Next month will mark John Herdman’s eight month anniversary of his appointment as head coach of the Canadian national team.
It will also see him lead the team in their first competitive match, as the new CONCACAF Nations League gets underway on September 9 with a game against the US Virgin Islands in Florida.
Those first eight months have been something of a feeling out period for Herdman. One where he can see what he’s inherited, put practices in place, and to cement his vision of the future, not just on the senior team, but in every aspect of the men’s program from the U14 level up.
So far, that’s seen him take the team to a camp in Spain for a 1-0 friendly win against New Zealand, and lead Canada’s U21s to a mostly impressive sixth placed finish at the prestigious Toulon Tournament in France, as he transitions from the women’s to the men’s side of the national team. A challenge from the outset, but it’s one he’s relishing so far.
“It’s been bloody hard,” Herdman said of these first eight months in charge of the side when we asked him on a conference call today. “It’s been the hardest transition of my career… I’m doing the best job in the world. Enjoying every minute, but it’s not been easy.”
No-one expected it would be, not least Herdman. The sudden departure of Octavio Zambrano at the start of this year left the program searching for a new direction. A new leadership with fresh ideas.
The Canadian Soccer Association turned to Herdman as the man to bring it, just as they had when they appointed him head coach on the women’s side in 2011 to replace Carolina Morace. And for the Englishman, the similarities were eerily familiar.
“I’ve come in, I’ve had a big transition to undertake,” Herdman admitted. “Rebuild some new processes, new staff to immerse into the culture. It’s been big, but it’s no different to what I experienced in 2011 when I turned up and the only thing left was the equipment person. No files, no system, no processes. It all went with the previous coaching staff. So if I’m being brutal, we’re almost starting from scratch.”
Part of the transition was letting go of something so close to him – the women’s program. One which he built to be the most successful in the country’s history.
“Number one [in terms of adjusting, was] saying goodbye to a group of players that you’ve worked with and pretty much given your heart and soul to for coming up seven years,” Herdman added. “We’ve build some great relationships and then having to hand that over. Handing that over to Kenneth Heiner-Møller, that’s tough. It’s still something that you’re deeply invested in, so there’s an emotional piece around that.”
After nearly eight years in charge of Canada’s women’s team, his appointment as head coach of the men’s side in January shocked soccer circles. Not only had he not played the men’s game at anything above non-league level in England, he had never been head coach of a men’s side, having cut his teeth with the New Zealand women’s national teeth and having some youth coaching experience around his native Consett in northeast of England.
Moving him from the women’s game to the men’s unleashed a lot of hostility online (although what doesn’t these days?!). The knives were out early in some quarters, with people questioning how fit he was for the role, and could he deal with male players, their egos. Would the Canadian men buy into his positive and motivational approach the way the women did?
“There’s all the questions that you knew were coming,” Herdman said, clearly happy to get a few things off his chest. “All the questions where people were doubting your competence. You’ve delivered two iconic moments for a country, you’ve delivered gold medals at Pan-Am games, you’ve back to back podiums, you’ve Algarve Cups.
“You’ve taken the team to a top four ranking. You’ve helped develop players that have gone on to play at PSG and won UEFA Champions Leagues. But you’re still getting asked the question ‘can you coach with men?’.”
That was clearly something that really rankled Herdman, but it also gave him the ultimate motivation. The chance to prove his doubters wrong and silence his critics. That’s just what’s he’s out to do, and so far, the early signs have been promising.
“It was just a sad indictment of some of the mindsets that still exist,” Herdman feels. “But you had to deal with it, and when you’re dealing with that, it becomes that level of clutter. But at the same time it becomes your mountain and your motivation to prove a few people wrong, which I don’t mind having that as a motivator.”
Herdman is the first to admit that he’s already found some glaring differences between the men’s and the women’s side of the game. Perhaps the biggest has been the more complex club v country side of the men’s game, and securing the releases of players for national team duty, especially for friendlies and non-senior matches.
“Working with the players now, it’s a different cat,” Herdman said. “It is different. You see that, when working with the women’s team it was very clear that the women’s national team was the top of the pinnacle for those players. There was nothing bigger than representing Canada. But for many of the young players I’m speaking to, you can see that it’s club before country.
“The Toulon event was an eye opener for me that ten players that should have been there, went there. Either through planning that should have been done two years ago for a big event like that, that wasn’t done, or playing for Real Madrid or Manchester United was more important than playing for Canada, and that’s a new experience for me, coming from a different culture.
“Dealing with that, where the shirt isn’t as important to people, well it’s important but not as important, and rebuilding that focus or trying to redevelop a culture or a vision and an identity around what this national team has to become. So it’s been a hell of a challenge, I’m not going to lie.”
Whatever Herdman is doing in this regard, it seems to be working. The pride of pulling on the maple leaf would appear to be strong, judging by the 23-man roster he’s assembled for this US Virgin Island game. A match against a minnow that in the past would have often seen some of the top names perhaps missing.
It remains to be seen if there will be some call-offs from the European contingent, but Herdman has called up an exciting young squad, packed with quality, and genuinely offering a lot of hope for the future. A future which saw Herdman targeting the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, never mind the one we are hosting on home soil four years later.
“There are parts of this team that I’m really comfortable with,” Herdman stated. “When I look to the future, and I’m projecting four years time and we’re in a World Cup playing against tough opposition, top opposition, which of the players are going be able to cope with that level of competition?”
Next Sunday marks the beginning of finding out.
[** We’ll bring you the full audio from John Herdman’s conference call in our latest AFTN ‘Extra’ podcast tomorrow **]