Canada’s MNT coach John Herdman (44), an Englishman from the footballing hotbed of the old country’s North-East, simply bleeds and breathes against the heartbeat of his adopted nation.
Attend a press conference or talk to him, and you can feel the passion and committed energy he puts into his role, a self-preserving challenge to make Canadian soccer regionally competitive and worldly noticed.
Herdman feels a patriotism here he hasn’t elsewhere, not in New Zealand where they adopted his ‘Whole of Football’ blueprint and not in his homeland where as a youth coach at Premier League Sunderland he realized opportunities would be limited, not having played the game at an elite level.
He talks a lot about the brain and how psychology works in sports. He can be seen singing the Canadian national anthem during pre-match formalities, and has used the phrases, “see thee rise,” “true north” and “glorious and free”, as motivational words.
He could have returned to England in 2013, when the England WNT job came up. Herdman was the prime candidate having just steered Canada to an Olympic bronze.
He remembers well, being peppered by friends and family back home at the time.
”I was like, well… .” He takes a deep breath. “I love this country. After the bronze-medal experience, I feel more at home here than I’ve ever felt anywhere. I love my football back in Newcastle [United] – it’s the one thing I miss – but this feels like home. It’s the respect that you’ve earned with the public here that makes you feel like you’re really part of the culture here. You realize you’re somebody who can have a really positive influence.”
He has of course since switched sides, moving from the women’s program to the men’s and last month became the first Canadian men’s coach to preside over victory against the USA for longer than any Canadian soccer fan prefers to admit.
Never short of an inspirational word, or ten, he spoke with immense pride after that evening’s 2-0 victory, emotion threatening to undermine his flow. Many players, including goalkeeper Milan Borjan who sat adjacent to him that post-match evening, were neither slow nor reticent to herald the Englishman’s contribution since he joined the men’s set-up.
Borjan: “This man sitting right beside me, he brought new football to Canada. And I just want to say to him right now in front of all you [the media], thank-you for bringing the spirit, the belief, the energy to these guys. This is a big win for us and this one goes to this man right here.”
Buoyed and humbled by the 90 minutes, we’d all just witnessed that evening, Herdman’s unmistakeable Geordie accent held it together to thank players and fans alike.
“To the boys, nothing but pride. It’s a pretty unique and special team and I thought every player put something out there tonight.
“We’ve been working for a great time on making sure that we’re all clear [on what to do] when we turn up and pull that red shirt on. There’s a strong leadership group and they’ve got a voice now, and they speak from the heart.
“You know they’ve experienced a lot and I’m not naive enough to think that it’s going to be my ideas and my passion, it’s just trying to draw that passion from what’s in there [the players]. They’ve been hurting for a long time and they’ve wanted a night like this for a long time as well.”
Herdman recognizes that last month’s victory over the US, while momentous, is only one small move in the right direction. Much hard work and development lies ahead, but the Englishman is convinced of the potential he has at his disposal.
“It’s only one step. Only one little drop in the ocean for this team and there’s more to come. You can beat them [the USA] once, but the big task is going back to back. That’s the consistency. I enjoyed the game. It was a helluva’ match and again I was just proud the boys were ready to get on the front foot for ninety minutes.
“We have to do it again. We’re going away to the US and we’ll have to have something up our sleeves for that match as well.”
Whether Canada can complete the job of Nations League qualification and avoid defeat this evening, or not, it’s clear that there’s been a seismic shift in mindset around the MNT program. For once there is belief that Les Rouges can go south and get a result.
It won’t be easy of course against a wounded US MNT that has struggled for consistency, and failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, a situation previously considered unthinkable in the modern soccer landscape.
The Canadians may welcome the news that Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic has been ruled out injured, similarly the Toronto pair, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, but their preparation-obsessed head coach will not allow any thoughts to enter Canadian heads, that these developments make the task any easier.
John Herdman has spent his 44 years ‘finding a way’. He’s not had normal or straight-forward development to the ranks of international soccer management, but he’s taken risks and worked hard. He’s a deep thinker and unafraid to burn the midnight oil.
Single-mindedness and ability to inspire are possibly borne from responsibility handed him from an early age to take care of a younger sibling, after his father’s mental illness – manic depression bordering on schizophrenia - emerged.
Always a bright and charasmatic boy at school, the desire to make something of himself despite lack of family support, and to move away from hometown Consett, depressed by the death of the steel industry, a development that rendered both his father and grandfather unemployed when he was 5, propelled Herdman to use his inspirational talents and take risks.
Football and eduction were the winners. Canadian soccer can also be added to that list, for if the upward trajectory mapping Herdman’s career and achievements to date is maintained, the right man may already be in place to meet Canada’s 2026 World Cup challenge, whether short-term success is achieved or not, in Florida this evening.