Shelley Kerr MBE
- Written by Ben Croucher
Shelley Kerr MBE is a former footballer who has now turned her hand to management. Alongside her glittering playing career, she has achieved the UEFA Pro License behind her and an MSc in Sport Management and is the former manager of the Scotland Women's National Team. Shelley has a passion for developing her knowledge on and off the pitch. Her research has investigated how organisations appoint football managers.
Few jobs within professional sport are as precarious as football management. With financial and sporting pressures rising, the average tenure is steadily declining. But how can football managers best prepare themselves for life in the hot seats and what actions can they and clubs take to ensure the right person is appointed to the right job at the right time?
Former Scotland Women and Arsenal Women boss Shelley Kerr has attempted to find the answer to that very question.
In 2014, alongside managing Sterling University, the first female to hold such a position in men’s football, Shelley undertook a Sports Management MSc, focusing on how organisations appoint football managers.
She tells Switch the Play: “How do you get better at football when you don’t do any research? I picked a project on how we appoint managers because so many are getting sacked.
“To get better at sport, you have to research and expand your knowledge.
“Of course you have to be passionate about sport but if you want to get better, it goes hand in hand with the academic route.”
As part of her studies, and using her own experience and contacts, Shelley spoke to several key figures within Scottish football, from CEOs to owners and chairmen.
From here, she was able to create a list of characteristics that football managers should possess before applying for jobs, thus increasing their job retention prospects in the long term.
“You have a whole host of managers and coaches with similar experiences so how do you set them apart,” she continues.
“At the end of the dissertation, I was able to put together a job specification for a football manager, all the essentials and desirables a club would look at.
“They have an age bracket, experience, playing experience, understanding of finances and a whole host more.
“It maybe doesn’t prevent you getting the success, but when you’re going through that interview stage, it makes you more aware of what they’re looking for.”
Through the research, she discovered the fickle nature of football management meant that managers needed flexibility in their approaches as organisations themselves can vary in their recruitment processes.
“Some clubs have a complex point scoring system,” she explains. “If they needed a certain type of manager, that goes out the window due to results.
“From a complex process to an ad hoc one, it all comes down to situations circumstances. That’s the downside from doing the research. The person could have all the characteristics, but situational circumstances [short-term results versus long term aims] mean you might not be appointed.”
Shelley’s path into academia was unusual.
Upon leaving school, Shelley joined Mitsubishi Electrical as a production operator, working her way up to management level over 17 years, all whilst enjoying a flourishing domestic and international career for Scotland.
She credits her time at the company in Livingston with developing her into the football manager she is today and deepening her drive for self improvement, a hallmark of any elite sportsperson. Fed up of needing help with reports, Shelley attended night school to improve her computer skills, all whilst pregnant with her daughter.
“Had I been a professional footballer, I wouldn’t have been able to learn those skills,” she says.
“It’s good to have those other experiences as a football manager.”
When the opportunity came to step out of her comfort zone and undertake a part-time degree at Sterling University, it was a challenge she relished.
“It was tough,” she admits. “It’s one of the most daunting things I’ve ever done. Every ounce of spare time I had went to studying.
“What helped was that the players were doing it as well. There was an empathy that there would be certain windows that they had to prioritise academic studies.
“In the classroom, the discussions were great because the undergrads were coming from a textbook whereas I could come in with the real world. We had some brilliant discussions.
“That’s what university is all about, learning from each other.”
Whilst she was getting the best out of the squad for BUCS fixtures and the Scottish Lowland League, they were helping her too.
She recalls goalkeeper Ryan Marshall teaching her a more efficient method of referencing as one example of how she was continuously learning.
In football though, are managers deemed to know everything? Shelley’s research found that clubs put much less emphasis on training managers, compared to players and coaches.
She says: “There’s a real assumption from the hierarchy at clubs that the manger doesn’t need any training.
“At every environment, there should still be an opportunity to learn more and get critique and feedback.
“Nobody is the finished article in life so you’ve got to keep on learning.”
Giving back to sport through research does not have to be a selfless endeavour either. Shelley used her findings in applying for the Scotland Women manager position in 2017.
Having left the role in 2020, she is now looking to the future, admitting completing a PhD is on her bucket list, and potentially expanding her research to focus on players’ expectations of football managers.
Her desire to continue learning remains. Whilst a higher proportion of female footballers undertake formal studies alongside their playing commitments, a natural by-product of the wage disparity with the men’s game, the ability of any individual to use their athletic career to help other sportspeople upon retirement should not be hindered by their academic (or lack of) background.
“If you’re in sport and lucky to do it as a job, sometimes you park the other side,” Shelley concludes.
“A lot of people get caught in the accolades but it’s the experience you can give back whether it’s to academia or sport.
“It’s about the development of your particular discipline. Research is so important. It’s not just about having a degree, it’s about putting it into practice.”