This weekend, women’s football giants Arsenal and Chelsea will face-off in the Continental Cup final at Nottingham Forest’s historic City Ground. While both have enjoyed a healthy rivalry over the past few years and met in several FA Cup finals, it will be the first time they have met in the final of England’s second cup competition.
There’s more at stake than just glory. Chelsea, surprisingly, have never even made the final of the competition in its eight previous seasons, while Arsenal have been in seven of them, winning five. It’s a rivalry littered with stars and big personalities, from established internationals such as Danielle van de Donk and Ji So-yun; their leaders, Kim Little and Magdalena Eriksson; their fledgeling homegrown talent, Leah Williamson and Beth England; even their managers, Arsenal’s Aussie leader Joe Montemurro and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes, the most recognisable female manager in the country.
But there is one name on each team that stands out above them all – their centre-forwards. Arsenal’s Dutch superstar Vivianne Miedema is the classiest forward in the league. Her poise, movement and clinical finishing ability ensure she is breaking record after record for both club and country.
Chelsea’s Sam Kerr is the newcomer. The deadly Australian, who arrived a mere month ago, made her impact in last month’s 4-1 thrashing of Saturday’s opposition. Her intelligence, her rawness, her ability to score from any situation ensures she’s a worthy opponent for Miedema.
It’s been a long journey for both to get to where they are now. Miedema progressed through the ranks in the Netherlands and ended up at Arsenal via Bayern Munich, while Kerr had a similar journey in Australia before making a name for herself across the Pacific in the NWSL. Scarily, neither are arguably at their peak, but both have been developed a huge amount over the years through a myriad of clubs, coaches and national team setups.
This is the story of how they got here.
The rise of Miedema
Vivianne Miedema was born in Hoogeveen, the Netherlands, in July 1996, a town populated by only just over 50,000 people. It was a mere month after the Netherlands had been knocked out of Euro 96, but a golden age was forming in the country: a team used to Totaalvoetbal would soon produce lethal strikers such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Makaay and Robin van Persie.
Fourteen years later, at the turn of the millennium, another star striker would begin their journey to the top at Heerenveen – Miedema. The tall centre-forward was only 14 when she signed for the club, making her Eredivisie debut at just 15 in 2011. “The club elected Vivianne from the youth teams of the football federation,” recalls Peter Meindertsma, Heerenveen’s women’s team manager at the time. “You could see instantly she was already very talented. She struggled a bit physically at first. It’s not so easy for a 15-year-old to come into a first-team like that and be a part of a group where all of the girls are much older, but she handled it very well.”
In her first full season, Miedema was the second top scorer in the league with ten goals despite her tender years. One season on, in a new joint Dutch-Belgian league, she struggled a bit more and only managed five goals, but Netherlands head coach at the time Roger Reijners had seen enough and wanted the teenager in his squad after an underwhelming Euro 2013.
“We saw her several times in the league and even though she was very young at the time, after the Euros in 2013 we took her into the national team,” says Reijners. “We waited for the moment we felt she was ready to play for the team. The most important thing for us was her football ability. She was scoring goals whoever she was playing against and we needed that. Our defensive organisation at the time we were doing quite well with, but in the penalty area we were lacking goals.”
Miedema was brought to straight into the beginning of the Netherlands’ quest to reach the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and the faith Reijners showed in her brought almost instant success. “The first qualifier in Albania she didn’t start,” he recalls. “In the second game in Portugal, she came on and scored a hat-trick in the last 12 minutes.” Miedema would score again in a defeat to Norway, before another hat-trick came against Greece. She would end up the top scorer in the group with 13 goals as the Dutch made it to Canada.
Her form on an international level was also being replicated domestically. After five goals the season before, Miedema hit an incredible 39 the season after, 15 clear of any other player. “In training, she was never the most hard-working, but she did the things that were simple and effective,” says Meindertsma. “She always listened and was always trying to do the right things. She didn’t have to train that hard because she had the gift to be in the right position. She was really only focused on football. She got a lot of support from her father, he was always there to watch her. She had a younger brother who played and they always played together too.”
But there was still work to do to turn Miedema into the cold-blooded scorer she is today. “Mentally, she was 17, there was a lot of talking with Vivianne and making her aware of what it is to be a national team player,” recalls Reijners. “But she got better and better. We told her to use every minute to get better, that’s what she had to learn. You can be talented but you have to have the right mindset. The best adapt to a higher level very fast and I think that’s one of the skills Vivianne has.
“We saw her play in our third qualifier against Norway, who were a top, top country, and in the first game she did well but there were things she could improve. The second match we played them, she was so much better and it was so good to see. She was more aware, she could feel what she needed to improve.”
At the end of the 2013/14 season, Reijners had a decision to make. The under-19s coach, Andre Koolhof, wanted to take Miedema to Norway for the Under-19 European Championship. A squad which already housed future national team players such as Dominique Janssen and Jill Roord would see Miedema as the missing piece of the jigsaw.
“I had been the assistant manager for the under-17s and worked with Vivianne and I saw then she was something special,” recalls Koolhof. “We spoke with Roger, with Vivianne and her parents and asked if she wanted to come with us. She had an injury and we had a plan for her and the first match against Norway she couldn’t play, that was the agreement. The second match against Scotland she scored a hat-trick, that was when we saw we had a star at that level.”
Miedema went on to score a hat-trick in the semi-final and the only goal in the final against Spain, ensuring the Netherlands took home the silverware. The world was becoming more and more aware of Vivianne Miedema. “I heard about her first when she was 14,” says Koolhof. “I saw her for the first time for the 15s for the Netherlands. She was very good technically, not the fastest, but so clever on the pitch. She always had eyes on the goal.”
A lack of pace, though, doesn’t always equal lack of effort, as some of Miedema’s teammates used to feel when she was younger. Miedema, it’s clear, has a vision and sense on the pitch which puts her in the right place at the right time. “She can feel where she needs to be. It’s a natural talent, but you also have to coach. At the Euros in Norway, we helped each other. She would tell me she was happy in certain areas and I helped her by getting the other players to get the best out of her.
“She was 17 and so clever, very special. She would analyse and see things the other girls didn’t when we did video analysis. Intelligence was the most important thing with Vivianne. She’s driven, too, of course. Vivianne knew what she wanted: to be the best. The other girls maybe didn’t always accept that but she has shown how good she is.”
Meindertsma believes Miedema did everything she needed to do at the time to develop into the world-class striker she is today. “I had a lot of young players who didn’t go to that level,” he says. “Vivianne had something that made you think she could. She didn’t do any extra, she did what she had to do and needed to do and that was it. Even now, you watch her in the national team and she stands in the right position and the players find her.”
So how do you coach a fledgeling superstar? Like any youngster, Miedema was raw and imperfect at the time, a distance away from the player she is now at 23. “We helped her to see not just the penalty area,” says Koolhof. “We helped her to see the space on the pitch. We did a lot of video analysis and she was always very interested when it came to it. That was the thing we would tell her she needed to do to go to the top. Her development and her awareness of those around her now is amazing. It looks so easy but it’s so difficult. I always said to Vivianne, ‘you are the next Roy Makaay’. He was not fast but so smart, so intelligent and deadly in front of goal and she is deadly in front of goal.”
After her 39-goal haul in the Netherlands, Miedema would join Bayern Munich, helping them to an unbeaten season and back-to-back Bundesliga titles, their first since 1976, before leaving for Arsenal in 2017.
The rise of Kerr
On the other side of the world, three years before Miedema, Samantha May Kerr was born in East Fremantle, a coastal suburb of Perth. Kerr’s path towards football would not be as simple as Miedema’s. The Australian came from a sports-mad family but football wasn’t top of the list, so much so that Kerr spent a lot of her childhood playing Aussie Rules, following in the footsteps of both her father and older brother who were both professional players.
Kerr didn’t take up the European version of football until she was 12, but after a year of adapting she was spotted by Bobby Despotovski, who would go on to manage Kerr at Perth Glory some years later. Not a natural talent due to her upbringing in other sports, she would have to graft and develop on a vastly different journey to that of her fellow superstar striker.
At around the same age as Miedema would make her breakthrough for Heerenveen, Kerr trialled for the Western Australian state team before she ended up with Perth Glory, who were managed at the time in the inaugural W-League season in 2008 by England-born Nicola Williams. “I met Sam back in 2005 when she was part of our under-14 development state team while she was still playing netball and AFL,” recalls Williams. “She was fast and athletic but lacked technical skills with the ball at her feet and a lot of work was needed to improve. She struggled with the technique to cross so in her early years she was more suited to a central role.”
After three years as a junior at Western Knights, she joined the National Training Centre in Western Australia, who were again coached by Williams at the time, before she accepted the Glory job and took Kerr with her. “She was a very important member of our WA state team that made it to the final of the Australian Under 17 Championships against Queensland, who had dominated for years. We played a 4-3-3 and Sam was the centre-forward scoring goals for fun.”
Despite her age, Kerr was coming out of her shell and many of her coaches praised her personality and the life she brings to the teams she plays in. “I remember this tournament very well because Sam’s personality came alive off the field,” recalls Williams. “I was called to one of the player’s rooms the afternoon before the final as the girls had put a little too much bubble bath in the spa during recovery and it was overflowing with bubbles.
“It was Sam’s room! She had invited almost all the team over to bond and prepare for the final together. She made being part of the team fun. The match went to extra-time and we lost, but it was her performance in this tournament that got her selected into the Australian under-17 team and later into the Matildas.”
Amazingly, less than three years after first kicking a football, Kerr made her senior international debut in February 2009 at just 15, eight months before she even made her W-League debut for Perth Glory.
Managed at the time by Tom Sermanni, who had been in charge since 2005, the Scotsman had no qualms about bringing such a young player into the side as they began preparations for the 2011 Women’s World Cup. “We had the NTC programmes, a programme in each state and Sam had been with Nicola in Western Australia and then came straight into our 17s team,” recalls Sermanni. “That’s where I first became aware of Sam. It was when our 17s or our 20s played, she’d play across both age groups with Caitlin Foord. We brought her into the first team just because of the potential we saw in her.”
Kerr, though, was still far away from being the deadly number nine she is today. She tended to play more out wide as the years went by for club and country before settling on the centre-forward role she holds today. “She sometimes played wide on the right,” says Sermanni. “A fair chunk of the time for us she would play on the right-hand side of a front three. She went to the World Cup and played there for us and also in the Asia Cup.
“The first thing that stood out was her energy and her presence. She had such a strong, physical presence in the team. She could jump like a gazelle, even as a 15-year-old she had pace and she had power. The second thing which stood out was her character and her personality.
“When I used to travel with the 17s and the 20s, when we went to China all the teams would stay in this same big hotel and within a few days, players from every team knew who Sam was. She just had an infectious personality. She made friends with people, she was exuberant and that came into her game. That energy and vibrancy, you saw it in her football but it translated off the field, too.”
Kerr was selected by Williams to play for Perth Glory during the first full W-League season, but her commitments with the Australia under-17s in the Asia Cup meant she wasn’t eligible for the most of the season. “When she did play she was a standout,” says Williams. “I recall after her scoring her first W-League goal there was a newspaper report where I called her the ‘X-Factor’. From there she celebrated for some with an ‘X’ crossing her arms when she scored. Her backflip wasn’t quite developed back then but she started with a cartwheel to round off her celebration. I imagined her back then as the player she is now.”
Williams was also using Kerr as more of a wide player rather than the out-and-out striker she is today, as her attributes at the time were still best suited to playing on the wing. “She was used in a wide 4-3-3 for the national teams where I worked with her again as part of the under-20 side. She would receive the ball, turn with ease and dribble the field, weaving her way through and around defenders. She was always a danger to the opposition and always wanted to win and celebrate with her teammates after.”
Like Miedema, Kerr needed coaching and developing as a youngster, perhaps more so due to the fact she hadn’t grown up as a natural footballer and pursued other sports instead. But while the raw ability wasn’t there for the Australian, there were other attributes which gave her an advantage that Sermanni didn’t want to coach out of her.
“If I access Sam, I think she is very instinctive,” he says. “Miedema, I think in a football sense, is perhaps a more intelligent footballer who thinks about everything. With Sam, she has an instinctive ability to see things, read things and get on the end of things. It’s not something that’s been coached into her, it’s a natural attribute. A lightbulb seems to switch on and that’s one of the great qualities Sam has.”
He adds, regarding her improvements: “At that stage, it was more about her decision-making and being a little bit more consistent. For somebody who was 15, 16, 17, you expect a little bit of inconsistency so it was about improving that decision-making and back it up by not doing too much coaching. The last thing I wanted to do was over coach her because I didn’t want to take that instinctive side out of her.”
While not being a natural footballer growing up, some of the attributes she brought over from playing netball and AFL had to be utilised into strengths as it became clear football was her future lay. “Sam was and is still a phenomenal athlete,” says Williams. “She has an elasticity about her speed and strength which gives her a huge vertical jump. Playing AFL gifted with the ability to judge the trajectory of the ball – especially from long balls over the top. Her timing to receive the ball in the air, judge the bounce and to push the ball into space and run onto it was her strength and it caught out even the best defenders.
“Another important characteristic Sam had naturally that others sometimes need to be taught – and it’s hard to teach – is her instinct to pursue a ball that others would leave. Many players give up on a ball but as the ball bounces strange in AFL, Sam would always continue to follow the ball and anticipate what could happen as the ball moves, which gave her an edge against her opponent.”
As the Matildas were still growing, Kerr represented her country at the 2011 World Cup, and her career took another step when in 2013 she began what would be a seven-year love affair with the NWSL, joining Western New York Flash where she won the NWSL Shield in between two W-League titles with the Glory.
As individual accolades started to come her way, Kerr still wasn’t the prolific striker she is today, but the journey towards that began when she was traded to Sky Blue FC at the start of 2015, where she would join the club after the Women’s World Cup in Canada that summer. Kerr was still a raw talent at the time, but between them, manager Jim Gabarra and assistant Christy Holly had seen enough to know Kerr was the right player for them.
“Sam was a very young player still,” says Gabarra. “We brought Caitlin Foord over in 2013 and then her agent expressed that Sam wanted to come too, but we didn’t have room for her at the time. What really stood out with Sam was her love of the game, her team, her teammates and her passion. She’s great in the locker room and you could see the joy in her playing. We had the second and third picks in the 2015 draft and Western New York wanted our number two pick, but we wouldn’t settle for that, so we traded our number three pick, which ended up being Sam Mewis, for Sam Kerr.”
Gabarra would only coach Kerr for a short period of time before he left the club at the end of 2015, to be replaced by his assistant Holly, but he saw enough of her in the time they did work together to try and nurture her into the centre-forward who would eventually prove so deadly for Sky Blue in the next couple of years.
“I focused on her connection and movement on the ball,” he says. “I felt she could play in any of the forward positions but at the time we had Nadia Nadim, so we tried to get those two playing together as a front two, but Sam came back from the World Cup injured and then I left the club – since then I’ve tried to prevent her from scoring!”
Kerr netted an impressive six goals in her nine appearances up until the end of 2015, before Irishman Holly took the lead in time for the 2016 season. It was another interrupted year for Kerr due to the Olympics; she once again ended up with six goals in nine games, but Holly admits he was instantly taken in by the personality every coach speaks of when he had a chance meeting with Kerr shortly after she’d joined the club.
“My first real interaction with Sam was our first game after the 2015 World Cup when, ironically, we were playing Western New York,” recalls Holly. “I was in my hotel room watching some Gaelic football because my cousin played. All the water for the players was being kept in there, so players were coming in and out all the time. Sam walks in and she starts talking about Gaelic football. I’m like ‘what the hell, how do you know so much about Gaelic football?!’ It turned her brother who played Aussie Rules had actually played internationally against my cousin. We had a connection right away, but her enthusiasm for every sport and her commitment to learn about it was really infectious.
“She had scored a few goals with Western New York but never really played through the middle, and we’d brought her in to also not play her through the middle. We played her as a number seven, she scored a few goals, she performed well but she brought a really good energy to the team.”
After years of threatening to do so, it was in 2017 that Kerr really announced herself as one of the best strikers in the world. She won the NWSL Golden Boot with a record-breaking 17 goals and was named the league’s MVP, her impressive season including a hat-trick in a 3-2 win against Kansas and a four-goal haul against Seattle Reign after being 3-0 down at half-time.
So what changed? Kerr had spent years honing her talents in the game after initially looking at other sports. She’d never been an out-and-out centre forward, yet here she was on the verge of now being looked at alongside the top forwards in the world. “The funny thing she’s probably got another 25 percent to go, which is scary,” says Holly. “She still needs to improve her finishing but she’s so dangerous because she’s not a lazy forward. Her work rate was tremendous and what I found was she was doing more work defensively than she needed, so my thought process was how can she use all this energy and enthusiasm in front of goal rather than working her way back to defend?
“We talked about it. She’d gone off to the Olympics and been impactful playing through the middle and we just decided to keep her playing through the middle. By 2017, it was game on for Sam. She was able to use everything she had learned on the wing, accompany that with improved finishing and partner that up with her energy and relentless attitude. Suddenly we had a really dangerous striker.”
Despite having risen to a level where she was beginning to thrive, Kerr was still developing. Holly recalls a conversation she had with him shortly after joining the club in 2015, which hit home just how new she still was to the top level of the sport. “I was still the assistant at the time and our coach at the time was giving her a lot of instructions at half-time, and she looked at me as if to say, ‘I have no idea what he’s talking about’, because Sam at that point hadn’t fully grasped everything [about the game].
“She pulled me to one side and said, ‘just give me one simple point and I’ll go and do it’. It was really about simplifying the game for her and letting Sam be Sam. We worked hard on where and when to penetrate the defence. Early on she was getting caught offside a lot, her movement wasn’t synchronised with her play, so it was about trying to match everything up. I remember about two or three games into the season she hadn’t scored. She’d just come back from the W-League where she’d tore it up and she’d said to me early in pre-season she felt she could score a goal a game in the NWSL.”
While such a comment would have perhaps been seen as arrogant, those who have worked with her suggest it was simply the confidence that came with playing with such enthusiasm. “It wasn’t arrogance,” says Holly. “I loved the refreshing honesty she had. It was just how it is. We had a conversation there and then about how she was piling too much pressure onto herself. We went through videos, analysis, different options and one of the things she was worried about was not being involved in the build-up. I told her she’d gained a deadly reputation and that her sheer presence was rubbing off on defenders.
“There was a little bit of psychology which became important and allowed her to play freely without too much restraint. She sometimes overthinks things. She might not always score a one on one, but if it’s instinctual, there’s nobody in the world better than Sam. It was about trying to create those situations and allowing her to play freely.”
Sermanni also echoes the sentiment that Kerr has a confidence which comes from the enthusiasm she has to play the sport. “It was the fact she didn’t care who she played against or who she was up against,” he says. “It wasn’t arrogance, it was a confidence to just go out and play in the game. She played with such enthusiasm that she didn’t feel the pressure and she gave that impression from the first time she walked into the national team squad.”
Holly also recalls the game Kerr scored a hat-trick against Kansas in 2017 as a moment that she relished because of the nature of the team she was up against. “She scored a hat-trick up against Becky Sauerbrunn and she relished that. You could tell it meant more to her because she was up against a top-class defender who was at the top of her game. She relishes those occasions.
“I hear a lot of people say Sam doesn’t perform under pressure – personally I feel that’s when she performs at her best. She is a winner, she is relentless and she is a first-class teammate. I won’t name names but at the start of 2017 I had a coach in the league try and trade me a forward and I said I didn’t need one because we were going to use Sam as a forward. The answer was, ‘You’re crazy to rely upon her for goals’. She finished the top scorer in the league.”
Kerr, like Miedema, moved on another step before heading to England. After a stunning 2017, she was traded to Chicago Red Stars in January 2018 and went on to win the golden boot for a second and third time in succession, before eventually joining Chelsea at the start of 2020.
England and the FA Women’s Super League hasn’t yet seen anywhere near the best of Kerr due to the Olympic qualifiers, and a major cup final will be a new phenomenon for someone coming from the US – certainly compared to Miedema who’s played in the last two – but Sermanni believes once again that her infectious enthusiasm will see her relish the occasion. “With me, she was the hunter,” he says. “Nobody knew who she was, she was just a kid. Now she’s earmarked, she’s the player people want to stop and that sets new problems for her. She’s on that radar now with the top, top players. Going to England will be great for her because it will give her a whole new set of challenges.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty