Kerrea Gilbert with Arsenal
(Getty Images)

Kerrea Gilbert's Road to Portland

Right back Kerrea (pronounced Kerry) Gilbert comes to the Timbers via a circuitous route, one that has seen him touch the heights of club football—appearing in the Champions League for English club Arsenal—and some of the lows—getting relegated from the English Football League Championship to League 1, which is two divisions below the English Premier League.

Sitting in the Premier Hotel, 50 yards from Wembley Stadium and five minutes from his home in Wilton, Northwest London, the 23-year-old recounts the dream start to his professional soccer career. When he was 11 he was playing for his district team, Brent. Then he was scouted and had trials with Chelsea, Luton and Millwall.

“I ended up playing for Luton against Arsenal (boys), and that’s how the whole Arsenal thing started. All of a sudden I’m 12 years old I’ve got Liam Brady coming up to me,” Gilbert says, still in awe of the Irish midfield legend.

Gilbert was already an Arsenal fan.

Arsenal funneled him into their preferred high school, Highams Park School in East London, where they send a dozen boys per year. They take regular classes but include two periods of soccer training a day.

He signed a year’s contract, then another two years.

“It was intense, but I enjoyed it, it was a chance to work on my skills,” he said. Training at that level is a lot about touch, skill and fitness. “It’s not until you’re 16 that they start going into the tactical side of things.”

At 16 he signed as a professional for Arsenal, which guaranteed him two years on the Youth Training Scheme and a two-year professional contract.

“Then you get a chance to train, eat food with and go to gym with the first team,” Gilbert said. “That’s when you get into the real world of football.”

Gilbert was impressed by the professionalism of the likes of Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry, who had just come off the back of winning several championships.

“That team loved each other, it was more like a family. If you look at them, they don’t have much body fat – it’s not just about the football, it’s what you do outside the football.”

Gilbert found they were careful about what they ate and drank.

“A bit different from when I was younger. Now I try not to eat chips, burgers, or any kind of fatty food, except as a treat. It will affect you in the long run—how fast you are, your touch, your concentration.”

At 16 he was often pushed up into Arsenal’s under 18s, and by 17 he was a natural fit to be captain. 

“I don’t think I bossed anybody about, I just flipped the coin and got on with my game,” he said. “I didn’t learn it at the time, but looking back I would have done it a lot differently—you’ve got to manage your team, take care of them. But I was only 17 at the time.”

At 18 he made his debut first team appearance in the Carling Cup against Reading at Arsenal’s old stadium, Highbury.

“We won 3-0, and I was left back. I got through it and think I did pretty well. My whole family came; I probably had about 20 tickets. For your first game you want everyone to come and watch you.”

In 2006, after two years of his YTS contract he had played eight first-team games when fabled Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger called him in and asked him to sign a new four-year contract.

“The boss told me I had potential but I had to get myself out on loan,” Gilbert said.

“I was hoping I would become a first-team regular after a year or two, but with the money they’ve got it’s so easy for them to bring in players. It’s so tough at the top; they can get great players anywhere.”

It was no dilemma for Gilbert – playing for the reserves in front of a few hundred fans, or on loan to a lower division with passionate support. 

“I liked to go out on loan all the time and play football. I could have stayed and played reserves, but to me I’d rather play in front of fans and know how it is in the real world.”

Gilbert went first to Cardiff City, a Welsh team that plays in the English League and has some feisty fans. After some injuries in Cardiff limited his time there, he played for a bit with the seaside club Southend United before receiving a call from Leicester City’s manager, Nigel Pearson, whom he knew from the England Youth team.  Gilbert played a full, solid season for Leicester in 2008-2009, 39 games, and they won promotion from League 1 to the Football League Championship.

“It was crazy, it’s a feeling I can’t explain,” he said. “Even though it was League 1, it meant a lot to me. I’d had such a bad season the season before, I felt like II proved a point. I can play 39 games and the manger will put me in the team every week.”

Leicester wanted to sign him, but Arsenal couldn’t agree terms, so it was back to preseason training with Arsenal. Then things picked up—he played against West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool in the Carling Cup, and then Greek team Olympiacos in the Champions League, for the next round of which Arsenal had already qualified. However, once Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League and the Carling Cup he knew his first-team options were limited, and he took himself out on loan, in 2010, to Peterborough.

He moved back home from Peterborough and was rehabbing in September 2010 when Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson and head coach John Spencer came calling.

“I knew the Timbers would be a really good opportunity for me. John Spencer wanted to get me over so I could have a look at Portland.”

After a trial with the squad, Gilbert was eager to make his mark.

“The standard was good and I knew this was the place for me to be, for my career to go on. I already knew quite a bit about MLS because it’s getting quite a bit better. I knew I could do a good job and I just knew this was the place I want to be.”

Gilbert has a girlfriend and a one-year-old son Kaylo whom he hopes will follow him when he’s settled.

He says Spencer has encouraged him to attack from the right back position. “Some managers want you to just defend, stay in position, some want you to push on. Like Arsene Wenger.  He wants you to give their left back some problems.”

Right backs he admires include the Brazilian Maicon of Inter Milan: “I look up to him because he’s a very good defender and good at getting forward.”

Cafu: “He has a very good engine—good at running.”

And Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid and World Cup champions Spain: “He’s got skills and all kinds of pace.”

The 23-year-old is looking forward to the Timbers road trips.

“You try your best to fit in, speak to people, socialize, get involved as much as you can. After two or three weeks of training you’re part of the team, the family. You know where to play the ball for your teammates. And after two months we’ll know about each other’s game.”

Recently he’s been keeping fit, doing weights in the morning, running and spinning in the afternoon.

“You don’t want to get too big, it slows you down,” Gilbert said. “I just want to be ready; this is a really big thing for me.”

He’s not been kicking a ball around with friends because he wants to get to Portland in one piece. “Touch is for life—you can get rusty, but preseason is for that. I’m just looking forward to playing every game, and looking forward to winning the championship.”

So far he hasn’t seen much difference culturally between Portland and England.

“I hear the beer’s good, but I’ll be on water all day.”

Gilbert doesn’t expect much difference on the field either.

“Football’s a worldwide game, it’s the same language. The way I see it, football is football, you can either play it or you can’t.”