Who’s next to lead SWNT?

Following the departure of Shelley Kerr on Christmas Eve and on the back of a far too premature end to Scotland’s Euro qualifying campaign Chris Marshall looks at who could be next to take charge of our national side and reflects on the legacy Kerr has left behind.

There was an understandable level of apathy from supporters when the announcement of Scotland’s final two Euro 2021(22) qualifying matches away to Cyprus and at home to Portugal was made this weekend. Following a run of three straight 1-0 defeats punctuated by one of the worst thirty seconds of my Scotland supporting life – and that’s not a phrase you type out lightly – Scotland are out before the qualification race has fully run.

To have failed to qualify behind Finland or Portugal would have been disappointing. To fall so far behind both that the final two fixtures of a qualifying campaign that started with a swaggering 8-0 annihilation of Cyprus are now obsolete, is to put it bluntly, not good enough. A talented squad that includes some of the women’s games most evocative and captivating performers will not be making the short hop across the border for the European Championships in England next year and that hurts.

It’s a hurt that manifest itself not only amongst fans but from the mouths of players in a frank expression of views after that last gasp calamity against Finland ended it all. Shelley Kerr wasn’t in attendance for her final two games in charge, collateral damage in the aftermath of poorly managed pandemic protocols by her employers, but irrespective of her absence the mood music come full time was that perhaps the time had come for something new. This group had hit the reset button once before following our collapse in Paris but it seemed difficult to do so again with dissenting voices suggesting that true harmony might never have been found.

With Kerr’s contract set to run out at the end of the qualifying campaign it seemed inevitable that a mutual agreement would be reached although the decision to announce the news on Christmas Eve was strange. The likelihood was that even if Scotland had done enough to make the trip south in 2022 Kerr was unlikely to have renewed beyond the current elongated tournament cycle but the fact that the relationship has been curtailed so prematurely will have disappointed many, no less Kerr herself, as despite the end there were a number of highs achieved during her three and a half years in charge of the national side.

Shelley Kerr’s record in charge of SWNT.

On her appointment Kerr became the first Scot to lead the women’s national side, taking up the reins from current Finland boss Anna Signeul following Scotland’s exit from the group stages at Euro 2017 with the Swede’s triumph in Leith bookending a reign that her departure started. She led Scotland to a first ever World Cup, an experience that for players and fans alike will last a life time. As somebody old enough to remember France 98 but too young to have gone I know I will forever cherish the memory of finally seeing Scotland at a World Cup in the flesh, although the haunting conclusion to our tournament against Argentina and the tabloid palaver that followed I could happily have lived without.

She also oversaw a 1-0 victory over Brazil, the first for a senior Scottish side, and as recently as February 2020 she led Scotland to a comfortable Pinatar Cup win. Victories over Ukraine, Iceland and Northern Ireland had fans optimistic that Euro qualification was well within grasp from a group where we had been anointed top seeds, those victories though would prove to be 2020’s peak before the world was put on pause.

Kerr’s winning ratio of 58.9% from her 34 games in charge (a rate that remains the same when you graft the maths onto her 17 competitive outings) is a figure that betters her predecessors and whilst the manner of some of the six competitive defeats Kerr oversaw will sting there is no doubting that SWNT’s presence in our nation’s wider conciseness has only grown during her time in charge. Now though both Shelley Kerr and Scotland need to move on.

When the time comes Kerr will get her chance to go again. Her stock remains high and even before success with Scotland she had led Arsenal to two successive FA Cups in 2013 & 2014 as well as becoming the first female head coach in the Scottish men’s set up at Lowland League Stirling University, there has been more than a ripple to suggest that her horizons won’t be limited to the women’s game. I wish her all the best, as a new face in digital and real life press rooms she addressed my probing with the same care and attention as she did those more regular and maybe I’ll get the chance to sit down and talk it all through with her one day.

For Scotland the search for a new head coach begins, the two upcoming “qualifiers” in February present the perfect opportunity for a new manager to bed in and for the healing to begin within what is still a very talented, if underperforming, squad. Who that will be is hard to say, the rapidly shifting women’s football landscape means that the modest bounty the SFA currently have to offer will limit the pool on which they can draw upon. It’s well known that previous incumbents have let their hearts make financial concessions, but for how long can that approach to recruitment hold?

The first name to appear on the TL was that of Scott Booth, formerly part of the national side set-up at youth level during the Mark Wotte era, his achievements with Glasgow City, particularly their consistently deep runs into the Champions League standout on a CV that also can show off numerous domestic honours. It will be an ambition for Booth, of that I have no doubt, but whether the time is right for him and the SFA is up for debate.

Appointing Willie Kirk and his coaching team at Everton, that includes Chris Roberts and Ian McCaldon, seems unlikely. Having recently signed a new deal committing himself to the WSL club until 2023 it would be surprising to see Kirk step away from one of the most exciting projects in a league who’s monetary clout now easily outstrips that of the SFA’s. In fact any coach in role in the WSL is probably outwith reach unless budgets change, although the recent departure of Matt Beard from West Ham United would be an intriguing proposition, if not one I believe would ever happen.

They could look to circumnavigate that particular hurdle by looking within. Pauline Hamill and Pauline MacDonald are currently in charge at their respective youth levels but perhaps would be an appointment lacking in the razzmatazz to appease a fan base looking for some renewed hope ahead of our next campaign. Appointing Men’s U21 coach Scott Gemmill would give off big Phil Neville energy with his results in charge of what many believe to be a talented U21 squad not sufficient to put him in a prime contender spot whilst Paul Brownlie and Andy Thomson were in the dugout for the most recent games against Portugal and Finland.

Could the national job attract Scottish names from further afield that have slipped off collective radars like former international Denise Brolly who has had success within the US collegiate system in charge of the Queens Royals or Old Dominion University’s Angie Hinds but should we really be limiting ourselves to Scottish coaches? After all, the start of our most successful era was under the guidance of a Swede in Anna Signeul.

If you need your coaches to have a link to Scotland then Italian Carolina Morace should be considered, a former international team mate of living legend Rose Reilly she has had past successful spells in charge of Italy, Canada and Trinidad & Tobago and is out of work having most recently been in charge at AC Milan. Closer to home, a mere hop across the Irish Sea, is Kenny Shiels, a familiar face in Scottish football, who has taken a less gifted Northern Ireland squad to the Euro qualifying play-offs for the first time.

There is clearly scope for imagination and a need for it to be used to prevent SWNT slipping into the shadows at at time when the men’s team has finally broken its major tournament hoodoo. The end might not have been pretty but replacing Shelley Kerr will not be an easy task but if financial hurdles can be overcome the role is attractive. There is a squad that still has the legs for one more major tournament push and there is a fanbase willing to come along for the ride as long as they can see the faith they have in the side replicated by the appointment the SFA eventually make. Most importantly the events of the last couple of months can’t be the start of an era centred around glorious failure, it has to be looked back upon as just a little bump in the road.

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