By Paul Gardner
As the soccer world swirls frantically around me -- the Gold Cup is climaxing, the European under-21s are at a crucial stage, the U-17 World Cup is just beginning, MLS is giving us nine games a week -- as all that activity engulfs me, occupying every waking minutes, suddenly, today, came word that John Kerr was dead.
News that immediately swept the noisy bustle of soccer from my mind, that dismissed the Gold Cup as a matter of importance, that reduced the U-17 World Cup to trivial dimensions.
Shock and sadness will quickly reshape your world, and I have been thinking of John for the past few hours. Thinking of the lovely lines:
They brought me bitter news to hear,
And bitter tears to shed ...
John Kerr, whom I first met in 1971, in the locker rooms under Yankee Stadium. The Cosmos, in their first-ever home game, had just been beaten the Washington Darts 1-0, the goal was scored from a free kick by Siggy Stritzl. I asked Kerr -- who knew Stritzl from local ethnic soccer -- what he thought of Stritzl. And Kerr, with that wonderfully boyish impish grin, with all his Glaswegian fluency in colorful language, replied “I went up to him before the kick, and I told him he’d better not effing score from it. So the little @@$$!!er did, and I ran after him shouting at him ...” -- well the rest of it wouldn’t even get printed in today’s much more open-minded press.
But the atrocious language was part of John’s charm, which I loved. The following year, Kerr joined the Cosmos and was the key player in their winning the championship. More importantly to me, he was my key player when it came to postgame locker-room visits, the ever cheerful, ever mischievous chatter box who plied me with anecdotes and soccer knowledge all highly flavored with appalling barrack-room swearing and irresistible good humor.
That lasted just one year. In what was a very unusual move for the time, the Mexicans came calling and whisked John off to play or Club America. I think he must have been the only player from those early days of the NASL who attracted foreign interest. Before Pele, before Beckenbauer, before Carlos Alberto -- John Kerr was the first Cosmos international star!
Kerr was back with the Cosmos in 1973, for half a season, but he wasn’t the same, he’d had his golden season, he was now nearing 30, no longer a regular starter -- but he was still the person I made a bee line for when I got into the locker room.
The sad thing is that I couldn’t use his wonderful assessments of his players at the time, and I’m not going to use them now. He had a superbly realistic insight into his teammates, possibly it was cruel at times, but it was always damn funny.
In December 1976 I was in Haiti for a crucial World Cup qualifying playoff between the USA and Canada. In the Canadians’ hotel I was surprised to be greeted with full Glaswegian linguistic honors by none other than Kerr himself, this Scot now a naturalized Canadian. At age 33, the oldest player on the field, Kerr played a fine first half (at one point, I recall him outpacing the American defense to reach a through ball and turn it into a dangerous cross) as the Canadians won the game 3-0 and put an end to American hopes of playing in the 1978 World Cup. Kerr, visibly wilting in the heat, had been replaced just before halftime, but after the game he thumped my shoulder and told me “Not bad for an effing old man, eh?”
And maybe that was the last I heard of Kerr the saucy-tongued Glaswegian soccer player. John left New York, spent a couple of years with the Washington Diplomats, and drifted out of my life, which was all the duller for his absence.
The next thing I knew, he was busy organizing the NASL players’ union. He turned up one day in New York, wearing a suit, probably the first time I ever saw him dressed like that, and invited himself to lunch in my apartment (though he did bring a prodigious slab of cheese with him). The talk now was of the untrustworthiness of the NASL owners, and their attempts to underpay their players, particularly the Americans.
Suddenly, I had a vision of Kerr as the typical Scottish socialist agitator, the dock-worker busy organizing the union against the cruel capitalist bosses -- it seemed to fit, and I liked to imagine John in that role -- and that was how I continued to view him.
It was a role I respected, but we fell out later when the players' union, financed by the NFL players union, took MLS to court with what I considered was a ludicrously flimsy case. It looked to me as though John’s union was doing the NFL’s bidding, and John strongly objected to my printing that.
While John was, to my regret, fading from my life, I got to know his son John Jr. better, going to England to watch him play at Harrow Boro in suburban London, then over to Northern Ireland to see him with Linfield, and in 1994 I saw him score a hat trick for second-division Millwall.
There was, still is, so much of John Sr. in John Jr. ... that perky grin and those not-quite mocking eyes, and the feeling that you're under the microscope from a penetrating intelligence. There was never anything hostile in that attitude -- or maybe I was too thick to read it that way -- and always I found meetings with John Sr. -- and more lately with John Jr. -- highly pleasing.
John Sr. -- the old man -- knew his soccer. He liked, as did I, the traditional Scottish “keep it on the carpet” game full of ball skills. And that was the way he played. He called me one day in the mid-1980s to ask if I’d seen Duke University lately -- where John Jr. was now playing. I had, said I thought they looked not bad, and that they were highly ranked in the country, and so on ... “Oh ay,” he said, “Maybe ... but they’re still crap!” (Sorry about that John Jr., but you’ll have had plenty of paternal criticism, no doubt?)
John Kerr, a soccer man through and through, the sport was in his bones, in his blood -- and in his language too, I guess. If only, if only we had more such people today -- people who can talk and think about the game from their own experience, who can form their own experience-based opinions, who can delight or irritate you with genuine insights.
Forget all that passion crap that we get shoveled into us these days by the feather brains from the marketing departments. John had soccer as a companion throughout his life, he loved it and he hated it all the time, he rejoiced in its glories, despaired with its stupidities and failures. All the soccer emotions were there (but not the artificially hyped “passion”) and they were gloriously genuine, they were warm and exciting, always irresistible.
Even though I wasn’t close to John in his later years, I shall miss him -- as the sport must miss him. It was an honor to have known him, to have talked and talked and talked with him, to have argued with him. I will complete the poetic lines I began above, maybe they’re not literally true, but as a tribute to John, and what I think he stood for, they tell just how I feel right now ...
They brought me bitter news to hear,
And bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking,
And sent him down the sky.