The Australian on returning to Wembley for the FA Cup final, ducking joining Chelsea sooner and how England has changed her
Sam Kerr loves the biggest stages. Few players thrive in the most intense spotlights but the Australian seems to feed off the pressure. “I’m a bit of a risk taker,” says Kerr, who showboats on the pitch but is incredibly down-to-earth off it. “I love that feeling of being on the edge and that’s what those big moments are for.”
Last summer Kerr chested down a long ball and slotted past Ellie Roebuck with two minutes remaining to force extra time in Australia’s quarter-final against Team GB at the Tokyo Olympics. Australia won 4-3, Kerr scoring their second and fourth goals. In December the 28-year-old scored twice in Chelsea’s 3-0 demolition of Arsenal at Wembley to lift the Covid-postponed 2021 FA Cup.
“That was one of the best experiences of my life, honestly,” she says. “Just the whole London derby thing was awesome to do at Wembley and having fans and friends and family back in the stadium after Covid times was really special.”
On 21 January Kerr scored five times in Australia’s 18-0 rout of Indonesia in their opening Asian Cup game, overtaking Tim Cahill as the country’s record goalscorer.
The day after her return from the tournament in India, which she says “elevated her confidence”, the forward came off the bench as a depleted Chelsea beat Manchester United 3-1 in the League Cup semi-finals. Then, after a 0-0 draw with Arsenal that ensured Chelsea would win the league if they did not drop a point, Kerr’s form was unsurpassed. She scored 11 goals across eight of the nine remaining league games, including a 90th-minute winner against Aston Villa and a nerve-easing swift opener against Everton three days later.
Then she put 10-player Chelsea ahead against Tottenham as they came from behind to win 3-1. “We went down to 10 and I kid you not, in that changing room it was just calmness, no one’s stressed,” she says. “I’ve never been a part of the team like that. We didn’t have one player stressing, the coach didn’t stress, we all knew it was going to be fine.”
Four days later, in the reverse fixture, she scored the winner in a 2-1 defeat of Spurs. Finally, she hit two stylish and audacious volleys as Chelsea twice came from behind to lift the title on the final day with a 4-2 defeat of Manchester United. There was one thing she wasn’t risking against United, her trademark backflip celebration not an option. “I got too excited, and I can’t do it when I’m too excited; I’ll break my back,” she says with a laugh.
On Sunday, Kerr steps out at Wembley again, as Chelsea take on Manchester City, who beat them in the Continental League Cup final, in this season’s FA Cup final. “I’d play there every week if I could,” she says. “It’s a beautiful stadium. When the fans pack it out it’s an amazing experience. Any time you go to Wembley it’s an important game, so I love playing there. And look, sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t, but the most important thing is that I do everything this week so that I know that I’ve done everything in my power to perform on the day.”
There is an added boost on Sunday for Kerr. “My brother, two friends, my mum and dad and some family that live in Milton Keynes are coming,” she says. “They all weren’t going to come and then they thought: ‘Stuff it, what are you saving your money for?’ You never know when your next time at Wembley will be.”
Kerr brims with confidence. After Chelsea lifted the title, she said that visualising scoring in the big moments was important to keeping her calm when those scenarios play out. Retaining a cool head is important because Kerr is more tightly marked than she was in the NWSL in the US or the W-League in Australia.
“That’s one of the reasons why I came to this league: because I wanted to expand my game play,” she says. “I am being closely marked here but if they’re double-marking me or man-marking me then there’s someone else free and that’s the amazing thing about this team – everyone is allowed to be the best version of themselves on the field and if I’m having a bad game normally someone else is having a worldie.
“This league has made me better and it’s made me transform into a different type of player, a smarter player. I love the challenge of it. That’s why I love the big games: you get right on the cusp of doing something amazing and I love that feeling.”
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Kerr is settled in London after two and a half seasons but could have been there sooner, having been tracked by Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes. The opportunity to choose her destination was a strange one, with trading between NWSL teams without player input commonplace.
“Most of the time, at a new club I’ve met the coach when I found out that they had traded for me, with that not always being my first option. But I spoke to Emma two years before I chose to come here. The year before I was close but then I chickened out a little bit. I thought: ‘I’ve got one more year to win some stuff in the NWSL.’ I felt like I hadn’t really closed that chapter yet.”
In January 2020 the timing was right and Kerr got to see whether the manager she had spoken to was different from the one at training. “Over the phone it was a little bit more serious,” she says. “She was trying to impress me and I was trying to impress her. Once I visited Chelsea and got to actually meet her, the relationship relaxed a little bit.
“She’s just really forward with me. I’m not someone that likes to beat around the bush. She just tells me how it is, and I tell her how it is and we just have this mutual respect”
Both teams on Sunday have momentum, City having clinched the third Champions League spot after an injury-affected first half of the season. “Whenever there’s a trophy on the line, this team lifts,” says Kerr. “I thought after the win on the weekend we’d probably have a relaxation day but we’ve been straight back into it, straight back to work, and that just shows where the club wants to go, where the team wants to go, and where individuals want to go.”