1947 in Britain – Labour’s visionary government, lead by Clement Atlee, nationalises the coal industry and the countries first post-war baby boom reaches peak. In football, a 28-year-old centre-forward, Tommy Lawton, becomes Britain’s first £20,000 footballer in a move from Chelsea to Notts County. Charlton Athletic, who lost the FA Cup final the previous season beat Burnley 1-0 at Wembley to become the 1947 winners. Amidst all this political and footballing drama, Robert ‘Bobby’ Kerr is born in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire, Scotland.
The Little General was brought south of the boarder by disciplinarian, Alan Brown – having been spotted by scout, Charlie Ferguson. Ferguson was responsible for discovering nine of the ‘73 team.
Bobby was selected for his debut in December 1966 by new manager Ian McColl in a team which included John O’Hare. Bobby was an instant hit scoring the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over Manchester City.
The young Kerr went on to net seven goals in his first 11 games, including a double against Newcastle! A fact that is rarely touched upon.
But it wasn’t always plain sailing for the hardest little professional the club has every seen. After hitting this rich vain of form Kerr broke his leg in a reserve match, an injury which back in the 1970s could have been career threatening.
Brian Clough ran Sunderland’s youth team while the young Kerr was attempting to recover from his horrific leg injury. Commenting in the The Scotsman, Kerr explained:
We played together in the reserves, beat Halifax Town 7-1, Cloughie scoring a hat-trick.
However, testament to Kerr’s drive and determination is that he fought tooth and nail to return to Sunderland’s starting eleven. The tireless Bobby bounced back and in between the 1970-71 and 1977-78 seasons he never made less than 40 appearances in a single campaign. A truly phenomenal achievement.
He even recovered from a break in the same leg further on in his career, illuminating Kerr’s tough mentality.
Kerr played more than 400 games for Sunderland but joked in the Sunderland Echo that he only “really played one” referring his captaincy of the Second Division side that – against all odds – won the 1972/73 FA Cup Final against First Division Leeds United.
An amusing anecdote comes when Kerr changed his very broad Scottish accent when introducing the players to the Duke of Kent before the FA Cup final kicked off. In The Times, Kerr recalls introducing the usually named ‘Richie Pitt’ as ‘Richard Pitt’ in a very posh accent.
In the words of ITV commentator Brian Moore, against Leeds, Kerr “ran and ran and somehow found the energy to run some more.” Not bad for the the smallest person to have captained an FA Cup winning side and to have lifted the cup on his team’s behalf.
Bobby describes in his book, The Little General, that far from becoming sick of discussing the ‘73 victory he revels in it. The Scot describes the run as “Something I’ll cherish until the day I die”.
Such fond memories of Kerr have developed because he formed a key part core of the ‘73 FA Cup winning side. Bobby Kerr played in every every minute of the FA Cup run that shocked the world, without his steely determination could Sunderland have won the cup? I suspect not.
Only Raich Carter and Bobby Kerr have thus far captained Sunderland to FA Cup glory, placing the Little General in the highest echelon of club legend. Kerr ranks alongside the likes of Gurney, Clough, Quinn, Phillips and Hurley as one of the immortals of Wearside.
The Scotsman, although synonymous with Sunderland’s greatest ever triumph, should be remembered for his huge contribution and impact, something that spanned virtually his whole career.
Kerr helped drag the Rokerites to promotion to the First Division three years after the FA Cup triumph.
The Scot endeared himself to the Mackem crowd, his footballing ideals mirroring Wearsides. Kerr commented in The Scotsman that he:
Didn’t want to be a world-beater; I knew who I was. I was a grafter. I could run all day. A guy might go past me but I’d always chase him. That was the one thing about me.
That is why Bobby Kerr’s name is still sung on the terraces in the Stadium of Light.
Kerr broke off his 16 year affiliation with Sunderland when he chose to link up with old manager Bob Stokoe, then the new manager of Third Division Blackpool. 31 at the time, Kerr moved to Bloomfield Road on a free transfer – a reward for his loyal service to the club.
Six months previous to Kerr’s move to Blackpool he had vowed to stay at Sunderland in order win back his place. It soon became clear that Kerr was a way down the pecking order. Kerr explained to the Shields Gazette:
It’s clear that there’s no chance of that now. I’m sixth or seventh choice for a midfield place. I’m Going to Blackpool to prove there’s life in the old dog yet.
After finishing is career at Hartlepool, Kerr ran pubs in Sunderland and has struggled financially having been declared bankrupt in 2008. The death of his second wife, Kerr’s own health problems and his grappling with alcoholism make that titan in the pantheon of Sunderland greats seem all the more human.
However, the fans love, appreciation and respect for our Little General shall never cease.