New Albion Rovers manager Brian Kerr is looking forward to getting started at Cliftonhill after stepping up from the clubs Under-20’s side this summer.
After Kerr went part-time in 2011, he began preparing for life after his playing career was over. Since then, he has built up his experiences at various youth levels, before eventually landing the hotseat this summer, at Cliftonhill.
“After I joined Arbroath, I had tentative thoughts about going in to coaching. I helped out a wee bit under Paul Sheerin – I took the Under-19’s group there for a few wee sessions. I then got a bit of a bad injury – that is when I started the process of getting my first coaching badge. I then joined Motherwell’s Academy, taking their Under-15’s for a couple of seasons. Then, at the beginning of last season the opportunity to take Albion Rovers’ Under-20’s came up and I felt that it was my next progression as that level is a bit more competitive and closer to first-team level. You get players from the first-team stepping down if they need game time, for example, and that made it more competitive as players are fighting for a starting spot on a Saturday and they are looking to impress. We were also involved in the Youth Cup and the Development League as well and that cranked everything up a level for me. I genuinely feel that the experiences I gained last season and adding it to the knowledge I have from playing the game, then I felt I was ready to take that next step again.”
“What Darren [Young] has managed to achieve at this club was excellent. There is no doubt, getting them into League One, keeping them there and sustaining their name in this league over the past couple of seasons is a great achievement. With the backing he got, it maybe made that role slightly easier, but, I would like to think that there is still room for improvement – I don’t feel that Albion have achieved everything they can. I feel we can continuing stepping forward; there is still places this club can go and I would like to think I can lead them to that next step,” adds 35-year-old Kerr.
A large turnover of players at Cliftonhill this season will see many new faces pull on the strip for the League One side this term.
“I was always looking at potential signings, in case I did get the job. I was looking to identify the right players, that could fit into my style, but, also, that were good for the changing room. I think with the signings I have ended up making, they’re players I have liked for a few seasons now. I have managed to put 3 or 4 of those guys in position already and I don’t envisage any issues in regards to them gelling together or anything. From what I have seen in the training sessions so far, we have made quite a bit of progress already. We are a tight-knit squad; it was something I was always wary of as good players don’t always blend well, but, I feel we have brought in the right types.”
Despite Rovers losing both their Ross Stewart’s, Kerr views this as a positive in the long-term.
“It sends out a message to players, it sends out a signal to the clubs above us that if they have to take a step back to try move two forward, that this is a club they can progress and develop at, as shown by those two guys. Or, on the other hand, guys at amateur, junior and League Two clubs might now look at us and realise that we are a viable option for them to continue progressing their career, by making that step, as it takes them a level or two closer to potentially going full-time. I think it is great for the club overall that the guys who have left have managed to make the move to such a massive club, such as St Mirren: that can only look good on us, that we have developed these guys to a standard good enough to make the step up the leagues. The challenge is, and we have put this to the players that we have brought in, to go and put themselves in a similar position next season.”
In contrast, a massive blow for Albion is to lose the defensive partnership of Ross and Mick Dunlop, who have signed for League Two club Stenhousemuir.
“Ross and Mick done a great job over the years,” says Kerr. “I’m not going to lie, I had concerns about Mick getting a year older but, they come as a pair, if you like, but, I felt we have managed to move on quickly. I am happy we have secured the signature of Jason Marr and we are looking at one or two very exciting partners this season for him to work alongside. I understand that people will be concerned as the Dunlop brothers and the club had a solid defensive partnership in place, but, I felt it was time for Albion Rovers as a club to move forward in a different direction in terms of how I want to play. I want the team to be slightly more higher up the pitch – I would like to do a lot of defending from the front as I felt last year we were defending a bit too deep for my liking.”
It could be argued that the players signed this summer are a step-up in quality from previous season.
“I would hope people will look upon the signings so far like that. When I spoke to the chairman about the job, and when I was interviewed for the job and asked if I would consider taking over, I said I would have but I told them I wasn’t interested in being a part of a relegation battle. The only way I was going to take over was if everyone in the club was willing to have a go. I wanted to get the right players in place and while we haven’t stretched the budget, as the budget at the club this season is pretty low, but, we have got these boys’ heads into what we are trying to achieve. Our ambition completely outweighs what we can offer players financially. For me, it is really, really, pleasing to see that these guys aren’t just in it for the money, they are in it to achieve things and they see Albion Rovers as trying to bring a more professional approach to a part-time level and we have brought in a lot of things to try put their minds at rest about what we are trying to do to improve the professionalism around the club. I think a lot of people are quite surprised we’ve put a Sports Scientist in place; we’ve got video analysis…we’ve put a lot of things in place that potentially, Premiership or top half of the Championship sides are doing. We have done this because we know that these small margins could be more beneficial to us than, for example, adding an extra player.”
Strikers Sean Higgins and Joao Vitoria have signed for Albion from Clyde and East Kilbride, respectively. Kerr, however, doesn’t want supporters to be concerned about the levels they have been signed from.
“It doesn’t matter how good a player is, if the surroundings and the personnel don’t suit, it wont work – look at Fernando Torres for example; banging the goals in for Liverpool, he goes to Chelsea and he can’t score. The level doesn’t matter because if these factors aren’t right, they won’t be able to play to their best. I feel that’ll be the case here. I know Joao has went to East Kilbride and banged goals in, but, I think Higgy had a stop start season last year – I don’t think he reached the heights I know he can having played alongside him before at Dundee. When you add in players like Alan Trouten, Graeme Holmes, [Gaty] Fisher, [Ross] Davidson and the quality link-up that we have there, the guys up front like Higgy, will shine. People at Clyde will probably be surprised with the difference in Higgy this season compared to last season, in my opinion.”
Kerr, having worked with the Under-20’s squad last season, sees a bright future for the youngsters in this coming campaign.
“I think it is vital that there is a pathway for younger players as well. I won’t be holding back any young player that is good enough for the first-team. It sometimes frustrates me when you see clubs with only 14 in their squad and a couple of empty spaces on the bench – especially when you know there is a backup option there with the Under-20’s. To me, they wouldn’t just be on the bench to make up the numbers, I fully believe in these guys – having worked with them for the whole of last year – that, if they were called upon, I trust them fully. If we have suspensions or injuries throughout the season, I know the quality these lads possess and I am not worried one bit if I need to give them their opportunity.”
Pre-Season is well underway for the Coatbridge side with new gaffer, Kerr, delighted with how things are going in the early stages.
“Their fitness results have been excellent: they have all came back, as most players do these days, in decent shape. We have been impressed with the quality we have seen when we got the football’s out. I know it is early but I am finding it difficult not to get excited about where we could potentially take ourselves. With a wee bit more fitness and when we are fully match sharp, I think we could surprise people at the position we find ourselves in. It has to be said, there are still 2 or 3 positions to be filled, but, once we have managed to get the next couple of boys in then I will be able to look forward to the season ahead. It is great to see how quickly the boys have gelled. It is a really good squad, they are all getting behind each other; it has been like that from day one, they have been encouraging each other to make sure they all get successfully through the running parts, so that is great to see because if they are working hard for each other in training, it will be great to see what it is like out on the pitch in similar situations. I think with the BetFred Cup coming around so quick, there isn’t a lot of time to prepare. When I spoke to our Sports Scientist, he was telling me it takes between 4 and 6 weeks for the players to reach peak fitness, so we will definitely be using the BetFred Cup as an extended fitness exercise, but, at the same time, we will be expecting the right things to be happening. Albion Rovers, obviously, can’t afford to turn their back on any opportunity to try and make a little bit extra money – hopefully, if we can qualify from the group, then, that’d be excellent as I understand that the club financially could be doing with a cup run or two, if possible. If we don’t progress, we will take out the good stuff and the bad stuff from those matches and make sure that we improve on they things when our bred and butter of the league comes around. I appreciate mistakes will happen as it is so early on in to the season but come the league campaign, that is where these results are really going to matter to a club like ourself.”
“I think the group we have been drawn into is very interesting,” says Kerr, on the BetFred Cup section he and Albion Rovers have been drawn into. “The Dunlop brothers and Mark Ferry are now at Stenhousemuir; Billy Stark has went to East Kilbride as manager while Hamilton is a local derby. It’ll be tough, but competitive. I feel Stenny have put a good squad together, whereas, East Kilbride are a bit of an unknown this year due to losing a few players but knowing Billy, he will have them well-drilled and well-organised. Hamilton being a Premiership club and Queen of the South also being full-time allows us to look forward to those games. There is no reason we can’t surprise people, but we know how difficult that will be. Missing out on match day one is fine for me. It gives us an extra 3, 4, 5 days to prepare. It allows us to do an extra bit of work on the Saturday at training as we have no game. Nearer the time, we might look at arranging a game – whether that be open or closed-doors as that’d allow us to work further on our shape and the technical aspect of the game too.”
Kerr feels home advantage can count against Hamilton when the Accies visit Coatbridge later on next month.
“I think away fans coming to our place will view it as not a very enjoyable place to be. The away dressing room isn’t very welcoming! From my point of view, when you are a smaller club, if you get any opportunity to play a Premiership club then you realistically want it to be at your own venue; it allows for the genuine prospect of an upset and that then allows the club to attract a good crowd. It won’t be easy, I understand Hamilton are an established Premiership team, but, when our fans get behind us, it can help us get that wee extra bit out of the players to get us over the line and cause an upset. These games, when they are so early and a lot of teams treat it as if it is pre-season, then you can get unrealistic results that give a false impression of the season ahead. There is no doubt that if you can get a few decent results in these games then confidence and momentum will build, but so will the expectation levels. If that was to happen though, it is because people can see, and believe, in what you are trying to do and that can only be a positive. Playing the full-time sides is a great early season indicator but unfortunately, positive results in these games don’t help us in League One, but what it can do is breed a confidence and a belief that we can take in to the league campaign to get a good, positive, start.”
Kerr describes this season’s League One as the “toughest” he has seen in a long time.
“All three full-time clubs will all be in the same boat, they will all say they want to win the league. However, we have seen over the past few years how tight this league can get. I don’t see that changing this season; we will still see everyone being capable of beating everybody else. A team can go on a wee run and find themselves second or third but then 3 or 4 weeks later they find themselves battling down in the relegation area, so, I expect this year to be much of a muchness with no team running away with it early on. I know last season Livingston did in the end, but, for long spells Brechin, Alloa and Airdrieonians were all up challenging but Livi’s strength and depth paid off in the end, I think. I want us to be up there, challenging. Until anybody can show me differently, I fully believe we can be up there challenging and battling it out with the other sides to win the league or worst case scenario, get into the promotion play-offs. There will be no stone left unturned to get them ready for the season ahead; if we can get the quality from the players I mentioned earlier, I have no doubt that we can go toe-to-toe against any individual and group of players in this league, this season. It is about being consistent. Hopefully we can steer clear of too many injuries as I won’t be content with just scraping by and getting to safety, I wouldn’t class that as a success for me.”
Kerr takes comfort from the fact that other part-time sides such as Dumbarton and Brechin have shown in recent seasons that the Championship is a realistic goal for sides within League One.
“Dumbarton a few years ago and then Brechin last season, with both finishing fourth and going up via the play-offs, it shows that any team is more than capable if they can get consistency throughout a season. If teams can be competitive and get it down to the last three or four games, then, as long as you pick up the right results at the right time you could then get yourselves into that vital area of automatic promotion and play-offs. When it gets to that stage in the season, you need your experienced players to come to the fore and I feel that is what we’ve got. Yes, we have youth, however, they want to improve and get better, but, we can compliment that with guys who have been there and done that before. Some of these players also have a point to prove to certain people and certain clubs and that always helps as an added incentive to go and do well.”