“There [were] a lot of critics talking about us but we’re back, so suck on that one!”
It was the line spoken in the heat of victory that cemented Sam Kerr’s status as one of Australia’s most iconic sporting figures, having just led the Matildas to a dramatic come-from-behind defeat of Brazil in the group stage of the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Kerr, who had just been made captain, clapped back to the media storm that had engulfed the Australian women’s national team in the months leading up to the tournament following the dismissal of former head coach Alen Stajcic.
The opaque circumstances of that moment led many commentators and fans to question the integrity and grit of the players themselves, adding an unnecessary extra burden to what was already a difficult period.
Indeed, the players had remained silent on the saga as they prepared for the tournament, telling various outlets that they were largely ignoring mainstream and social media discussions around the situation in an effort to move forward as a group.
Kerr’s comments following the Brazil game, then, were the first public acknowledgement that the Matildas were aware of the criticisms being levelled at them and that they were, in some ways, using the negative energy to fuel their own performances. The line even ended up on fan-made T-shirts.
Of course, those who really knew Sam Kerr were not surprised by her radical honesty: it is what made her a beloved figure in both Australia and the United States before her meteoric rise on the world stage.
In fact, it was Kerr’s outspokenness that led to a league-wide reckoning in the National Women’s Soccer League when she spoke out against the poor conditions being faced by former team-mates at Sky Blue FC, resulting, a few years later, in a total overhaul of the club’s finances and culture.
Sam Kerr’s voice, in other words, holds a lot of weight. Her unapologetic use of it over the years is partly why she has become so admired in the women’s game. And while she has not used it quite as emphatically or as characteristically as she used to – perhaps an unintended consequence of the rapid professionalisation of the sport and being so heavily brand-managed – the striker has, instead, done all her talking on the pitch.
While Kerr’s signing for Chelsea in November 2019 was widely touted as a watershed moment, her rusty early-season form – when she scored just once in her first seven games – resulted in an impatient media questioning whether she would sink or swim in her first European foray.
But now, having won a second consecutive FA Women’s Super League title, an FA Community Shield, a League Cup and a potential Uefa Women’s Champions League trophy, there is little doubt that Kerr has offered the most emphatic response yet to those critics, all without saying a word.
And with 21 goals in 22 games, out-performing even her own xG (17.53), Kerr added another individual trophy to her ever-expanding cabinet, also taking out the 2020-21 WSL Golden Boot award – her first in Europe and her sixth in the past five years, having won the same award in back-to-back seasons in both the W-League and NWSL since 2017.
She hasn’t just become more clinical in front of goal than ever before, though; she has also become more selfless, assisting seven of Chelsea’s 69 goals and creating 37 major chances for others. Alongside strike partner Fran Kirby, who herself scored 16 goals and assisted 11, the duo affectionately dubbed “Kerrby” have become one of the deadliest duos in the game – an even more impressive feat considering this is their first full season together.
“They just get each other,” Chelsea boss Emma Hayes told Sky Sports in March. “That’s not coached, that’s just trying to put them in the right spaces and they figure out the rest. They are talented, world-class players and I think all the praise is fully justified.”
Praise, too, should be directed towards Hayes and the long-term vision that has culminated in what may be the most dominant English women’s team in history. Nine years on from her first season with the club, Hayes has Chelsea on the verge of a quadruple – the first team to potentially do so since the 2006-07 vintage Arsenal Women, where Hayes was assistant – and could become the first woman coach to win the Champions League.
Kerr’s voice may no longer be as loud as it once was, but the same passion and character that inspired her “suck on that one” comment is the same that she has quietly channelled into her work on the pitch. It might not look as good on a T-shirt but that, in the end, is what she will be remembered for.