You won’t have heard of Darren Kerr. You might not even have heard of Dalbeattie Star, the Lowland League team which plays its football a thirty-minute drive from Dumfries. But it’s in this unlikely combination that Hearts fans can perhaps look to for some reassurance over their own managerial situation.
Ian Cathro, lest we forget, became Heart of Midlothian’s new manager in December. He came with a CV boasting spells a coach at Newcastle, Valencia and Rio Ave. But he was untried as a manager, with no experience as a player and, at 30 years of age, was seen by some media critics as too young and inexperienced to take on such a high-profile role.
If his appointment was contentious, his results as Hearts boss have done little to assuage those with concerns, justifiable or otherwise. Four league wins in twelve and a defeat – in a replay – to Hibernian is as disappointing a start as Cathro might have feared.
But there is hope for Cathro and the Hearts support to cling to. Give him time and support and he’ll come good. That’s the message from the aforementioned Darren Kerr anyway.
“I don’t think it’s as big a gamble as some made out, says Kerr. “I think Hearts have made the right decision but they need to give him time and let him bring in the right players.”
Kerr is speaking from experience. At only 28 years of age – two years younger than Cathro – he became Dalbeattie Star manager, despite no managerial experience, and with some voicing doubts over whether he had the right temperament. That was in 2015.
“There were folk saying I’d never be able to do it. I’ve not always covered myself in glory and folk were just waiting for me to fail,” he says of the reaction to his appointment in some quarters.
Unlike the serious, sometimes awkward, Cathro, Kerr is a more effervescent character. To use an outdated 90’s movie reference, Kerr would be American Pie’s party-going Steve Stifler to Cathro’s buttoned-up Paul Finch. As such, to some looking in, the responsibility of manager might have seemed an ill-fit.
Coaching had always been an interest to Kerr though. “While I was at Threave [Rovers] I was coaching the Under-15’s Queen of the South team, so coaching was always something I was keen on. After I left Threave I went to Dalbeattie. I was struggling to get games, if I’m honest, so I started taking the warm-up and helping in training.”
When the manager who’d brought him, Paul McGinley, left at the end of the 2014/15 season, Kerr found himself at the front of the queue to replace him.
“Paul decided to step aside and he put me forward [for the position]. He said I’d be more than capable and that I had enough experience from working with him. He told the board they should have nothing to fear [in appointing me]”
“The chairman and committee were happy enough to take me on but, most importantly, the players were all willing to play for me and that’s what made the decision a bit easier. The players all said ‘we want to stay if you’re going to be the manager’. When the board offered me the job I felt it was the right time to take it.”
At 28, Kerr became the youngest manager in the Lowland League. Kerr’s first issue was an age-old problem for players transitioning into management though; the shift in the dressing room from team-mate to authority figure.
“I found [the transition] difficult; getting away from the pals act. All of a sudden, I was the man in charge and my decisions were final, which was difficult at times when the boys were more relaxed with me. I had to change the way I reacted to them. So, when we’d been very average in one game I went off the rails with them. A few weeks later they turned round and said that’s what we needed; a break from the pal’s act. It took a bad performance and a couple of home truths.”
In Kerr’s first season, Star finished ninth of sixteen teams. This season, the side have kicked on and, at time of writing, are challenging the University of Stirling for fourth place and a spot in next season’s SPFL Challenge Cup. Kerr believes he’s learned lessons from the first season and it’s now paying dividends.
“I took quite a bit of responsibility for finishing ninth last season. The league finish was maybe down to my inexperience – there were games away from home where we were getting a draw but I wanted to win and we ended up losing a lot of points.
“I’m more aware [this season] of the qualities of the teams we’re coming up against. Last year I was maybe a wee bit naïve. This year we’re maybe a bit more cautious and when we go to places we work on the shape in training beforehand”
Star currently sit behind only three clubs – Spartans, East Stirlingshire and East Kilbride. Given that two of these clubs – Spartans and East Kilbride – have taken SPFL scalps in the Scottish Cup and East Stirlingshire are spending their first season in Non-League after relegation from League Two last term, it’s an impressive achievement for a small, unheralded team such as Star to be in the hunt for the final Challenge Cup spot. “We’re punching above our weight,” agrees Kerr.
The manager, who works as a self-employed plumber away from Islecroft Stadium, feels that he was in a better position over his second summer transfer window to request improvements to the player pool. Last season’s was, to his mind, not strong or deep enough to push for a tilt at the top four, but the squad was suitably augmented and the results are evident on the pitch.
Kerr credits much of his progress to the help and guidance he’s received from the club.
“I’ve got a really good relationship with the chairman, he says. “It’s maybe taken a wee bit extra from the club to help me out and get the players we needed, but the chairman’s backed me and done it.”
“Given the season we’ve had so far we’d be disappointed if we didn’t finish in the top four this year and qualify for the Challenge Cup. That was the aim at the start of the season so we’re there or thereabouts.”
As for the future, Kerr is keen to develop as a manager and add to his coaching badges, but knows that he has time on his side.
“I’d love to eventually get to a higher level but, for now, I’m really happy with where I am and what we’re doing. I only turned 30 at the turn of the year so I feel like I’ve got time to concentrate and keep my feet on the ground at this level.”
Despite the differences in levels, there are parallels between the situation two of Scotland’s youngest managers – Kerr and Cathro – have found themselves in. Kerr’s improvements this year are perhaps a lesson that giving a young manager time and support will ultimately pay dividends.
Written by Andy Harrow