All Leeds United fans dream of playing on the hallowed Elland Road turf. For Dylan Kerr, who went to his first Leeds game at the age of four, the fantasy came true 17 years later.
While perhaps better known for his later trophy-winning spells at Reading and Kilmarnock, defender Kerr spent four years at Leeds during the title-winning tenure of Howard Wilkinson. In a diverse football career which has also taken him to South Africa and Vietnam, many of his best memories stem from his playing days in West Yorkshire.
“The day I signed was a dream come true,” says Kerr, still visibly proud of the memory. “My dad was a mad Leeds fan and I’d been to lots of games with him as a kid, where I was lucky enough to see Bremner, Clarkey and Mick Jones play. It’s a historically huge club and so signing for them was a massive, massive moment.”
The contract offer came as a surprise; he had spent three years of relative obscurity playing in South Africa after being released by Sheffield Wednesday as not good enough. “I returned to England every Christmas to see my family. I knew Howard Wilkinson from my time at Wednesday and he let me train at Leeds for four weeks.
“I hoped for a contract but I was told it wouldn’t happen and to go back to South Africa. So I left and played a game for Frickley Athletic for fifty quid, which could get you 20 pints back then! A day later I got a phone call asking why I was playing for them when I was signing a contract with Leeds tomorrow.”
Sadly for Kerr, despite the club’s u-turn, he was kept out of the first team by a truly extraordinary crop of players and for most of his spell he had the ever-consistent Tony Dorigo ahead of him. In four years he made only 13 first-team appearances.
“In a football career, it’s all about luck and timing. I’d hoped to have the opportunity to play left midfield rather than left-back. Gary Speed, God rest his soul, got that opportunity, took his chance and went on to achieve extraordinary things.”
Despite questioning what might have been, Kerr has few regrets: “Yes I didn’t play many games, but in a small way I’d like to think I was good for them, as I was a big part of that group of players.
“Me, Speed, Mike Whitlow, Simon Grayson and Dave Batty were thick as thieves. We’d go out on Wednesdays and Saturdays, go to parties, have a laugh, play golf. We did everything together.
“Leeds had great players then, but it was never about individuals. We had players come in like Strachan, who is the most normal guy in football, and David Rocastle from Arsenal who was an absolute gentleman.” Kerr says the unity instilled by Wilkinson was the major factor in the club’s success: “A lot of people in football disliked Howard’s tactics, but at the end of the day it’s all about creating togetherness, winning games and leagues and Howard knew how to do that very well. If you get that mentality in players you’ll be successful.”
He has brought Wilkinson’s philosophy to his own burgeoning managerial career. After retiring as a player, he returned to South Africa as an assistant coach to Sammy Troughton, once of Wolves, for two years before moving to Vietnam in 2012, again as a number two. Last January, he finally got the chance at the top job, when he was named manager of Hai Phong, a struggling team in the country’s top division. He seized his moment, delivering the club’s first silverware in six years with victory in the Vietnamese FA Cup.
Football is hugely popular in Vietnam, with almost any street corner or free patch of grass likely to be turned into an impromptu football pitch at any moment. However, the game is relatively undeveloped and tactical knowledge is seldom taught. To help him adapt, Kerr kept in regular contact with his old mentors for advice: “Me and Howard email constantly and Strachan gave me some tips as well. When I was having a tough spell he told me not to let the pressure get to me. I said ‘you should try that in Vietnam, Gordon!’”
Despite the pressures of management – and Vietnam has its fair share of interfering chairmen, unscrupulous agents and inpatient supporters – Kerr is clearly in love with coaching. “At Hai Phong the squad I inherited was one of the worst in the division, but I eventually got my ideas across and had them playing some really nice stuff. Most of all I showed them the importance of uniting as a team, like I saw with Howard at Leeds.” It was this togetherness which inspired his unfancied team to cup glory in August.
Fiercely ambitious, Kerr reluctantly decided to leave Hai Phong in search of a new challenge. He will be missed by the team’s avid fan base, once of the most passionate in the country, who quickly took to their fiery foreign manager. “The fans there are really special. If they were drinking iced tea in street and saw me, they’d shout my name out and I’d join them for a chat… as long as we were winning!” Their football fervour reminded him of his time at Leeds, whose supporters he describes as “absolutely superb”.
“The noise that used to come from the Gelderd End was out of this world. We knew that if we got them signing as early as possible, it was like we’d already got a goal against the other team. They deserve much more than what they’ve had recently. For me, Leeds have to be a Premiership team.”
Kerr hopes that Massimo Cellino will be the man to take them there. “The most important thing now is the performance of the coach; Leeds really need the right man to make them proud again.”
He himself wants to manage in England when the right opportunity comes along. Bolstered by a cup win on his CV and armed with his UEFA A Licence (which he trained for alongside Jose Mourinho), he has set his heights high.
Who knows? With coaching vacancies hardly a rarity at the Whites and the colourful Cellino in charge, one day Kerr may get the opportunity to return to the club where he first made his name.
Stranger things have happened at Elland Road in recent times, and Kerr knows better than most that dreams can come true.