Spotlight On Sam Kerr

“Ya know Daniel’s got a little sister who’s pretty handy at soccer!” It was 2008, and I was sat at the cavernous Subiaco Oval home of West Coast Eagles, the Aussie Rules team in Perth who are followed by over 50,000 fans a week, watching my team being edged out by Sydney Swans.

The comment was made by a guy sat in the row behind me and marked the first time I was ‘introduced’ to Sam Kerr who would then have been 15 years old.

The ‘Daniel’ is her big brother, who starred for the Eagles from 2001 to 2013, playing 220 games and winning the 2006 AFL Premiership.

The next day, upon catching up with my family out there, being a football fan of the round ball variety, I asked them what they knew about ‘Daniel Kerr’s little sister.’ “Ah yeh, she’s some teenager from just up the road from here who’s going to be playing with Perth Glory next season.”

It turned out that the teenager from 20 minutes “up the road” from my family was going to become more than just “a bit handy” at football.

With Perth Glory the team I’ve always supported out there due to those family links, it became very easy to follow the fortunes of a player who has hit the heights globally.

Sam grew up in East Fremantle, just up the Swan River from the Western Australia state capital Perth. She comes from a sporting background with her grandfather being a featherweight boxer and a grandmother who played basketball. Her father played professional Australian Rules Football and also soccer in the Western Australia state league.

Sam also has uncles who played the round ball game and others that were jockeys – one – J.J. Miller was a champion jockey and won the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious horse race in 1966. As we have heard, brother Daniel was a star Australian Rules Footballer for West Coast Eagles where he won a Grand Final in front of 97,400 fans at the MCG in 2006 having been a runner-up in the previous year’s title decider.

Due to the domination of the sporting scene in Western Australia by Australian Rules Football, it is perhaps no surprise that Sam grew up playing that sport and only switched to soccer at the age of 12 partly due to restrictions for girls playing Aussie Rules at that time. Indeed, Sam famously told the Perth media in 2015 that for her as a youngster: “It was all AFL (Aussie Rules). I hated soccer as a kid. I never had a soccer ball around the house.

Kerr’s first club, at the age of 12 was Western Knights, based in Mosman Park just three miles from her home in East Fremantle. Within three years, Sam had attended trials for Western Australia’s state team and then moved across to Perth Glory, the state’s sole W-League side. Making her debut at the age of 15, she was named as the league’s Player’s Player of the Year in 2009 – an incredible statistic. Her stay at the Glory lasted until 2012 when she joined Sydney FC. Thirteen goals in twenty-four games was her return. In the same period, due to the way the Australian and American seasons are scheduled, Kerr played for Western New York Flash for the first NWSL season in 2013 and made it all the way to the Grand Final where they lost to Portland Thorns.

She returned to home club Perth Glory who she represented in the W-League from 2014-19 in between spells in America. Back in the purple and orange of her local senior side, Kerr led the Glory to two W-League Grand Finals and won the Julie Dolan Medal as the best player in the W-League twice. She was in incredible form for the Western Australians, scoring a total of 52 goals in 49 games. In this period the East Fremantle born star spent two seasons with Sky Blue FC in the NWSL and in 2017, at the age of just 23 became the all-time top scorer in NWSL history. The same season saw her winning the NWSL Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player Award.

Kerr spent the 2018 and 2019 NWSL seasons with Chicago Red Stars, for whom she played in the Championship game. Her American adventure ended with the honour of being the first player to be named as the NWSL’s Most Valuable Player twice, and top scorer three times.

In November 2019, to great media fanfare, Kerr announced that she would join Chelsea in the FA Women’s Super League, and she made her debut in January 2020 and was part of the team who won the Continental Cup and FAWSL title. Her first goal came in the Blues’ 4-1 win at Arsenal with a header. Early in the 2020/21 season, Kerr was subjected to vicious online abuse – her “crime” was apparently not scoring enough goals.

Kerr has always been far more than a just a goal scorer. To emphasise this, it’s only really in the last couple of years that the Western Australian has become a prolific scorer for the Australian national side, the Matildas. In her first forty-nine caps for her country, Kerr had only scored eight goals. Her partnership with Lisa de Vanna for Australia pre 2019 was one which saw Sam in the role of a link up player – one who worked incredibly hard and created chances aplenty for her team mates. Something very similar to how Kerr began with Emma Hayes’ Blues. When de Vanna moved out of the Matildas side, Sam’s role changed and the goals came.

In the Chelsea side, Kerr built up a great early understanding with Beth England before the Lionesses star had a summer operation and missed much of the early season. In the period that she was receiving the online abuse, she had scored three goals in five FAWSL games – hardly the form of an inferior player. Chelsea and the FAWSL in general have a gem in their ranks and it was only a matter of time before Sam found her place in the new Chelsea side.

Once those early six weeks or so of the 2020/21 FAWSL season were gone, Sam developed one of the most potent striking partnerships with Fran Kirby, who was not able to play when Kerr joined the club in January due to the debilitating medical condition pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous sac that surrounds the heart which left the Lioness with sharp chest pain, fever, and a shortness of breath.

Indeed, as we reached the end of 2020, English fans began to see Kerr’s explosive pace and incredible aerial power that those of us who have watched Sam’s career from her teenage days love so much. A typical poacher’s hat-trick against West Ham United at the beginning of December meant that Kerr celebrated Christmas on a run of five goals in three games. Finally, the wider FAWSL became aware of just what a player the Queen of East Fremantle is.

Photos from @TheMatildas

If the end of 2020 was impressive, Kerr’s 2021 was off the scale as those critics were forced to not only eat their words but also forcibly regurgitate them. The partnership with Fran Kirby that was beginning to blossom exploded to maximum impact as the pair became one of the deadliest partnerships that women’s football had seen. A total of 28 goals in 34 games satisfied the critics, but what marked her out as a true star was the additional stat that she led Chelsea’s goal assists for the campaign as well.

The number 20 is so much more of a complete player than at any other time over the past decade. Kerr pops up in defence during the course of normal play, and has built up a technically brilliant understanding with Erin Cuthbert as the pair interchange and build together in the midfield. Kerr and the Scottish star are also as thick as thieves off the pitch – that connection just makes their relationship in the build-up of the Blues that bit more insightful.

As an ever-present at Chelsea Women home games for the last three years, it is also clear that the Matilda is having a massive influence on her teammates’ games. The attacking build-up play is has significantly stepped up in its intensity since Kerr’s arrival.

It is no coincidence that Kirby has been in the form of her life for the last 12 months. She has a mental understanding with her strike partner, the likes of which you very rarely see in football. Despite the pair often changing positions within the attack, that telepathic understanding remains.

Something else that is patently obvious to anyone at Kingsmeadow is just how outwardly happy Kerr is with her teammates. Warm-ups contain never-ending smiles, jokes, and wind-ups. Arguably for the first time in her career, the West Australian is not the only big star in her club side. When you are in a squad containing Pernille Harder, Fran Kirby, Jessie Fleming and Magda Eriksson, you are far from being alone as a world-leading player.

With the pressure on her shoulders as the key performer in her club team lighter than it has been previously, Kerr is thriving and it is a privilege to see it week in, week out.

Ben Gilby writes for Beyond90, Australia’s leading women’s football platform.