Ladies: The only English side in European Cup
Coach Shelley Kerr tells Jack Pitt-Brooke how with hard work Arsenal Ladies can beat Wolfsburg
Saturday 13 April 2013
It's hard work steering an English team through to the Champions League final – but there's one person in the country still trying to do just that. And Shelley Kerr is clearly not afraid of hard work.
An hour watching the Arsenal Ladies manager, as she drills her side ahead of tomorrow's semi-final against Wolfsburg, is tiring for the observer as she barks out instructions from the centre of the artificial indoor training pitch at Arsenal's plush Hertfordshire base. But she knows how important tomorrow is for the club as they try to conquer Europe, a stage on which they have fallen at the penultimate hurdle in the last two seasons.
"Make it good," Kerr shouts, as she watches her players do a drill based on fast one-touch passing past defenders. "It's important that you make it good." This is the last exercise in an intense hour of skill training. Kerr, just four games into her tenure in charge of Britain's most successful women's team, revels in this work.
"The training content is something that I love," Kerr tells The Independent. "I love being on the pitch, challenging not just myself but the players to try and do things better. I'm a great believer that it doesn't matter who you are you still need coaching and you still need guidance and support."
Having previously been coach of Scotland Under-19s, Kerr was delighted by the prospect of so much more contact time with her players, and is determined to make the most of it. "It's always been an aspiration of mine to work on a daily basis with players and try to develop them."
The players are certainly responding. Arsenal have won all four games under Kerr so far, overcoming Italian champions ASD Torres over two legs in their Champions League quarter-final before dispatching Nottingham Forest 7-0 and Birmingham City 6-0 in the FA Cup.
Ellen White, the England international and member of the Olympic Team GB squad, is enjoying the new manager's encouraging style. "She's really positive, she's boosted everyone's confidence," White says. "Change is sometimes good for a club. As a squad, we're competitive in training; she's instilled that. She's telling us the strengths that we have. We've never really been told what we're good at; sometimes it's nice to be told."
Steph Houghton, the vice-captain, is just as positive. "It's refreshing," she says. "You get used to a manager. Laura Harvey was brilliant for us but Shelley has come in and is organised and professional."
That is what Kerr is aiming for. It's difficult to take over a team that has been so successful. Arsenal Ladies won a double last year – the Women's Super League and the WSL Cup – and the Treble the previous year, with the FA Cup too.
Clearly, then, the most successful women's team in Britain do not need too much work. "Arsenal Ladies is a dream job in women's football," says Kerr. "You could say that there's added pressure to come in where a club's been successful. So why do you need to change things? The values and philosophy of the club, the playing style, I want to enhance that."
It is with traditional values that Kerr hopes to bring about these changes. "I'm big on organisation and discipline," she says. "If you have these two qualities in any walk of life you've got half a chance of being successful. I never thought I was the most talented player; I played for Scotland and got 59 caps, but I prided myself on my organisation, my discipline and my work-rate. Character is a massive thing. I never give up."
Speaking of that hard-working foundation of a successful team, Kerr sounds like David Moyes, the Everton manager, from whom she learned on her Uefa Pro Licence course. Sir Alex Ferguson was also involved, as Kerr took the course alongside former Everton players Alan Stubbs, David Weir and David Unsworth.
The comparison with Moyes is one Kerr embraces, but she insists experiences outside football have been especially formative, not least a spell working in a Mitsubishi electronics factory in Livingston soon after leaving school.
"They were very disciplined, organised and regimented," she says. "That helped me as a youngster, in that environment, knowing how to be efficient and resourceful. It's a different environment but there's so many skills that have transferred into football."
Now Kerr must arrange her players in such a way as to beat Wolfsburg over two legs. Having lost in the semi-finals against Lyon and Frankfurt in 2011 and 2012, there is a hunger to get through. If they do, they will face the winners of the other semi, between 2012 and 2011 champions Lyon and Juvisy. The final is at Stamford Bridge on 23 May.
"Consistently we've been quarter-finals, semi-finals," says Kerr, "so we're not a million miles away. It's just the final hurdle. We will try and play the way we play; that is attractive football, high-tempo passing game. We're not going to change that."
For the players, it is an attractive prospect but not a daunting one, after playing at Wembley in the Olympics. "It was fantastic to play in front of 70,000 people," says White, "but you can take experiences into other games. We play at Borehamwood, a little bit smaller than Wembley, but the atmosphere is great when we get a good crowd and hopefully we will get that again on Sunday."
Tickets to Arsenal's home fixtures can be purchased on the gate at Boreham Wood FC. The Champions League final is at Stamford Bridge on 23 May. Tickets at chelseafc.com/uefawomensfinal
Top Gunners: Three to watch
Arsenal's best player and the top scorer in last year's WSL, Little made her Scotland debut at 17, playing alongside Shelley Kerr, who also managed her at Hibernian. "She's got the full package," says Kerr. "She's hard-working but exceptionally talented. When I first saw her I knew she was something special."
The solid full-back has 92 caps for England and, like so many of the Arsenal team, was part of the Team GB Olympic squad. Like currently injured club captain Kelly Smith, Scott came to Arsenal after a spell with Boston Breakers in the US. She writes a column about women's football for the Morning Star.
Twenty-year-old midfielder from Stockton-on-Tees has been excellent this season and made her England debut in the victorious Cyprus Cup campaign last month, having starred for England Under-17s, U-19s and U-20s. Scored in the quarter-final defeat of Italian champions Torres.
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