The continuous, growing excellence of the SWNT. Part 1 - Mindset
Updated: Mar 24
A year ago, I sat in Hampden on a gloriously sunny evening with my pal alongside our respective daughters. I don't know about him, but I couldn't help but see myself in their faces as they drank it all in. These two friends, and teammates, huddled together with a match programme analysing facts, looking at the pictures and pointing out their heroes as their eyes swam with awe. We'd been all over the country following the Scotland Women's National Team, but this was their first experience of the national stadium, and the Old Dear was showcasing her better side to the girls that balmy night.
A record attendance of 18,555 spectated, as this talented squad played their final warm-up fixture before travelling to France for the World Cup. Scotland won 3-2 against Jamaica, with pearlers befitting the weather from the world-class talents Erin Cuthbert and Caroline Weir, alongside a game-winning header from Sophie Howard. Whilst the stadium might need a bit more time before (re)capturing a few more under her gaze, she had gained a couple more admirers, and it was a fitting send-off for Shelley Kerr and her team.
As an educator locked into term-time, I couldn't make the trip to play my meagre part in stoking the embers of the Auld Alliance, however; the familiar joy and heartache that followed sparked such wonder in my daughter that I was helpless watching her fall headlong in love with a familiar suitor.
Whilst the romanticism we shared over those three games was not quite Jacobean in nature - roars of delight and jabs of defeat might as well have been strewn with brush and palette across the stretch of our hearts, as thickly as any of that by Mosman or Morier. What I'm trying to say, mushy wordplays aside, is that we were frequently in bits.
You're your father's daughter all right
For make no mistake, romance is what we're talking of here. There is no way back once you've loved as deeply as this; it is a compulsion, an obsession, and manifests itself in ridiculously committed acts of integrity - like only ever playing with Scotland on the highest difficulty of every computer game you've ever owned, from Super Kick-Off to Sensible Soccer, International Superstar Soccer to Pro Evolution. This loyalty was never in question, despite the incessant mocking of less patriotic friends as they ran rings around your labouring defence with the original Ronaldo or, if they're cheats, Ibrahim Babangida (99 speed).
Why the self-flagellation you ask? Why chase these whippets with a garish-looking Colin Hendry all over Konami Stadium's striped turf? Why am I so devoted to my love when she has shown scant regard for my emotional wellbeing over the years? I'm sure Sinéad O'Connor had a song about this, but I'll have a stab at it.
No matter how badly they were rated, no matter how monstrously insulting Steven Pressley's haircut, or Don Hutchison's skill rating, no matter how nightmarishly abhorrent the entire squad's facial pixels, or generic the kit designs; I was infatuated with my beloved, and together, we would claim victory, because Nothing Compares to... lifting The International Cup with Scotland at 3am after the 50th try.
Growth takes time and is often painful
For obsessives, there is really no alternative. The cutlass of Bonnie Prince Charlie might have been sheathed during the uprisings, but when our hearts are pierced by a visit to Hampden, or an award-winning pie at a '90s Rugby Park, or a visit to Leith in the famous Sunshine, or a jaunt off Maryhill Rd to see the great Glasgow alternative - there really is no choice. It's already been made for us. You're as helpless as Odysseus' crew before the Sirens, or as my daughter before Scotland, which is presumably why you're here.
This series is about watching football capture my daughter's heart over the last couple of years, by tracing the Scottish coaches and players behind the team responsible, firstly by unpicking the mindset underneath it all.
Oh SWNT, be good to her and have her back before 9 etc and so on, that is unless you're winning the 'International Cup' - then stay out as late as you want.
From the age of 3 or 4 I started kicking a ball, and ended up playing with the boys... developing more of a passion for football than [they] did... I was the only girl in the school team and I remember dreaming about representing my country, and thankfully, dreams do come true.
- Shelley Kerr, Interview with SFA, December 2018
They certainly do. Speaking just after she became the first Head Coach to lead the SWNT to the World Cup, you can discern from her tone the joy widespread upon Shelley Kerr's face. This achievement was the culmination of a lot of early rises, late nights, hard work and emotion, and not just since she was appointed in April 2017.
Three days prior to Kerr taking over, the SWNT had capitulated to a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Belgium. The team that day looked beleaguered and in need of refreshing, both in terms of personnel and focus - they needed someone to continue the excellent job that Anna Signeul had begun. The charge? Lead the squad to the Euros whilst planning for the future amidst a number of retiring players.
With such challenging criteria on the job description, it is since little wonder to any who have listened to the gaffer why she got the job, such is her consistently impressive demeanour and insight. As Malky Mackay put it modestly when questioned upon her appointment, 'she's a deep thinker'.
Kerr's childhood passion has only matured over the years, alongside a level of analysis and aptitude which means that when she speaks, you listen, because the ex-university lecturer has thought about it. Speaking to Si Ferry on Open Goal, Kerr outlines the mind-strengthening challenges she faced as a football-loving child in the late '70s and early '80s whilst kicking a ball about with 20-30 of her neighbours in Broxburn.
SF: Was there ever anyone who tried to put you off playing?
SK: Loads. I mean, my barriers started then. You get called a tomboy. Even teachers, a lot of teachers... tried to put you off playing because it wasn't deemed the right thing... for a girl to play football. It was tough, I would come home and sometimes just be distraught, because people didn't want me to play.
- Open Goal, November 2019
Shelley's at the wheel
Thankfully for us, Kerr found a way via some support from her Art Teacher. This is unsurprising that it took some brave lateral thinking from someone unafraid to bat against the norm, a recurring theme in our research. Wherever these attitudes exist, in this case, the staffroom, let's hope there's more of us batting.
She further progressed via a non-existent female youth football pathway straight into senior football as a 13-year-old. Nevertheless, the combative centre-half made her name, developing notable leadership skills before then becoming a Scottish internationalist. Whilst Kerr was earning her 59 caps she was still working as a duty manager in the Mitsubishi Electric Factory, something she cites as helpful for her management style.
You had to produce the goods everyday... it was a very disciplined organisation and I learned a lot about people.
- Kerr, speaking to Si Ferry, ibid
Under Kerr's leadership, it is this self-confessed love of people, framed within a meticulously disciplined organisation, that has enabled the SWNT to consistently 'produce the goods' over the last couple of years. So how did it begin, and what did she do with the players following Signeul's departure?
The Euros was fantastic... but with that group of players it was a bit of an end of an era with Anna departing after so long, and a number of players retiring... Shelley's come in. There's been a fresh start, and a lot of changes... that's been very exciting and the girls have responded so well to it [which] is reflected in the performances and results. That leads us into next year feeling really good.
- Interview with Scotland Captain, Rachel Corsie, SFA, December 2017
One of the main changes under Kerr's tenure has been that of increased competitiveness in every game. She took over an improving Scotland team, but one that was prone to the odd result as against Belgium. In leading Scotland to their first-ever major tournament, the Euros in 2017, a painful lesson was dispensed by an unrelenting English side as they cruised to a 6-0 win. Many teams would have imploded given such a result, falling into the all too familiar trap of thinking 'that's our limit', but what has happened since serves as a remedy against such fixed mindsets.
Ever the learner (Kerr achieved a Masters from Stirling University whilst coaching the Men's Team), the boss was willing to grow from the hurt, acknowledging its presence, and doing what she could to make sure her team didn't feel it this acutely ever again. The team listened.
I think coaching women is a little bit easier because they're more receptive. They want to know when they're doing something, why they're doing it, who's involved. For me, that's a great learning process. You know then that you're educating the person.
- Shelley Kerr, Interview with SFA, Dec 2018
In their second group game, Scotland put in a much-improved performance against Portugal but despite a superb individual goal by Erin Cuthbert, lost narrowly 2-1. It was the final game, however, which showed the desire of this team to prove their worth on the biggest stage, beating Spain 1-0 thanks to an opportunistic Caroline Weir strike.
It was the Manchester City player's goal that gave Scotland hope at just the right time. Alongside Kim Little, Lisa Evans, Erin Cuthbert and Claire Emslie, Scotland now boasted a young, hungry and talented attack-minded squad. We saw this grow game by game, as in the period following the Euros leading up the World Cup, Scotland played 22 matches and won 15 of them, scoring 36 and conceding 21 in the process. The largest margin of loss was 3, only once, and to one of the best teams in the world, Norway. Something was changing.
Games were now tighter, Scotland were tough, and more often than not, Scotland were winning, seeing games out and often in style. The mindset had shifted. Players don't score 36 goals in 22 matches without working hard to enjoy themselves, and working hard was something the Factory Worker knew well. So how did Kerr and her team galvanise this mindset? What did they introduce?
Since Shelley has taken over... she gave me my first start and I got my first goal. With Shelley [and] all the girls we've got in this team, everyone's got great personalities, everyone's humble, everyone does the right thing. I think it's something we can be proud of. We've got a full team of role models here.'
- Claire Emslie, pre-World Cup Press Conference, June 2019
Role models is an interesting term we don't often analyse but use a lot. We would normally associate 'roles' with actors, people who excel at becoming a believable version of the desired character. But then, who creates the character? Who sits for hours to form the essence of that character and moulds it together with the others to form a strong cast alongside the director?
The most powerful stories are told collectively through the right actors and cast, the right team. However, it's not only them. A\M's very own Findlay Marks might tell you that the editor does more than piece roll-film together. The whole operation needs to be 'in' or else it breaks the whole. Occasionally a gifted actor may carry a film like a footballer might occasionally carry a team, but it is far more likely that you'll be receiving awards if you play to one another's strengths and work collectively. You're modelling the desired character to one another.
This then is why we can read into Claire Emslie's statement. From manager through every teammate, there are three things intact. Firstly, everyone can express their personality - individuality and difference is cherished. You can see this in the way the team speak of one another. They're more than colleagues. They're friends, they embrace one another, and there is a bond there not easily broken. Something Shelley Kerr is well aware of.
In a female team environment, when you make decisions, it has an effect on the whole group because they have a close bond... then, there are more emotions attached to it... as females we're more emotional people... that's just me though.
- Open Goal, ibid
Secondly, 'everyone is humble'. What is meant by this? Is humility synonymous with weakness? Doesn't it mean always thinking too little of yourself? Why is that a good thing for a winning team?
I've heard it said that humility is not thinking less of yourself but rather, thinking of yourself less. This makes more sense as to why it is a key component of any successful team.
You might point to Ronaldo or Zlatan, maybe even Rapinoe or Michael Jordan, and say 'look at the way they carry themselves, how can they be humble!?' - but have you ever looked at their work rate as they sprint to cover a teammate? Have you ever asked their teammates how much they value their contribution?
Outside of the pitch they may say and do things to suggest the contrary, but whilst playing, you'll see that all the best sportspeople play the game to the strengths of their teammates. They play the game in a humble way.
To play for yourself can and will fall apart at any stage, but bound to a teammate, accountability drives you on and funnily enough, the individual expression can thrive. Sure, part of the act might be a theatrically narcissistic celebration following an excellent goal, but then as we've established, they're good actors.
Lastly, 'everyone does the right thing'. The last in this triplet of progressive thought is very simple, and that's good. It's the trust that your teammates will do the two first things consistently. If individuality, personality and the humility to work hard for one another is prized, then the team can only do only one thing together; grow.
It is this growth that is embedded throughout the SWNT. It permeates and moves through the interactions of the group and is just as observable as another presence might be in the room. That is to say, you can see and feel it, and this has an undeniably strong positive energy attached. We noticed it before when looking at similar characteristics brought out by McCoist and Burns unifying of the Old Firm under Smith. What might be called 'team spirit' does something because mindset does something. It changes teams from 'nearlys', to 'winners' because people want to be part of it. They see it, feel it and want it for themselves.
The culture the SWNT have demands respectful, accountable, humble growth, and is perhaps the key ingredient to their success.
Underneath all of this, there's something special going on
So what of the skills, highlights, goals and gifs that typically populate A\M's pages? Well, stay with us, you've only a week to wait. The reason we homed in on mindset is that it is the reason for the goals and the victories. If you're late along to the SWNT, then welcome, but please don't think this recent success has been easily earned. As we've explored before, and will do time and again; our women have overcome far more than you or I can imagine to be where they are.
We've explored a mindset that lives and breathes as a collective organism. It's undeniable and it's powerful. Such movements can change things. They can shift societal structures and remove exclusive barriers held in place for generations. They speak more loudly than any bigotry, hatred or division. They score 36 goals in 21 games and galvanise a nation behind a team. They tell a watching ten-year-old girl that because others have gone before her, emerging as role models; she can continue to fall in love with this team because they're everything I would choose for her to love.
I had a moment at Hampden where I've led the team out, and I look up at the big screen and it's got 18500... I never thought I'd see that... How can we put the legacy in where a little girl doesn't have to go through what I went through... Forget the World Cup... that's the most important thing.
- Shelley Kerr, Open Goal, ibid