John Herdman knows there is a great deal at stake on Friday night when his Canadian women’s team plays Britain in an Olympic quarter-final game in Coventry, England.
The head coach wants the game to grab Canadian fans by the throat – forget about whether a win means a date against the United States in the semi-finals. The United States boss Canada, this is true, but even a loss there would leave Canada playing for a bronze medal and that’s important because the 2015 World Cup will be played in Canada. And Herdman has concerns for the future.
“Look, 60 per cent of our team this quadrennial will be over 30 when the World Cup is played,” Herdman said Thursday, after his team’s practice. “We need to do a lot of work, frankly, at the youth development level. Either we win a medal and create a kind of productive paranoia going into 2015, or we come out with nothing and a crisis comes around.
“We have the numbers. We have support from the Canadian Soccer Association and we have good government support. The work needs to be done at the talent development level.”
Who is Herdman, anyhow? A failed 16-year-old trialist with Notts County who grew up in Newcastle, England, Herdman moved to New Zealand at the suggestion of a colleague at Northumbria University, where he was working on his doctorate. Herdman, who’d studied sports science, became director of soccer in the Southland region of the rugby-mad country.
That’s where Herdman, a kind of pied piper of soccer coaching who did his certification in England and established football camps in the northeast and did some consulting, developed what he once described as the Fifth Wiggle approach to coaching, in honour of the hugely-popular Australian-based children’s entertainers.
“A lot of my work down there was with youth players, and I understood how children’s brainwaves are effected by music,” Herdman said. “It was a great opportunity for me. One afternoon you’d be working with kids and that night you’d be working with the senior men’s team. We always said: A good mood equals good work. I still believe that.”
Herdman rose through the ranks to coach New Zealand’s women’s team and become director of development for New Zealand Football. He was hired by the CSA to replace Carolina Morace after the 2011 World Cup debacle, and his work with the Canadian team has not gone unnoticed. Hope Powell, the British head coach, says that the Canadian team “has 10 times the fitness under John than they had before.” It has to, Herdman said, because in order for his team to “impose itself” on an opponent, it needed to use more high-speed runs. “Simply, they had to cover more metres,” he said.
Stalwart players such as Melissa Tancredi, Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson all talk about the team’s preparation under Herdman. Mostly, they seem to be having as much fun as he is having. “We know we’re prepared,” Tancredi said. “That’s allowed us to relax.”
Herdman, for his part, says coaching women’s soccer is rewarding because “in some ways, this is the last bastion of true amateur soccer. There are no egos. People want to be coached.”
It is possible that no other sport will emerge from these Games with a more burnished reputation than women’s soccer. The British women sold out Wembley Stadium just like the men did – truth be told, their announced crowd was a couple hundred more – and Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the game’s grand old men, was effusive in his praise, telling reporters that where in the past he would have rolled his eyes whenever a girl showed up to one of his soccer academies, he’d now hold open the door and hand her a kit.
“I should never have underestimated them,” Charlton said.
Herdman could have told him that.