How John Herdman became the unlikely hero in Canada’s rise

In the end, it was the goalkeeper who got him.

During a postmatch TV interview, Milan Borjan snuck up and doused Canada manager John Herdman with champagne. That he’d stayed dry for so long was a minor miracle considering the occasion. With a 4-0 victory over Jamaica on March 27 in the penultimate match of FIFA World Cup qualification, Canada locked up its place in the World Cup for the first time since the 1986 tournament.

“He deserved this,” said Borjan, his trademark sweatpants paired with a “WE CAN” T-shirt and ski goggles to protect against champagne backsplash. “This guy, he did everything.”

Well, not quite everything.

Herdman will be one of the few managers in Qatar — along with Qatar boss Felix Sanchez — who has no experience as a high-level professional player, but he has done almost everything else. For one, Herdman is the first manager to qualify both a women’s national team and a men’s national team in World Cups.

Over the course of his rich career, the 46-year-old also has worked with academy players, maintained a career as a lecturer in sports science and sought wisdom from across disciplines, whether it was speaking with former New Zealand international Dr. Ceri Evans about the techniques he used to help the All Blacks rugby team, or taking tips on how to use analytics from Oakland A’s general manager (and “Moneyball” guru) Billy Beane.

Even two years ago it felt impossible, but by this March it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Herdman would be at the center of those jubilant celebrations. World Cup qualification formats announced prior to the coronavirus pandemic put Canada on an extremely difficult route to Qatar. But the team was rolling along so quickly that there was no stopping it, and after dispatching the likes of the Cayman Islands and Aruba, nobody — not even Mexico or the United States — could stop Canada from topping the World Cup qualification table and being the first side from the region to confirm its World Cup berth. (They also nearly made it through the entire run without defeat, dropping two of their final three qualifiers after winning 11 and drawing three to open, with 50 goals scored and just six conceded.)

A kid on a frozen pond hitting a slap shot may be the first Canadian sporting scene that comes to mind for many. Yet there’s a new image after the 2022 qualification campaign: Canada defender Sam Adekugbe, who plays club football in Turkey, was born in London and eligible to play for Nigeria but developed in Vancouver, leaping into a snow bank in celebration after Cyle Larin scored to go up 2-0 against Mexico. Canada won the match 2-1, taking four points off El Tri in the final round after a draw at the Estadio Azteca. Herdman & Co. took four points off the U.S., too, drawing in Nashville, Tennessee, and winning 2-0 in Hamilton, Ontario.

At times it does feel like Herdman can do anything, and has done everything. But in a few months, we know he’ll do something he has never done: He’ll coach a Canadian men’s team at the World Cup.

With good results in recent years and a number of players standing out in European leagues, including UEFA Champions League winner Alphonso Davies (with Bayern Munich in 2020) and Ligue 1 champion Jonathan David (with Lille in 2021), Canada didn’t qualify from off the radar. Yet without much recent history to build on, the Reds definitely had to take the long way.

Without a bye into the final phase of CONCACAF qualification, Canada played four matches in the first round, then had a two-legged series with Haiti, forcing Herdman and his staff to dig deep to scout the opponent and find the best way to line up their team.

That approach fit Herdman just fine. The Englishman meticulously plans every match, using Davies’ versatility when he’s fit to tweak the game plan. Against a team with a winger who dips into his bag of tricks, Davies may line up as a left-back in a back four. Against a smaller CONCACAF team, you might see Davies pushed higher up the wing. In much of qualification he was a perfect wing-back, a player no defender wanted to see running at them, but who also got back to make life difficult for their attacking teammates.

Herdman respects the U.S. and Mexico, who claimed the other two automatic places in the region, but said his upbringing gave him an edge.

“I know people like [U.S. coach] Gregg Berhalter are very detailed. [Mexico coach] Tata Martino has had some amazing experiences, but I think the edge for me is I’m from the backstreets of Consett, County Durham,” Herdman told ESPN of his hometown in the north of England, about 15 miles southeast of Newcastle. “I’ve never had anything handed to me easy. I’ve never lived that professional life. I’ve had to fight for everything, every opportunity, and you had to fight to keep it.

“That fight is something I tried to manifest in the environments you work in. It starts with that. There’s a human will to go on and get somewhere better, and that’s right at the core of what the players have understood about working with us.”

Herdman said there previously was a vacation vibe among players when they came in for national team camps. That changed quickly when he transitioned from coaching the women’s team to the men’s in January 2018.

“It’s totally different,” veteran attacker Junior Hoilett said in January. “What John Herdman put in place here, it’s a real ‘brother culture’ and there are no self-agendas. Everybody’s on the right path and everybody knows why they’re here: for the national team.

“Everybody’s on board, and you can see it. Everybody’s fighting and each one of us wants the best for the team and for the country as well. It’s an exciting time for Canada.”

Herdman is an educator. He recalls “literally running” from coaching sessions at the Sunderland and Hartlepool academies to his teaching job at Northumbria University. “I was pretty obsessed at the time with honing my craft,” he says — easy to believe for those who see him leading Canada now.

While Herdman is proud to be from Consett County, he never would have reached this level without leaving home. Herdman was frustrated with the fact that the doors to elite coaching in England seemed closed for those who hadn’t played top-level soccer themselves, so he took the chance to go to Oceania and forge a path there. In New Zealand, he found his craft enriched by the multidisciplinary exchange programs set up by the country’s Olympic committee and other organizations. After a few years working in the FA, he took over the women’s national teams, leading the Football Ferns to the 2007 and 2011 World Cups and also the 2008 Olympics.

“Heading into New Zealand was probably the best decision I made because what it ensured is I broke away from that hamster wheel in the traditional British coaching system, which for me was very insular,” he said.

Rebecca “Bex” Smith, a defender who served as Herdman’s captain, saw the young coach workshopping several of the leadership techniques he’d later end up applying to his work in Canada, pushing to get New Zealand’s women’s squad more funding and more respect on the field with its results.

“To be really honest, I think for years there we were sort of punching above our weight in the sense that we had a young squad, fairly inexperienced, but just the amount of research that John and his staff used to do,” Smith said. “…We would constantly be doing analysis of different games, of ourselves. That self-improvement mantra was always there.”

That’s not to say there were only good times. The captain and the coach didn’t always have the same ideas about the direction of the team, and Smith felt Herdman may have still been figuring out how best to manage world-class talents, lessons that serve him well now as he looks to get the most from Davies, David, Tajon Buchanan & Co.

“John’s intense,” she said. “I was his captain for a number of years, and he was quite demanding. So yeah, we sometimes butted heads, but he’s a good communicator. He’s a fantastic motivator, because of his intensity. He was very much focused on the human aspect and the emotional side of leadership.”

New Zealand was never able to win games at the Olympics or World Cup under his leadership, but the consistent results drew Canada’s attention. After the World Cup in 2011, Herdman became the Canada women’s national team coach, as the nation prepared to host its own World Cup in 2015.

It was a bit of a gamble for Canada in handing the reins of the national team to an inexperienced coach, but the building blocks were there. Star forward Christine Sinclair already had 117 of her 189 international goals (and counting) when Herdman arrived. A midfield anchored by Diana Matheson was beginning to see new talent come through.

In his first major tournament, Herdman leaned on that experience of winning the 2011 Pan American Games, but he quickly worked to introduce some new faces to the squad as well, encouraging greater competition for spots in an effort to make everyone better.

Over seven successful years with the women’s squad, he earned a pair of Olympic bronze medals and made the quarterfinals in the 2015 World Cup. In 2018, he took over for Octavio Zambrano as the men’s national team coach, also being named men’s national director and taking charge of the youth programs. It was a surprising shift and one few saw coming, but one that has worked extremely well for a nascent soccer country.

“People have said, ‘You’ll never make it as a top coach because you’ve never played the game.’ The next thing is, ‘You’ll never make it as a men’s coach because you coach women,'” Herdman said. “Internally there is that motivation there, but at the end of the day, this transition from coaching women to men was motivated by knowing if you qualify for a World Cup with a men’s team, you could change the game in a country.”

Canada is a soccer country now. The senior women’s team, led by fellow Consett native and former Herdman player Bev Priestman, is the reigning Olympic gold-medal winner, sitting sixth in the FIFA rankings. They reached a high of fourth during Herdman’s tenure, up from ninth when he was named. The men are going to the World Cup and currently sit 38th in the FIFA rankings after falling all the way to 117th in 2016.

“It’s just amazing to make something new for Canada, not just for us but for the younger kids coming up,” said Borjan, who has 63 caps for Canada. “They’re going to look up to us and try to be better than us. Now, there’s no going up. Canada is a name in the world. It has to continue like this.”

For that to happen, the country needs both teams to continue setting the example, getting neutrals to turn from other sports to check out what’s happening with the national team and showing kids the power of soccer.

“We’re going to be first to things. That’s a mentality I adopted in my early 20s. I’m going to be first in as many things as are in my grasp,” Herdman said. “Over time, it becomes part of this team’s identity that we want to be the first team to qualify out of CONCACAF, we want to be the first team to go undefeated, we want to be the first team to be top at the Christmas period, we want to be the first to keep X amount of clean sheets.”

The dream of remaining undefeated during the qualifying tournament ended in March against Costa Rica, with the Ticos grinding out a 1-0 result that boosted their own World Cup chances ahead of this month’s playoff. But as Canada looks toward an intimidating group in Qatar that also features Belgium, Morocco and Croatia, it still must adjust its goals after achieving so many firsts.

“We’re going there to compete, baby,” defender Alistair Johnston said during that jubilant celebration before Herdman found himself sprayed with bubbly. “We’re not going just to show up. We want to turn some heads.”

There are still plenty of potential speedbumps to overcome, as Canada fans were reminded during a dispute between players and the federation this week that led to the last-minute cancellation of a friendly against Panama. There are plenty of firsts still to go: The first-ever Canada goal at the World Cup. The first win. The first time getting out of the group stage.

Herdman’s already working on the plan to make those firsts happen, and perhaps he’ll again feel the cold comfort of a fresh bottle of champagne being poured over his head.


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