Six weeks that could have ended Sam Kerr and the story behind the letter that proves it

As Sam Kerr leads the Matildas through the 2023 FIFA World Cup, the seminal moments in her development from an all-round gifted athlete into a football icon are told by those who watched her grow up.

As a child, Sam Kerr was never likely to pick up football – but perhaps she was destined to.

And as one of her very first junior coaches says: “She took to the game, and showed everyone how to play it.”

Those were the words of Mano Psanoudakis, who was there to witness the first years of the natural athlete’s transformation from an all-round sporting prodigy to a devotee to the round ball.

Kerr was just 11 when she landed at Phoenix Knights (now Western Knights), a junior club in Perth, to experience her footballing initiation. 

Kerr had grown up playing Australian Rules football, just like her father Roger had at WAFL and SANFL level, and her older brother Daniel for West Coast Eagles in the AFL, but when she was no longer able to play with the boys, a decision was made that would shape her adult life.

That decision led her to the Knights and then to Psanoudakis, who coached Kerr from the age of 11 to 13. He would tell anyone who would listen about the freakishly gifted talent in his son’s junior side, who needed not to be taught anything about the game – other than to approach it with her natural instincts.

“At first she wouldn’t shoot,” Psanoudakis said. “She’d run the ball into the net at the beginning.

“I’d go: ‘What are you doing, Sam? Why aren’t you shooting?’ And she’d say: ‘No no, I don’t want to miss!’ And because she was so fast, they wouldn’t catch her. She’d just dribble the ball straight into the net, that’s how she scored goals.

“It’s sad that everyone else didn’t see what we saw. Everyone that watched her play, there was no doubt: she stood out so far it was ridiculous. It’s nothing that I taught her – she is all pure talent. That’s why she’s so good. You can coach skills, absolutely, but you can’t coach what she had.”

Psanoudakis and Kerr in Knights team photos.

If you speak to enough people in Perth, the story of Sam Kerr becomes legend. Those who encountered Kerr as a child all say the same thing: it was clear from the outset she was destined to achieve great things in sport, but they didn’t know exactly what. 

They certainly didn’t expect this.

In 2023, Kerr is one of the most recognisable athletes on the planet. Her accolades add up to one of the most impressive CVs in world football; highlighted by a pair of Julie Dolan Medals, earned on home soil as the Liberty A-League Player of the Year, six PFA Footballer of the Year awards, golden boots galore in the A-League Women, America’s National Women’s Soccer League and England’s Women’s Super League, back-to-back Football Writer’s Association Footballer of the year awards – and those are just the individual honours.

At Chelsea she’s a title-winning machine: four-consecutive WSL titles, three FA Cup triumphs on the bounce to go with a pair of League Cup crowns have decorated her near-four-year stint in Europe.

But some of her earliest awards as a footballer came at the Knights. Every year Psanoudakis handed Kerr her inevitable player of the season trophy, it would come with the same message to her clubmates in the room.

“Every single wind-up I’d hand over the Best and Fairest Award to Sam.

I’d say to everyone: ‘You should be proud that you’re in this room with this girl. You are all going to remember this girl, she’s going to play for Australia’. There was just no doubt about it.”

Kerr left the club at 14, and by 15 had made her Matildas debut.

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Samantha Kerr in action for the Matildas at age 16 in 2010.


Every time Marion Burt sees that beaming face and wagging tongue, it sends her down memory lane.

She saw it so often throughout her years spent as Sam Kerr’s physical education teacher at Samson Primary School. Kerr would do it then, and she still does it now: mouth wide open and tongue sticking out, posing for pictures in the same way now that she did as a child.

It was a pose that Kerr perfected as a kid, and has carried with her ever since.

The same can be said for her trademark backflip celebration. 

“I can vouch for the fact that she did learn her backflip on our school oval,” Burt said. “She would often be out there showing off, at the very edge of the oval, basically away from everybody else. And she perfected it.”

The school oval was where Burt often stood on duty at recess and lunch to watch Kerr thrive in her natural environment. But it was her humility – even at such a young age – that stood out the most to Burt, as the girl she refers to exclusively as ‘Samantha’, not Sam, never let her own natural talent get to her head.

“From standing on duty watching her in the playground, honestly, she was the most unpretentious person that you could come across,” Burt said. “Outside playing, she would never go for goal if she thought someone else could take it. She would never go for goal if there was a player of lesser ability around. She always included those that didn’t have all the skills, but she could give the ball to (a teammate) and they could have their contribution to the game.”

Just as it was at Kerr’s junior football club, through the halls of Samson Primary spread the undoubted belief that a special sporting talent was blossoming right before their eyes.

“She was always going to play a sport. There was no denying that. She was always going to excel at something,” Burt said.

“I wrote a speech about her – because of course, she got the sports award at the end of year seven – and my final line in my speech was: Samantha, we look forward to following your international career. We knew at that time she was destined to be a star.”

Burt would work at Perth’s annual Royal Show in school holidays, and remembers young Samantha regularly pestering her for free rides.

She remembers passing her a hockey stick to try the game for the very first time, and watching her play the game like a natural. She remembers Samantha’s respectful nature, her “big cheeky smile” and that tongue-poking pose that Kerr still uses to this day.

“Once, we played a night game of (Aussie Rules) football at South Fremantle Oval,” Burt recalls. “This is a very young Samantha Kerr, I think she was year five, maybe year four.

“I think we were playing against another school. I have these photos of the gorgeous Samantha Kerr, where she was just life and soul. 

“Some of the posts she puts out, she’s still there with her mouth open and her tongue hanging out, with a great, big cheeky smile… she never sought attention, but she always got it.”

Burt kept close watch as Kerr’s football career took off in Australia, first at Perth Glory, then Sydney FC and back to her hometown club – before it exploded into life abroad. As she prepares to captain Australia into a World Cup on home soil, Burt looks back in amazement at the person she has become.

“She just passed through school being that student that everybody loved,” Burt said.

“We hold it all dearly to ourselves… we hold her dear to our hearts. Yep, I taught her – my little claim to fame.

“I never expected it to go as far as it has. Never. 

Especially after her injury.”


When Sam Kerr hobbled into the Australian Institute of Sport, she had six weeks to prove herself fit for the 2015 World Cup.

The then-Perth Glory phenom was bound to crutches thanks to an ACL injury that caused her life to come “crashing down”. 

Those were the words Kerr used to describe that agonising time in 2014, in a letter penned to the man she travelled to Canberra to meet at the time – AIS strength and conditioning coach Aaron Holt – four years after he helped rescue Kerr’s dream of reaching the World Cup.

Holt hadn’t heard from her for four years prior to receiving the letter that Kerr wrote in the build-up to the 2019 edition of the major tournament – and he still hasn’t to this day.

“The last time we saw each other was in 2015,” Holt said.

“She came in, and she was probably at rock bottom. Genuinely going: ‘Am I ever going to play football again?’ 

“But she had this drive. I don’t know what it is but it’s the first instinct that comes to my mind: this drive to succeed, this drive to be great. This drive to be the world’s best. That kind of thing is the first thing I think of.”

An injured Kerr consoles her Perth teammates after defeat in the then-W-League Grand Final in 2014.

Kerr was 21 at this stage; no longer the kid who would throw herself into any sport on the playground, or the Phoenix Knights junior who would run the ball directly into the net instead of shooting – just because she could.

At 21, Kerr was a footballer. 

She was an emerging Australian talent with ambition to show what she was made of at the very pinnacle of the world game.

And when she trudged into Holt’s office, that significant knee injury threatened to put a halt to everything she was working towards.

Neither Kerr or Halt were willing to let that happen. And so, they got to work on an aggressive rehabilitation program.

“The thing that struck me really quickly was: ‘Wow this girl is committed’,” Holt said. 

“Every day she did everything she needed to do, she was the first one there and last one to leave. You just had to provide little challenges to her to keep the motivation up, and challenge her at certain times. Every single time I did, she passed with flying colours.

“I would say: ’Put more weight on. Can you do it in this particular time? Can you lift this much weight? Can you do this many reps?’ Those types of little challenges. Every single time you set a challenge for her, she ended up stepping up and passing which is incredible.”

On Kerr’s very last day of her program with Holt, a taxi stood idle as she was put through her final paces.

“I was nervous,” Holt remembers. “I was thinking: ‘Oh my gosh, if this girl doesn’t do this training session, she doesn’t get on the plane’. I didn’t want her to hurt her hamstring, calf, hip flexor or anything like that on the last day.

“She finished the training session – and we hugged and celebrated. Then she ran off to catch a plane. She literally ran off the field, grabbed her gear and caught a taxi.

She said: “‘Az I’ve got to go, I’ll speak to you soon!’ And we haven’t crossed paths. It was pretty bizarre.

“That was the last time I saw her.”

Four years later, the Matildas’ launched a pre-World Cup campaign where the stars of the national team wrote letters to their heroes. Holt was bemused when Kerr’s letter arrived on his doorstep.

An excerpt of the letter read as follows:

I never got the chance to tell you how grateful I am for the time you spent with me.

When I injured my knee in 2014 my life came crashing down, and I thought I would never make the 2015 World Cup. 

The most important part of the time I spent with you, is that you cared more about the person than the player.

I definitely wouldn’t be where I am in my career today, if it wasn’t for the time and commitment you gave me.

Holt keeps the letter in his office drawer. He admits it might be time to have it framed.

It’s now been eight years since the six-week period that might have saved Kerr’s career. Holt says that due to the levels of fame she’s achieved since their last interaction, he’d feel the need to introduce himself all over again should their paths intertwine once more. 

“In 2019 she was Sam Kerr then – now she’s the even bigger Sam Kerr,” he said. 

“She’s Chelsea Sam Kerr, Champions League Sam Kerr, FA Cup Sam Kerr and Matildas Sam Kerr. It’s pretty incredible. 

“The point she took the time to say thank you for someone who saw her for six weeks, in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big but obviously it was a very impactful six weeks that we had together a long time ago. It was very humbling, for sure.”


Aaron Holt watched on as Sam Kerr and Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson addressed the media. It was squad selection day for the 2023 World Cup, and the Australian captain and head coach arrived on stage to a round of applause.

Kerr sat down to face the press pack with an aura that struck Holt instantly. As she addressed the questions directed her way, Holt watched on with intent. He doesn’t remember a word that was said, but can’t shake the feeling that the player he saw on stage was the very same he saw in the gym: dead calm, and doggedly determined.

“There was a calmness and a tone that made me think: ‘Look out. Look out everyone, I can hear something in how Sam is talking’,” Holt said. 

“I was thinking: ‘Wow, you’re on here. You are on’. 

“There were no nerves. It was as if the world is throwing her a challenge here, and she is ready to go.

“That’s what I took out of the interview. I wasn’t really listening to the words, but I was like: ‘Wow, look out – they’re in a bit of trouble’.

“It was just that feeling that she’s going to do something special. I think it’s been building to this moment.”