John Herdman insists he’s just being honest. Sure, he knows you were electrified, maybe even giddy, as the Canadian men’s national soccer team that he coaches went on a historic run to snag a berth last March in this month’s FIFA World Cup. He understands that he and his men have unleashed a rare national anticipation, maybe even something that feels like hope. But he’s always dealt straight with his players and staff, so he’s going to do the same with you.
Over the summer, a small corps of analysts he oversees conducted deep scouting dives on the three teams Canada will face in the opening round-robin group stage: the No. 2-ranked Belgium, Croatia (12th), and Morocco (22nd). The crews – separately responsible for analytics, defensive co-ordination, tactic co-ordination, and set pieces – spent five weeks studying video of 15 matches played by each opponent and then, with Herdman and his assistant coaches, devising blueprints to take into battle against them.
Still, his players “have seen all the stats,” Herdman says. They know that when they step onto the pitch Nov. 23 for their first match, against Belgium, they’ll be facing a squad of players boasting professional-league contracts worth something in the neighbourhood of $300-million more than the No. 38th-ranked Canadian side. “There’s only three teams that have ever gotten out of the group stage with this sort of qualitative gap,” he notes.
“Belgium has never been beaten by an underdog in five or six years.”
Herdman, 47, has been an underdog his whole life: doubted, dismissed. He feels it intensely. Over the course of a recent interview in Toronto, a candid encounter that was by turns rousing, introspective, resilient, and deeply vulnerable, he spoke of both struggling with and being animated by an imposter syndrome that has haunted him for decades.
It would not be too much to suggest he has forged his sense of self around the belief that he is David facing off against Goliaths, wherever they may present themselves: on the pitch, in the media, within a hidebound soccer bureaucracy.
But there are costs to that sort of engagement with the world. Even as he prepares to step onto the biggest stage of his career, Herdman acknowledges the process of leading his squad through the challenges of COVID and the 12-month qualifying campaign took an extraordinary mental toll. And there’s something else: Earlier this year, he suffered a profound personal loss, which he says will render any result in Qatar a hollow achievement.
Born in Consett, a hard-knock former industrial town in the northeast of England just down the road from Newcastle, Herdman grew up playing soccer and brawling; he was an underwhelming student. When he was 16 years old, his father began to exhibit symptoms of what would ultimately be diagnosed as manic depression bordering on schizophrenia. His parents divorced. His sister, Nicola, two years his senior, joined the RAF. John was forced to grow up fast, becoming a surrogate parent to his brother, Martin, who is eight years younger.
A middling soccer player himself, Herdman discovered he loved to coach, loved to help others reach their potential. He draws a connection between that calling and his family’s trauma. “Living with someone with mental-health issues, and ultimately having that around your whole family, you just develop a level of empathy. It’s just a deeper understanding that mental health is real,” he says.
We’d met at the Delta Hotel downtown, where Herdman and his staff were holed up for a week analyzing the team’s performance in a pair of recent friendlies against Qatar and Uruguay, and refining their tactical blueprints. The idea was that we’d sit in a quiet spot a couple of floors above the growing cocktail-hour clamour in the lobby, but Herdman usually works out twice a day, and he hadn’t, as he said, “been out of the bunker all day,” so we’d scooped up our gear and walked south, toward Toronto’s Harbourfront. As we crossed under the Gardiner Expressway, someone who appeared to be homeless darted across the late rush-hour traffic.
“Some people can go through life without experiencing anyone with mental-health issues, other than what they see on the TV or walk down the street. But when you’re living it, you recognize how an almost normal person, who’s living a normal life, can change like this” – Herdman snapped his fingers – “and it’s changed, because their environment, stress, other factors are impacting. And you’re aware that, as a coach, you can be that mental trigger in people’s lives. Like, you have that ability to either create that light, clear environment or that dark, heavy, confused environment. And these are choices I think coaches are making.”
He studied sports science and teaching at Leeds Trinity University, then took a coaching job at the youth academy attached to the Sunderland Association Football Club. Energized by innovations in sports science – from nutrition to neuroscience, neurology and psychology, the field was then on the verge of extraordinary upheaval – Herdman became a passionate evangelist for change.
The locals weren’t yet ready for such impiety. In a podcast interview last year, Herdman recalled that he had asked the academy director whether he could do a presentation to the staff on what he’d learned from a week spent observing the French soccer player Jean Tigana, who was then shaking things up as the new manager of Fulham F.C. “I’ll never forget,” Herdman said, with a chuckle. “He slapped us across the back of the head – because I’m only little, and he gave us a whack. And he said, ‘Son, let us tell you something: There’s nothing new in football!’”
Like James Joyce, whose genius was not appreciated by his fellow Dubliners until he left the country, Herdman looked for a more receptive audience. But whereas Joyce settled in Paris (and wrote Ulysses and Finnegans Wake), Herdman wound up in late 2001 on the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Invercargill as a local soccer development director.
Within two years, he had caught the attention of New Zealand Football, landing in Auckland as the manager of coach education, then becoming the director of soccer development and, in 2006, head coach of the women’s national soccer team.
Meanwhile, he was writing his own Finnegans Wake, a masterpiece of soccer program architecture known as the Whole of Football plan, envisioning an integrated national sport system that would spot talent at the grassroots and funnel it into development for high performance. He took the women to two World Cups and one Olympics.
Canada came calling, and in September, 2011, Herdman moved to Vancouver, where he took over the beleaguered women’s team, which had just finished dead last in the World Cup.
“He has a unique ability to pull at players’ and team’s heartstrings, to get them motivated to go into battle,” Christine Sinclair, Canada’s legendary captain, said in an interview. “It took one meeting with him, and I was in. He helped all of us find our joy, and our ‘why’ – you remember why you play the game.
“He truly cares about his players as people, first. That’s not always the case with coaches.”
Two months after taking the job, he shepherded the Canadian women to a gold medal at the 2011 Pan-Am Games. The team won bronze at the 2012 London Olympics and, again, at Rio in 2016.
But by the end of 2017, Herdman didn’t know what else he could do for the team. Even winning Olympic gold, he says, wouldn’t have made a functional difference. In prosaic terms, the national soccer program required more investment. In poetic terms, it needed a signal moment to capture the country’s imagination.
On the verge of accepting a job offer back home in England, Herdman instead proposed to his bosses that he take over the Canadian men’s program, including oversight of the under-14s. If the men qualified for the 2022 World Cup, he reasoned, it could be a transformational event. The financial windfall of at least US$10.5-million would be a valuable infusion of necessary cash. And with Canada set to co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and the United States, momentum could build from one tournament to the next.
Qualification for 2022 would also show Canadians they lived in a soccer country.
But it was a high-stakes gamble: If the quest failed, as Herdman explained in the podcast interview, “you’ll give all of those people – the hockey communities – the chance to say, ‘Canada sucks!’ ”
As soon as he was appointed head of the program, he adopted a bullish stance, confidently predicting during a series of early media appearances that his squad would qualify for 2022. Interviewers were bemused. Even some Canadian soccer executives didn’t believe it could happen.
The men did more than simply qualify, going on a 20-match tear over 12 months that included a 17-game unbeaten streak and numerous moments of surprise and delight: Alphonso Davies’s roadrunner impersonation against Panama; Sam Adekugbe’s leap into a snowbank celebrating a Cyle Larin goal during the “Iceteca” match in Edmonton against Mexico; the raucous homecoming celebration at Toronto’s BMO Field last March, when the men took three points off Jamaica and officially qualified for the World Cup.
Then came the realization: Canada had won its continental division, but going up against European Goliaths such as Belgium is an entirely different order of magnitude. How does Herdman prepare the players for what they’ll face? Is it his responsibility to be brutally honest with them, to tell them they’re not going to win it all? Or would that sap them of the hope they need if they’re going to compete?
“There’s a difference between disappointment and shame,” Herdman explains. “I expect the players are going to experience disappointment. But the shame, the embarrassment, is where you know you haven’t given what you needed to give on that day. You’ve played with fear.”
Herdman has imbued in the men a sense of what he calls New Canada: a band of unselfish brothers who play for each other and country, put fear aside, are willing and able to take the game to their opponent, and yet can adapt in-game to an opponent’s changing style. Still, when the team reconvened in June, “we were very clear that what got us here is not getting us there.”
Herdman is sitting now on a picnic bench at the edge of an artificial-turf lawn that overlooks Lake Ontario. He’s got on a grey Nike track suit and matching Balenciaga trainers that he says he “stole off my son” – Jay Joshua, 18, who plays in the Vancouver Whitecaps FC organization and was called up to the New Zealand under-20s. (His family back in Vancouver also includes his wife, Claire, and their daughter, Lilly-May, 12.)
There’s a breeze blowing in, and he seems invigorated by the walk down here. Or perhaps it’s just the subject that is getting him exercised. He begins to channel what he has been saying to his men about their challenge ahead.
“We always do mental contrast. So: you give them the rose-coloured glasses, and then you give them the dark glasses, to say, ‘Look, you’ve got to get the brain ready for [the likely adversity]. You have to have a full realization of the cold, hard facts. We all know the reasons why we won’t do well: The players, the valuation of our team, the budget of our organization, the number of staff we’ll take, compared to other teams. Look, these are all the reasons why Goliath’s gonna win. But in this David moment’” – as he continues, a lilt creeps into his voice, almost an inspirational singsong, and you can feel yourself getting carried away, understanding what makes players such as Alphonso Davies say that every time they hear Herdman speak, they’d run through a wall for him – “‘in this David moment, what makes you assert? What makes you a favourite here?’
“There’s an element of: We’re bringing something that is a bit of a slingshot, and we’re just adding more rocks into that slingshot by the work we’ve been doing.” He insists: “We know there’s a tactical gap we can close.”
We head back to the hotel, and I mention that I’d once heard him talk about having imposter syndrome. It had been a surprising admission – but hopeful, too, in bringing that common feeling out of the shadows.
“I think imposter syndrome comes and goes,” he says. “I think that’s part of your journey, that you step up to the plate when you’ve got to coach Christine Sinclair. You’ve arrived from New Zealand, you’re going onto the training field with one of the greatest of all time. Of course you feel like an imposter. This is a brand new experience and you’re absolutely doubting whether or not she’s going to actually accept me as someone she wants to work with.
“And then – no different – you walk into a stadium of 60,000 people in Edmonton in a home World Cup opening game, there’s no doubt that a little bit inside of you is saying” – he pauses, adopts a bewildered, hesitant pose – “‘hope you’re ready for this, John!’ And that’s always been there, wherever I’ve gone in my career. Even some of the [training] camps, you have a loss, you’re into that: ‘Am I good enough?’
“I think that’s a greatest strength/greatest weakness. It’s a strength that helps you stay real,” and helps with what he calls adversarial growth: challenging moments that prove to ourselves we’re capable of more.
“I feel like I’m always on the edges of that, and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s not too uncomfortable that it’s going to create mental-health issues.”
There have been, though, recent moments that were too much, were too uncomfortable, were mentally unhealthy. In early 2021, he struggled with the weight of responsibility of travelling with players when COVID was rampant and no one had yet had a vaccine.
“Going to Haiti in a pandemic? Organizing a medevac [in case someone had to be flown out]? Taking a seven-man security team? I’ve never travelled with security before. It was a wild ride. It’ll be a good book one day, I’m sure. But in terms of mental health – it wasn’t a safe experience.
“That was a difficult, difficult period – which, to be honest, I didn’t really feel the effects of until we qualified [a year later].” Qualification itself, he admits, “was a dark period. It was almost like you couldn’t celebrate the moment. I mean, the euphoria of qualifying was amazing.” But he was left feeling hollow.
And then, devastating news: His sister, who had, like their father, also struggled with mental-health issues through her life, died in May.
“It will always be an empty success because of that,” he admits. “There’s a lot of pain around this journey. Throw in the pressure, throw in the COVID realities, then you throw in that unfolding. It was tough.”
We’re sitting in the lobby now, and the laughter spilling across the room suddenly seems at once inappropriate and reassuring: a reminder of life marching on. We’d been scheduled to chat for about half an hour, but we’re coming up on an hour now. Herdman seems content to just sit here, to keep talking. But he knows there are teams of analysts and assistant coaches and others waiting for him. He gets up and looks around vaguely, as if waking from a dream, then thanks me for the conversation.
“I haven’t been asked these sorts of questions for a long time.” Usually, he says, “People just ask, ‘Are you gonna win the World Cup?’”
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Canada hasn't played in a men’s FIFA World Cup since 1986. What are they up against? Get caught up with the first episode of Ahead Of The Game, a podcast hosted by Globe columnist John Doyle and soccer journalist Sonja Cori Missio.