Tom Sermanni has seen a lot in football, but he’ll never forget the first time he saw Sam Kerr play. She was 14, coming out of the Western Australia institute, and about to make her W-League debut for Perth Glory.
She looked every part the young teenager she was – until she started moving. Kerr was quicker than the adults, had a burst of power like few others, and could somehow leap above the centre-backs that towered over her.
“She’s dynamic”: Sam Kerr balances pace, power and precision. Credit:Getty
“She could jump like a gazelle, she had a presence about her on the field and she looked like she could always score goals,” Sermanni said. “She immediately caught your attention.”
Height was never a problem for Kerr. As a teenager, she could leap above seasoned defenders to win aerial duals. Today, she stands at 1.67 metres tall. She’s far from a towering presence but remains one of the world’s most dangerous strikers in the air.
It was a trait that wasn’t obvious initially because she was deployed out on the wing in her early years but gave Sermanni the impression her future would be closer to goal. “In the back of our mind, she always had the quality to make it as a centre-forward,” he said.
That outstanding vertical leap was one of the reasons her former A-League women’s coach, Bobby Despotovski, moved her into the strikers’ role.
“She can head the ball, she has a very, very good leap. Not many strikers in the world can out jump Sam Kerr. She is very, very good in the air,” he said.
Sam Kerr scores with a header in the NWSL.Credit:NWSL
But that’s just one part of what makes Kerr the dominant player she has become.
While Kerr is an outstanding header of the ball, it’s her speed that is perhaps her most dangerous attacking attribute. From a young age, Kerr was always quick. However, it wasn’t just her pace that made gave her so much potential but the dynamism and power in her acceleration.
“Even at that age she was dynamic, that’s the first thing that stood out,” Sermanni said. “She always had that pace. It was pace with power. Some players are kind of quick, but they don’t look that quick – they sort of glide. Sam had a real power, she reminded me of a young Frank Farina.”
It’s been part of her weaponry that hasn’t evaporated with age. If anything, it’s gone to another level since her move to England in 2019. Remaining just as speedy but now more powerful, she’s added more intelligence to her movement that makes her near impossible to mark.
Pathway to the top
Few players worked as hard to crack the professional tier as those of Kerr’s generation. Undoubtedly, it was one of Australia’s brightest. Her class of juniors included Emily van Egmond and Caitlin Foord – among the first names on the team sheet of today’s Matildas.
Within two years, all three were fully capped senior national team players. Sermanni was the coach who unearthed the trio. Kerr came first, playing for Australia at the age of 15 in 2009. It was a role she balanced with two junior national teams, two clubs and an institute.
“At that particular time they were playing in the W-League, under 17s, under 20s and the senior team,” Sermanni. “They were like full-time footballers even at that age of 15, 16. 17. That grounding and education and games they got was huge for their development.”
Kerr worked extremely hard to get to where she is. However, goals weren’t always in abundance for her. Initially deployed as a winger, she started her career as a provider of goals rather a scorer of them. She had an instinctive knack for scoring, but hadn’t been trained as an out-and-out striker. When she made the transition to become a centre-forward, under Despotovski at Perth Glory in 2015, she took to the new position like a duck to water.
“She wants to work extremely hard to improve her game in all aspects,” he said. “We changed her position from a winger to a striker when she joined Perth. The simple reason was, I was thinking she was not utilised enough at the winger position because she was so far away from the goal, and why would you limit such a footballer like that to be on the wing rather than being a number nine and being close to the goal?”
She worked tirelessly to improve her finishing. She studied positional play intensely and always sought to improve herself.
Sam Kerr bangs in a powerful goal for the Matildas against China in 2017.Credit:Fox Sports
“The biggest learning from me about her is that even though she’s achieved all these things, and is doing all the things that she does for club and country, there is this inner drive, that maybe not too many people see, to be better,” Matildas assistant coach Mel Andreatta said. “She is always thinking about football, not just the team but her own performance and how she can get better.”
With that relentless desire to get better, Kerr’s skills sharpened. She always had a great first touch and technique but until it was applied to her finishing, the task of moulding her from a winger to a striker would have been fruitless. That’s why Despotovski focused heavily on improving her finishing with both feet, from distance and close range while coaching her at Perth.
“We exposed some weakness in her game which was her finishing. Not being a striker, we had to work on that and that was the five-year period she was playing with us,” Despotovski said. “Now she is striking the ball with the left and right equally as good. Now what I saw on the weekend in the FA Cup, that goal she scored chipping the goalkeeper – that never used to be present in her game.”
Today, Kerr can score from distance. She also has the instinct of a poacher. She is lethal on the counter and a threat in the air.
“Look at those two finishes in the FA Cup final – full pace, she’s running towards goal, sees the keeper caught in no man’s land, and dinks them,” Andreatta said. “What I do know about Sam is she doesn’t shy away from areas of improvement. You’ll often see her at the end of a national team session working on different ways to finish, different techniques from different zones. Again, it relates to that inner drive and determination to be the best footballer – probably in the world.”
However, all the ball skills in the world are useless unless a player can get into positions to score and make runs at the right times. Kerr always had the pace and power to do just that, but it wasn’t until she moved to England to join Chelsea in 2019 that she truly mastered her movement and mobility.
According to Sermanni, in her early years, Kerr was “a little bit inconsistent, as are all young players”. Today she operates on a higher level, for longer periods.
Watching from afar, the most significant change Sermanni sees is to do with her decision-making and movement. “Since she’s gone to England, she has taken her game to another level where she is an absolutely completely accomplished player,” he said. “Now her football IQ, her knowledge and decision-making is outstanding.”
According to Andreatta, that drastic improvement in her off the ball movement and sharp decision-making in possession is a testament to Kerr’s dedication and thirst to improve.
“Her knowledge and awareness of space, the opponents around her in that space, and how she uses it, has gone to another level,” she said. “That’s through her watching the game, this thirst to be even better, and training and playing daily against the best footballers in the world … against the best, you have even less time to make decisions.”
“You play football with your head and your legs are there to help you” – Dutch great Johan Cruyff.
The only thing more memorable than some of the wonderful goals Kerr has scored is the smile on her face after every one of them. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a backflip.
Even at the age of 28, Kerr plays with the exuberance of a child running out on a Saturday morning. It’s part of her charm. In an era of highly professionalised sport where players deal with everything from insecure contracts, endorsements, fan commitments, media scrutiny, social media bombardment and pressure from coaches, clubs and country, Kerr manages to never lose sight of the joy of the game.
“It was obvious from early on she had the raw materials, and it was obvious she had the confidence and attitude to cope with whatever she needed to cope with. She had all the ingredients,” Sermanni said.
Sam Kerr scores after a counterattacking run.Credit:NWSL
The former Matildas’ boss recalls national team away trips where several teams would stay inside the same hotel. Within hours of arrival, Kerr would have talked with players from every team. “She would just be friends with them all. She was like a magnet for players, whether it was Japan, Vietnam or South Korea,” he said.
It was part of her carefree persona. Jovial, fun and happy – often masking an extremely competitive and professional streak. “She just had an attitude – people talk about playing with a smile on their face, she always did that. When you won, she was happy,” Sermanni said.
“She was a classic player where she plays a game with passion and fierceness but she always plays with an enjoyment and a smile and that’s been evident throughout her career.”
For all her obvious talents, few ever touted Kerr as a future captain of the Matildas. In her earlier years, she was a lovable larrikin. In many ways she still is. She doesn’t have the hard nose of archetypal captains nor the harsh, loud demeanour. Instead, it’s her burning desire for constant improvement that earned her the Matildas’ armband.
Former Australia coach Ante Milicic saw a leader in Kerr during his first team meeting in 2019. Kerr was first in the room, sat front and centre and was the most engaged. She backed it up with impressive performances on the training field to show how she’s a leader by example.
“In many ways she really reminds me of Tim Cahill, to be perfectly honest. She’s confident, she has that belief, she carries the team and her work ethic and her discipline and the way she’s handled herself from the very first team meeting,” Milicic told the Herald and The Age at the time. “She leads by her actions on the field. There are a few examples from what I’ve seen prior to meeting her, and meeting the squad and just working with her in the last few days, it was just confirmation for me.”
Every so often, Despotovski messages Kerr to congratulate her on her latest result, goal or performance. He may have played a role in her progress but doesn’t take credit for her development.
He does, however, crack a wry smile when he reminds her of his prediction five years ago when he moved her from the wing to centre forward.
“I had an opinion in 2016, I said if Sam Kerr starts scoring more goals she will be the best player in the world,” he said. “Sam thought I was crazy – she laughed at me.”
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