the square ball week: being thereBack
Eighteen players strode out on to the Elland Road pitch on the day in May 1992 when, before a 1-0 win over Norwich, Leeds United were crowned First Division champions.
Gordon Strachan lifted the trophy first, displaying it to the crowd and, with a touch of typical Strachan class, making sure the fans in the Lowfields got a view past the big sponsors signs in the middle of the pitch. He wasn’t leaving anybody out of Leeds’ big moment.
Strachan handed the ornate silver cup to Chapman, who passed it on to Lukic. Down the line of players it went, through the midfield of Batty, Speed and McAllister, the defenders Fairclough and Whyte, the supersubs Newsome and Hodge. Finally, and getting almost the biggest cheer of the day, the cup came to the man of the moment: Eric Cantona.
And then Eric Cantona handed it over to Dylan Kerr, who hadn’t played a game.
“I was there for four years,” Dylan told me, “And I only played six games.”
None of Dylan Kerr’s appearances for Leeds came in 1991/92, and only one in 1989/90, when again he was there for the trophy presentation, celebrating with the team at a packed Elland Road.
There were a few that wondered back then how come Dylan Kerr never got a game, but always got his hands on a trophy? And there are a few who wonder now, as they watch the old videos of Cantona handing the Championship over to the grinning blond lad in the LUFC shellsuit – who the hell is that guy?
He was a Leeds United player, that’s who.
“We were a group, and we were together,” said Dylan. “It didn’t matter if you were Lee Chapman, Vinnie Jones, Eric Cantona, it didn’t matter who you were. Dave Batty, Dylan Kerr, Micky Whitlow – we were all together. Micky didn’t drink so he was the taxi, but we all went out together, and we all did everything together.”
A challenge for managers nowadays is to rotate the squad often enough to keep 25 players, all of whom think they should be in the side, happy. Back in the early nineties, when you could only name two substitutes, Howard Wilkinson had a different and in many ways a more difficult job.
“One thing that Howard did when Leeds won the league, he tried to get me and John Pearson winners’ medals because we had always been the fourteenth man. To Howard, we were ever present – we were always in the squad, always on the team bus.
“I never said I should be playing. I did what I was asked to do, and I did it very well, but unfortunately my main contender was the England left back. Tony Dorigo was fantastic, but he never got suspended, he never got booked, he never got injured, and you couldn’t catch him in training to kick him, because he was too quick!
“But everybody knew the way that Howard wanted their role to be at the club. You were a squad. You weren’t just a first team player or a reserve team player, you were a squad, and if he needed you to play, then you knew that he trusted you to do it.
“I still meet Howard these days. He liked me, but he liked me as a squad player, and that’s what I was, a squad player. He knew I would never let him down, and that’s the big thing that he knew about me. He knew my character and personality.”
What people outside football don’t always get is that being a squad player doesn’t mean your life is necessarily any easier than if you were in the first team every week. Being a reserve requires its own attributes and comes with its own responsibilities, work that has to be carried out without the reward of 30,000 fans singing your name.
“I was a reserve player for four years basically, and I was the one that had the responsibility of doing everything. I was captain of the reserves, and I did everything for that team. David Rocastle would be playing, and Gary McAllister would sometimes play a game, but Howard never said, ‘Alright McAllister, you’re captain’ – the responsibility was with me.
“I took every free kick, every corner, I did everything. If I didn’t play left back I played left midfield, and if I didn’t play left midfield I played right wing. Yes, it was the reserves, but I was always playing.”
Kerr was in his early twenties at Leeds, but his position was that of a senior pro. Players would come on trial to Leeds; Dylan only vaguely remembers Jari Litmanen turning out for Leeds reserves at Manchester City in 1991 — a 1-0 win in which Kerr scored the winner — but he recalls looking after USA international Tab Ramos in 1989. “Tab came on trial and I looked after him for two weeks. I was the one who the gaffer said was to make sure he’s alright and gets to training. He was a good little player, but he wasn’t Howard’s player.”
Then there was Eric…
“I was his roomie! If he wanted to speak to you he’d speak, but if he didn’t, that was it. He’d have his head in his book – ‘Cup of tea Eric? Eric?’
“I always remember, we played a reserve match at Blackburn, and it was baltic. It was freezing, and in Blackburn when it’s cold it’s cold. The wind, the sleet the snow — and after fifteen minutes Eric just walked off the pitch. He said it was too cold. Mick Hennigan just stood there, his jaw dropped to the floor, he couldn’t believe it.”
Dylan Kerr’s career stats at Leeds might only show six starts and five appearances as sub, but that doesn’t tell the whole story: 120 starts, two sub appearances and 17 goals in the five seasons in the reserves show that Kerr was for from sitting idle during his time at the club.
In some ways Dylan Kerr typifies the values with which Wilkinson built his two title winning sides at Leeds: hard work, selflessness, no moaning, and trust. Wilko didn’t go for stars; he went for players that he knew, as much for their character as for their ability. Chapman, Sterland, Varadi, Snodin, Shutt and Kerr; they’d all been with Wilkinson at Sheffield Wednesday, and he knew that when he called on them at Leeds, they wouldn’t let him down.
“Howard got the best out of the players he had,” said Dylan. “His motivation was to win games, and to win games his way, and he brought in players that could do that.
“I was released by Sheffield Wednesday in ’86, and I spent three years in South Africa, and I came back to England and trained with Leeds, but Howard told me the best thing was to go back to South Africa because I was having a very successful time. I played for Frickley Athletic the week before I was due to go back, and we won 6–2 and I scored four goals. It was in the Green ’Un newspaper and Mick Hennigan saw it, and they called me into the club. I’d already said my goodbyes to the lads and the gaffer, but now he said, ‘What are you doing playing for Frickley? We want to sign you.’ That was a massive surprise after they told me to go back to South Africa!
“But I knew that I was capable of doing things for Howard, and he knew that. I was a left midfield player but he liked me at left back because I could run, and I had a good left foot, and that’s why he signed me.
“I knew what my worth was to the gaffer. Obviously I’d have loved to have played more, but I went on loan to Blackpool and Howard wouldn’t let me stay there, he wanted stupid money and Blackpool couldn’t afford me. Then I was supposed to go to Cambridge and Stockport County in 1992, but Dorigo got injured and he said no, you’re not going. I’d shaken hands with Cambridge. It worked out a dream because Gordon Strachan then recommended me to Mark McGhee at Reading, and I won the league there with them.
“Howard wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I liked how he man managed his players, and the way he got the best out of his players. Obviously with Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds he had great success with the players that he had.
“I like the way he was direct with the players. If he didn’t like you he didn’t like you, and he’d tell you. He didn’t bullshit anything, and if he didn’t say it Mick Hennigan would say it. He never minced his words. You used to walk into Howard’s office and he’d have a chair and a settee, and if he told you to sit on his settee you sank down in it and he’d still be be up there — so you knew that you were in trouble. But if he made you sit on the chair you were alright. Then Mick Hennigan would leap in and you’d think, ‘Oh, shit.’ Luckily I wasn’t in there too many times — Noel Blake was in and out though, Blakey was always in there.
“Being part of that successful period at Leeds was not only a dream come true, but it gave me the motivation to become a coach myself. People didn’t always like Howard’s style, but it worked for him, and the way he worked with his players and the way he got the best out of his players, gave me the inspiration to do my coaching badges.”
Coaching has taken Kerr around the world again. Born in Malta, he’s now both played and managed in South Africa, coached in the USA, and Vietnam, where he attracted headlines for the improvements at his club Hải Phòng.
“There’s a lot of talent in Vietnam but it’s frustrating,” said Dylan, who also spent some time working with the national side. “The players haven’t been coached from a young age. They join football at 17, play through under-19, under-21, under-23 and then go professional, so everything’s a bit off the cuff. Some of the players didn’t know how to cross the ball to the far post or cross the ball to the near post — they just crossed it.
“I kept banging on that door and trying to get through to them that look, you’re the 154th ranked team in FIFA, which is not good enough. Spain are number one, and I’m trying to bring you stuff that Spanish teams do, what Barcelona do, what Leeds do, what Reading do, to make you better. But they just wanted to do a warm up and play a game — that’s the way they’ve been brought up.
“The players can play, but they’ve been taught that playing football is keeping the ball, they don’t keep the ball to try and score a goal. My team had more chances and more goal opportunities, probably ten to one over most teams we played, but the finishing and the technique would let them down. It would cost us in the end and we would hammer into them everyday, finishing, finishing finishing.”
Dylan’s message got through to the Hải Phòng players, though, as did the Sergeant Wilko approach to man management. In one article — roughly translated from the Vietnamese — defender Dinh Tien Thanh said: “With coach Dylan Kerr, team trainings are more scientific and interesting. He requires high, and very strict and professional on pitch. But in normal life, he’s humorous, easy going. Especially he knows how to inspire and motivate players.” The same article praised Kerr for bringing many players “back to life,” and said of his management, “A revolution has been quietly carried out.”
Between Leeds and Vietnam, and his current job as head under-18s coach at Chesterfield, were a Division Two winning spell at Reading, which would have been followed by promotion to the Premier League if runners-up had gone up that year, and a Scottish Cup win with Kilmarnock, along with injuries, controversies and a grand total of eighteen clubs in twenty years as a player. Leeds is still that bit more special though, and not just because Dylan got his hands on two trophies there.
“Those four years at Leeds, the city embraced the culture of player that we had then,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the same now, I don’t know if the players have got that same connection with the supporters. It was great at Leeds when you went in the players lounge and everybody was there: they didn’t leave, they talked to everybody.
“We used to go to the Observatory, and the one down the stairs — the Conservatory. We used to walk in a group, not ‘you go first’, a group. They were all characters, but they were genuine. Not one of them thought they were better than anybody else. Who was I? I wasn’t in the limelight, I was a reserve team player. But they respected me because they knew how good I was for them.
“I’ve never regretted it and I’ve never looked back and thought, I wish I’d done this or I wish I’d done that. I did everything I could, but at the end of the day I wasn’t good enough to get past Tony Dorigo, so there nothing I could do — I wasn’t good enough to knock Glynn Snodin out of his position. But when Howard needed me I was in the squad, and I was in every squad for four years. It was a great time, and would I have changed things? No.
“I’ve had my hands on the First Division, the Second Division, the Third Division, the Scottish Cup, Scottish Third Division, South African BP Top 8 — wherever I’ve been I’ve won things. And nobody can take that off me, because I was there.”
Updated from the article published in The Square Ball 2013/14, issue 9. Sign up here to get new articles by Moscowhite by email.
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