John Herdman’s incredible journey from lecturer and Sunderland youth coach to leading Canada to 2022 World Cup – as Englishman reveals he took inspiration from ‘trailblazers’ Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez
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Gareth Southgate will not be the only English manager leading a team at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar… enter John Herdman.
Canada are playing in their first World Cup for 36 years and the man who has led them there was born in County Durham.
You may ask, how did someone from the north east of England end up there? Via a ten-year stint in New Zealand of course.
Herdman’s journey to the pinnacle of football has been unconventional, but inspiring all the same.
“I can’t believe I’m saying that. It sounds crazy to think,” he tells NaijaOnPoint.com from his home in Canada when talking about the World Cup.
The 47-year-old would be forgiven for having to pinch himself, after all the Canadians are not a well renowned footballing nation.
Ice hockey may be the national sport, but football fever is gripping the country and who can blame them as they head to just their second ever appearance at a World Cup.
“There’s opportunity in this World Cup for Canada,” Herdman said.
“We haven’t scored a goal at a World Cup, we haven’t kept a clean sheet at a World Cup, we haven’t achieved a point at a World Cup.
“There are so many opportunities for this team to go after. It’s small steps. Internally there’s a belief there. We worked hard over a three year period to qualify and finished top of Concacaf, ahead of Mexico and the US, but coming into the world level it’s a different jungle.”
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Canada have a tough task in Qatar as they are in Group F alongside Belgium and Croatia, who finished third and second at the last World Cup respectively, with Morocco completing the quartet.
There is certainly opportunity there for Herdman’s side to cause a few shocks, after all Belgium and Croatia both have ageing squads.
Canada have a spine of talent that fans will recognise from the Champions League, led by Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies and superstar Lille striker Jonathan David. Plus the likes of Cyle Larin, who was the top scorer in qualifying, who is at Club Brugge, and Stephen Eustaquio at Porto.
It has been some journey for Herdman, who started out coaching at Brazilian soccer schools in the north east, followed by a stint at Hartlepool and then progressing to the Sunderland academy.
His life was pretty settled as he was lecturing at Northumbria University in the Sports Science department while also coaching the likes of Jordan Henderson at the then Premier League club’s academy.
However, as Herdman had never played professional football he felt like he’d hit his ceiling. Then a chance came to head to New Zealand.
“It was really difficult to progress to the next level unless you hadn’t played at the highest level,” he said.
“Then moving to New Zealand, all the way to Invercargo, which is the southernest city in the world.
“They were predominantly farming people. Going out to grass fields with broken floodlights and people would turn up with wellington boots on, it was an unbelievable experience trying to bring your passion to a rugby country.
“I really enjoyed that part of my life, probably the most enriching 10 years of my experiences in football.
“I worked all my way from being a regional development officer to the technical director of that country, while at the same time running the women’s team.
“It’s rare you see the person leading national football development strategies and changes is actually in the evenings coaching the women’s team.
“Then my chance came to come to Canada and that’s where I became a committed full-time coach and there was less leading national changes, grassroots strategies, but about building a high-performance system for the women’s programme.”
Herdman enjoyed phenomenal success with the Canada Women’s team after taking over in 2011.
They won gold at the 2011 Pan American games and back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.
Following his success with the women’s team, he then was named as Canada men’s head coach and also became men’s national director, with a responsibility from all age groups from Under-14s up.
Under his leadership, Canada have risen from 72 in the world rankings to their current position of 41st. Their qualification to the World Cup was the first for the men’s team in 36 years.
Despite never having played the game professionally, Herdman has built up an impressive CV. There haven’t been many to reach such a level over the years, but he points to a couple of trailblazers he took inspiration from.
“Back in my time, the inspirations were Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho. They were the real trailblazers, people who hadn’t played at the highest level and were able to really work as academics as people who studied the game and then were able to adapt to be able to communicate with players.
“It’s difficult to communicate with players who haven’t played at their level, to see, experience and feel.
“The trick is to surround yourself with people who can fill those gaps and understand the psychology in that moment and build that understanding.”
Success at the World Cup would certainly bring a boost to his profile to those who do not already know his name back in England.
He is contracted at Canada until 2026, when they will host the World Cup alongside the USA and Mexico.
Heading back to England is not something he is pushing for right now, but did not rule it out one day.
Herdman added: “You just keep trying to push your own personal levels, that’s the critical part of this. I’m contracted with Canada to 2026.
“In my projects, I’ve typically spent 10 years in a project. I was 10 years in New Zealand and 10 years in Canada. I’ve got another four years left in Canada with the 2026 home World Cup, which will be amazing.
“At the same time, you are always trying to push your limits. At some point, there may be opportunities where they will take you to another level performance-wise.
“Sometimes you get comfortable and you have to recognise when you are too comfortable being comfortable.
“I’ve got to keep assessing those moments. At this moment in time, I’m excited for this World Cup and then at the home World Cup.”
Belgium vs Canada is live on NaijaOnPoint on Wednesday, kick-off 7pm, as we bring you wall-to-wall coverage of the World Cup