Remembering John Kerr and his gloriously genuine soccer emotions

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.

17 comments about "Remembering John Kerr and his gloriously genuine soccer emotions".
  1. Paolo Jacobs, June 21, 2011 at 6:04 a.m.

    Great Article Paul.... I remember that name in the old NASL, a legend in his times

  2. erik harrington, June 21, 2011 at 8:18 a.m.

    I only knew John for about 10 months but this article describes him perfectly. John was my son's U13 coach this past year. While we didn't always agree he was certainly knowledgeable and entertaining. While there were many, one of my favorites comments from him this year was his reaction to parents enthusiasm on the sideline after a near goal, "Look at them all yelling great effort, nice try!. They should be yelling WHAT THE F*** WAS THAT!" He was a character for sure.

  3. Richard White, June 21, 2011 at 9:33 a.m.

    I saw John play for the Cosmos and the Diplomats many times. My Annadale team, Rebels, and John's Pinto's (starting at 8 years old to 18 years) played each other so many times and always competitive, 50% wins/losses over the years. Played against John in an over 30 league. John was a gentleman, always competetive and a pleasure to play against. RIP John.
    Richard White

  4. Mike Gaire, June 21, 2011 at 10:47 a.m.

    I never knew John Kerr, but I did have the pleasure and priveledge of meeting Dominic Kinnear's Father at a San Jose Earthquakes Open Cup game when we part of the handful of Quakes fans that went to the Game. He was wearing his Celtic Green, as he always did. I instantly liked him and I am sure you would have done too. The reason I warmed to him almost immediatly was not only the Glaswegian accent but the striking resemblance to my own Grandfather. I was very happy about the fact that we had a moment of silence for him at Spartan Stadium when he passed away. A very fitting tribute to one of Glasgow Celtic's most loyal sons!

  5. Georges Edeline, June 21, 2011 at 10:58 a.m.

    Our condolences to John Kerr, Jr., and the rest of the family!
    The soccerge world will definitely miss John, and we all thank him for all of his contributions to the growth of soccer in the US of A.
    May his soul rest in peace!
    Our thoughts and prayers will include the Kerr family!
    Georges Edeline

  6. Mark Demling, June 21, 2011 at 12:35 p.m.

    John was a great competitor and true friend of soccer players looking for simple rights and protection. I worked with John as a player rep in the old NASL, when owners were constantly pulling visas and signing athletic trainers and equipment people as American players when you had to sign American players. He fought hard and honestly for simple rights of all players, not just American ones. The soccer community has lost a 5' 3" giant.

  7. Matthew Ferry, June 21, 2011 at 1:06 p.m.

    I played for John at both the youth level and men’s league level. I met him for the first time when I was 15 years old and I was getting a lift with Doug Davies to train with the old Washington Stars off Rte. 50 in Fairfax County, VA and I look back on the experience and the lessons I learned and the people I met and the friendships I garnered and 20+ years later, I can say without a doubt that my life is better because I knew him and better because I played for him. There wasn’t much gray with John, people either really liked him or had no time for him but the majority of people I came across fell into the former category. There was never a question of his passion for the game, but it was his passion for sharing the game and teaching it the right way that will always remain with me. I have memories of playing as an 18 year old with his Spartans team in the Greek-American Cup at the old Metropolitan Oval stadium in Queens on that horrible sand pitch to playing in some sort of barbed wire cage at a local high school in Bridgeport, Conn in the US Open Cup that will be with me forever. He wanted the game played a certain way but he knew there were times that you had to grind a result out because things just weren’t clicking. If you were winning 2-0, he wanted 3, if you got 3, he wanted 4. He asked for commitment and he wasn’t afraid to tell you when it wasn’t good enough while at the same time making certain you knew when it was. His team talks were inspirational and you never doubted that he believed in you and he was interested in how to collectively motivate the group while also interested in how to motivate each individual. All of these tools and lessons from the game can be applied to life and to your job and to your family and similar to how winning coaches of the past Super Bowl champions or NBA championships get asked to write books about taking the motivational tools/skills from sport to business, John’s pre-training and pre-game talks did the same thing. He had an uncanny ability to recognize and understand his audience and craft the message so people could understand what he was asking for in terms and ideas that were relevant to the people being asked to do the job. Moreover, he was a student of the game and of team dynamics. My father always said that John could sell ketchup popsicles to women wearing white gloves but it was more than his humor and wit, it was his love for the game and all that came with it. I am truly saddened by his loss but I know I am a better person for knowing him.

  8. randy horton, June 21, 2011 at 7:18 p.m.

    An excellent article Paul<,as I would expect from you which aptly speaks to John's value to football(soccer)in the USA.I thoroughly enjoyed playing with John and the Cosmos.He was truly a team player and while ,in his typical style,he was sometimes harsh on teammates but ALWAYS in interest of team improvement.My condolences to John Jr and the rest of his family.May God bless you. I would love to know when memorial services will be held.

  9. John Cary, June 21, 2011 at 8:25 p.m.

    Through our experiences my wife and I were lucky to have an international house guest good enough to play on one of John's men's teams 8 or 9 years ago. I was in turn lucky enough that he allowed me to practice with the team although I was 45 years old and not good enough to play high school soccer. Never have I met someone who could say so much with so few words - or even no words. Harsh, colorful, completely dismissive of anyone not having the right (i.e., his) attitude. He had a knack for saying exactly enough and no more. In an entire practice he might speak two sentences to the team, while he chatted with friends or spectators on the sideline. But one eye was ALWAYS on the practice, and he saw EVERYTHING. He was one of the best coaches and favorite people I have ever met; one of very few people who has had a major positive influence on my life as an adult. I have many "favorite" quotes, but a typical one was when a player once said to a teammate in practice, "My bad". after making a bad pass - John jumped on that like a dog on a steak. "'My bad?!?!' - What the heck is that, 'my bad???' I HATE that 'my bad'!! Fer hecks sake, joost get it right!" (...Edited heavily for family content. It is not remotely possible to reproduce either the vocabulary, the accent or the emotion here in writing...) He definitely focussed heavily on "getting it right". He really considered soccer the beautiful game, but also acknowledged that it all starts with winning. He also believed in letting the players play and figure it out for themselves as much as possible in practice, and it seemed to me that the players really liked playing for him despite the pressure. I have not seen him in 5 years, but we all will miss him dearly. Just a totally unique man who loved people, loved soccer, loved life.

  10. Robert Kiernan, June 21, 2011 at 11:03 p.m.

    Truly sad news, I got to see him play back in the day with both the COSMOS and Washington... I was one of those few out there paying to see these guys well before PELE and the circus came to town...and I remember him well, a scrappy wing mid player who was fun to watch... I have memories of getting to Hofstra and to Randall's Island to watch and hurl some abuse at the other side, and He will always be one of those guys I could see play later in the fall with a German American League side... it was a very different "pro" league back then but he was and always be one of the guys I flash back on when I think of seeing the COSMOS as a teenager... along with Siggy and Barry Mahy and Gordon Bradley, he was one reason to come and watch the game and I thank him for that... it's lasted a lifetime.

  11. John Munnell, June 22, 2011 at 8:21 a.m.

    Great tribute, Paul. "Sneaky, cheeky bastard" comes to mind when I remember John. I had the pleasure of playing against him for some years in one of the indoor leagues here in Virginia. Enjoyed playing him, enjoyed beating him. Or to echo almost everyone above, I just enjoyed knowing him. Sad to know he's gone.

  12. charlie mitchell, June 22, 2011 at 12:27 p.m.

    Magic artical Paul. Johnny Kerr was the one that brougt me to the USA to play for the Rochester Lancers. Over the years i thanked him many times as it enabled to continue on to a successful career in the NASL.
    My thoughts are with his family.
    To Johnny AWE THE BEST WEE MAN and thanks

  13. Alan Merrick, June 30, 2011 at 8:52 a.m.

    Taking on the Union Representative duties in Minnesota I had many interactions with John Sr. during the NASL player unionization. His drive and passion was key for leveling the playing field, thus increasing the chances of American players emerging in the league. John was a proud man who stood tall and fought with energy twice his height and weight. I am proud to have been in his inner circle for a short time and smile as I see the USISL, the New NASL, the MLS and United States Men’s National team do so many wonderful things, truly a reflection of the ground work done by John Sr. all those years ago. He is a North American Soccer Icon and should be given much credit for his contribution to the game, “he made the game better” by all of his actions and endeavors in Canada and the United States. Much strength to the Kerr family, draw from John’s legacy, my sincere condolences’ to you all.
    Former NASL player and MISL Coach Alan Merrick.

  14. tommy mcleod, July 14, 2011 at 3:25 p.m.

    was a good friend of john,s in canada as we were both from glasgow snd played together in toronto and hamilton
    my wife and i were best man and bridesmaid at johns wedding to his first wife rena ,mother of john jr and john was best man and rena bridesmaid at my wedding when i marrid my wife christina.he was indeed quite a character and will be sorely missed by all who knew him.
    his son john jr iknow will have a hard time for a while getting over his dad's passing. keep the chin up son and remember all the good times.
    awra best
    tommy mcleod.

  15. duncan beattie, July 22, 2011 at 2:13 p.m.

    Shocked to hear of John's passing. I was part owner and General Mgr of Hamilton Steelers of the Eastern Canada Pro League. I signed John from Partick Thistle in 1963. He was 18, had great natural ability and played for Hamilton until the formation of The NASL in 1968 transferred him to Detroit Cougars who only lasted one year. John was the leagues MVP 3 years out of 5 My condolences to John Jr. and his family. A wonderful wee man.

  16. john stebbins, August 26, 2011 at 11:59 p.m.

    Johnny Kerr was the soccer coach with Gorden Murry of the Montgomery United Pintos, for which my son Peter was a player. A pair of Scotsmen who knew and loved the game. John Jr and Bruce and Sterling Murry were teammates. The team played in a tough beltway league and traveled to many tourneys. It was a great fun for all. The team prevailed many times with a precision passing attack and dogged defense often against bigger an stronger opponents. The lessons were lengthy before, halftime and post game. Practices were innovative: volley ball net soccer, Johnny leading the them skipping around the field... I remember Johnny giving me pointers while watching a Cosmos-Argentina game, exclaiming over the way Marodona was always able to trap and pass the ball accurately often with an opponent hanging on him. How Chignalia had such composure in the goal area. He was sure that the Cosmos had begged the Argentines to go easy on them. He was a player for the Washington Diplomats, and although past his prime, he played his heart out. Our family was outraged when he was cut mid-loosing-season and we sent a letter to the "Post" castigating the coach. Peter and Bruce were in the vanguard of American players to play for Clemson's Coach Ibrahim Ibrahim and helped win the National Championship in 1984. Bruce went on to another Championship in 1986 and was the National Herman Trophy winner; and is now a soccer instructor in the Greenville, SC area. Peter has coached little league teams in the Greenville, SC area. John Jr. went to Duke, was on a National Championship-winning team and had a long career as a professional player, became the coach of Harvard's team, and is now the coach of Duke's. Johnny Kerr leaves an inspiring legacy!

  17. Mary Jane Sizer, November 26, 2011 at 6:33 p.m.

    Matthew Ferry's dad is correct. I babysat for "Wee John" when John and Rena lived in Alexandria. He sold Smith Corona typewriters when he wasn't playing for the Darts. My Dad said he could sell snow to the Eskimos. My sister and I had such a crush on him...he could have sold us anything!! I was shocked to read of his death. Does anyone know how Rena died? She was very sweet...used to sneak cigs when she'd pick me up to babysit for them. Even at 14, I realized she was homesick and liked the girltalk we'd have when John wasn't around. I didn't know them long (3 years or so) but will miss them both.

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