Global Times - Weekend

‘Bigger job’ in women’s game

▶ Herdman gives Canada belief after 36- year wait


It was clear to anyone who saw hosts Canada play at the Women’s World Cup in 2015 that there was something different about their coach John Herdman.

Constantly dressed in a tight shirt and exuding relentless enthusiasm on the touchline, Herdman was nothing like most of the men who take charge of women’s teams.

Those tracksuite­d figures, prefer to keep signs of their leadership in the locker room and it wasn’t quite the done thing for a man to draw so much attention in the women’s game.

But Herdman was clearly secure enough in his connection with his team that he did not fear any eventual barbs or negative press that might come his way.

It would have been no surprise if the Englishman, who grew up in the gritty former steel town of Consett in County Durham and made his name as coach of New Zealand’s women’s team, had taken advantage of his new profile to move on to a “bigger job” in the women’s game.

Indeed, he was offered the chance to return to his homeland and take over the national side, the Lionesses, and had he wished he could surely have gained a position at one of the big club sides investing increasing numbers into women’s soccer.

Instead though, when he did leave the team in 2018, having won two Olympic bronze medals, it was to make the highly unusual move to take over Canada’s men’s team.

It was a switch which left his former captain Christine Sinclair “speechless” and which raised numerous eyebrows throughout the game but when Canada Soccer general secretary Peter Montopoli highlighte­d Herdman’s “work ethic, his passion, his preparatio­n and his attention to detail” as the main factors behind the decision, few could argue.

No coach had ever led a women’s team and then a men’s team to World Cups but Herdman, typically, wasted little time in declaring qualificat­ion for Qatar as his goal, despite Canada’s long record of underachie­vement in CONCACAF qualifying.

The last time Canada made it to a World Cup finals tournament was in 1986 but Herdman’s target was not based purely on his own positive thinking – a new generation of players was emerging that offered some real hope.

The US, Mexico and Costa Rica had been the main forces in CONCACAF qualifying in the years since Canada’s solitary appearance at a finals with Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad and Panama also making it to finals in that period.

But under Herdman, Canada finished above them all, with a 2-0 home win over the US and 2-1 victory over Mexico the statement victories which signaled his team were now the top dogs in the region.

‘Changed the sport forever’

“I’ve been proving people wrong all my life,” Herdman said to The Times. “But I don’t want it to be about that. I want it to be about this group of men who will have changed the sport forever in our country.”

First among those men is left winger or wing-back Alphonso Davies, whose success at club level with Bayern Munich was replicated in the national team jersey but also proved to be an inspiratio­n for other players in the team.

Striker Jonathan David made an impact in Belgium for Gent before earning a move to French club Lille and like Davies and several other key members of the squad comes from an immigrant background.

Herdman has persuaded several players with dual nationalit­y to choose Canada as their national team but he also hopes this World Cup will convince diverse urban population­s in Canada to embrace the team.

“They’ve only experience­d World Cups where in downtown Toronto you’ll have Little Italy, Little Croatia, Little Germany,” he said.

“But now we are seeing more Canadian shirts on the street.” Everyone that had fallen out of love with the national team of Canada can now put down their Italian shirt, their Serbian shirts and put on the red of Canada. They’re proud of us.”

They will be proud of Herdman too back in Consett, a town which offered little promise to ambitious youngers in the 1980s but which also produced coach Bev Priestland who took Canada’s women’s team to Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2021.

But for all the ambition, the goals and the positivity from Herdman, he knows that in Croatia, Belgium and Morocco, his team face very tough odds to progress out of Group F in Qatar.

“The cold, hard truth is that CONCACAF is a different jungle to the world stage and over these last four years we haven’t really prepared for that step up. So we know there is going to be a lot of learning on this journey,” he said.

But Herdman wouldn’t be the man he is if he didn’t think there was still an opportunit­y for an upset, hoping that pre-tournament training and a friendly against Japan will help his team be in a place to maybe produce a surprise.

“We’ll gather informatio­n in that match to help us... impose an identity that we can be proud of and give us a chance.”

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