March 29, 2023
John Herdman, CANMNT Headcoach, during a team practice.

John Herdman, CANMNT Headcoach, during a team practice.

It was well over 20 years since Canada had reached the Concacaf Final Round of FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, yet Canada not only qualified, but did so as Concacaf’s leading team – and with a game to spare. When asked how Canada pulled off this feat, veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan needed no time to answer that question. “I can just say two words: John Herdman. That’s it,” he said.

Herdman is, as Borjan reflected, Canada’s miracle man. He has also proved himself to be a gambler bold and canny enough to identify, and stake his reputation on, an opportunity that justified the hefty risk. That fateful, hazardous-looking move from coaching Christine Sinclair and Co had, he explained, been based on a belief that leading the men to a World Cup “could change the game in this country”. Vindication has been suitably sweet.

But with that first, monumental mission accomplished, Herdman finds himself faced with a dilemma. His strategy thus far has been based on ambition, and a lot of it, with Canada’s spectacular, table-topping success in qualifying no less than he had demanded before a ball was kicked. Dare he take the same approach at the country’s first World Cup in 36 years, with Croatia and Belgium – both medal-winners at the last edition – among the colossuses lying in wait? Herdman discussed all this and more.

John, what are your key priorities between now and the FIFA World Cup?
John Herdman: One of the internal priorities has been scouting our opponents and looking at ways we can hopefully close the qualitative gap that, as underdogs, we’ll need to deal with. There’s also a lot of work going into looking at the mindset of the group and how we tweak the culture to bring another level of performance out of them and put in place a tactical blueprint that gives us a chance to really compete.
For the players, there’s work to put in for them to do really well at this World Cup, and I’m already seeing them put that in. They know there is a gap to close but that there’s also an opportunity to create something special, a personal best. As staff, we just want to create an environment that allows those players to reach those new levels – because that’s what it’s going to take.

In closing that gap, does it help that you’ve already shown that it can be done in the way you made up the huge amount of ground that had existed between yourselves and the likes of USA and Mexico in Concacaf?
Herdman: That is important. In June, we spent some time with the team looking at what got us here – to the top of Concacaf and back to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years. We were able to identify a lot of key elements, whether that was the brotherhood, the team spirit the players worked on and which kept the team on track, or the maverick ability of our forwards and our fullbacks, or our transitional quality. In Concacaf, we were the best in certain areas and one of those was scoring goals when the opposition was disorganised.

We were looking at all those elements but what we also saw is that what got us here won’t get us there, and by there I mean success on the global stage. Success in Concacaf doesn’t translate to success at the World Cup – this will be a completely different jungle for these players. We’ll be a genuine underdog in every single game and while that mentality of the underdog is an absolute gift, it’s a curse at the same time. We’ve had to explore that. We’ve had to look closely at what will be different and what we’ll have to change to inspire a nation and what it will take for these players to get out and really enjoy this World Cup – and enjoy it by competing.

How much of your work right now is on that psychological side of things; making sure you get that underdog mentality right?
Herdman: Well, for me, mindset will always undermine structure and always undermine skillset, so it has to be the most important part of this. We can have a great tactical blueprint, do months and months of scouting on these top teams, but if the mindset is not right it will undermine all of that. That’s why we’ve put a huge focus in that area and it’s why we do need to be careful about that underdog mentality because underpinning that is the implication you’re not good enough.

We’ve tried to flip that and looked to unpack the David-v-Goliath concept, because there’s no doubt we’re going to face two of the giants of world football. We can’t play those games conventionally, match up the way normal teams might – we’ve got to look to be different and find that X factor. To do that, we wanted to look at all the reasons why David was favoured to win that battle, and then looking at how we can be favourites in these matches – to think differently.

Some of the players might answer that David-v-Goliath question we put to them with a bit of a smile. But they are clear that we’ve already been on a unique journey and there are some areas that we believe put us in a really good position to be successful and push deep into this tournament.

In the preliminaries, you made it clear that it wasn’t about scraping through in the last qualifying place, even though that would have been a fantastic achievement – you wanted to top the group. Given what you’ve said here, how easy – or tough – has it been for you to set expectations and ambitions for the World Cup itself?
Herdman: That was what the meetings in June were all about for us, and it could never be a case of me just pulling some goals and objectives out of a hat. Those goals must be founded in real confidence that they can be realised. Our targets for Concacaf were always pioneering, over-achieving, and this group embraced that mindset of using every camp we have together to break new ground and make history.

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What they have now is a knowledge that if you believe something is possible and commit your mind to it, it really is possible. Even at the start of this journey – my very first meeting with the players back in 2018 – I told them, ‘I’m not here to prepare you to qualify, or to win this match we have coming up. I’m here to get you ready over four years to be the first Canada team to score, to get a result and progress out of a World Cup group stage.’ Back in 2018, the players were scratching their heads, thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ But now they believe.

Alphonso Davies will clearly be one of your key men in Qatar. He also made headlines recently by promising to donate his World Cup earnings to charity. Does that chime with what you know about him as a character?
Herdman: He’s just a high-quality individual. I think everyone sees that. He’s got a big heart and his unique experiences in life, coming from a war-torn country, have clearly made him the kind of person he is, with the kind of values he has. It was a wonderful gesture and, as a global superstar, money is obviously not his biggest motivator. There are some Canadian players who’re not anywhere near that same financial level and those World Cup earnings will be very important to them. But Alphonso’s done a great thing there and we’re all proud of him for it.

You built up this fantastic feelgood factor and gathered huge momentum during qualifying. How important is maintaining that going to be in the time ahead?
Herdman: It’s critical. But international football is a strange environment because you have these pockets of time and March, when we qualified, already seems like a million years ago. Then June was a bit disrupted because we had a dual focus of trying to prepare for the World Cup but also looking to get into the final four of the Nations League. This month (which brings friendlies against Uruguay and Qatar) is a big one for us because we’ve never played a game out of Concacaf since my very first game against New Zealand four years ago. Those new experiences, of playing a genuine tier-one nation in Uruguay with tier-one threats all over the field, will test us in ways that we haven’t been tested before.

When the draw was made, your group was identified by neutrals as one of the most interesting and exciting. Although it could have been easier for you, did you share that assessment?
Herdman: That’s it exactly: pure excitement for the players, staff, fanbase – the entire country really. We could have looked around and thought, ‘Well, if we’d ended up in that other group, we’d have had a better chance of getting out.’ But the story wouldn’t have been the same. When Belgium and Croatia came out of the hat, we were just rubbing our hands, saying, ‘This is going to be an amazing experience’.

We want to be ready to embrace that World Cup experience and, for me, the big thing is not constraining the players in any way by placing ridiculous expectations on them or make it feel like it’s a heavy burden that they’re carrying. We want to create a freedom and have them go in against the De Bruynes, Lukakus, Modrics and relish that chance of pushing their limits against these immortals of the game. As coach, I know that I’ll either be a hero or a zero. That’s how the business goes. I’ll either be lauded being a tactical genius or I’ll be slated for being naïve. But just as I want the players to play with freedom, I want to make decisions with that same freedom.

And just as the players are testing themselves against the Modrics and De Bruynes, you’ll be doing likewise against the likes of Roberto Martinez and Zlatko Dalic. That must excite you?
Herdman: I’m going to learn massively from these experiences. I’ve already enjoyed scouting the coaches you mention because you’re picking up their progression from 2018 to now, seeing how Martinez, for example, has tweaked things and adapted the team as some of his players age a bit. I already feel I’m getting better learning from that, listening to their interviews and trying to understand them as people. I’m still growing, still developing and still evolving, and I know that whatever happens there will be a better version of me on the other side of this World Cup. And it’s a joy in the meantime. Right now, I’m being paid to watch and take a magnifying glass to De Bruyne – what a gift that is! (laughs)

Herdman: It’s just such a special time in people’s lives. There’s all the excitement and anticipation in the build-up with the World Cup fixture charts in the newspapers, the Panini cards, and by the time the tournament comes around – with the theme song and TV production – you don’t really care who’s playing in that first game. For me, the World Cup was everything. Those days – it was summer in the UK, so you’d be down the field pretending to be [Michel] Platini, Glenn Hoddle or Gary Lineker with his wristband on – were just the best of your life.

I remember being up at all hours with my dad to watch England play – those are special memories. Even now, I’m conscious that as I go so deep into the work, and the detail of preparing everything for the matches, I don’t want to lose that feeling I had as a kid. I keep wanting to provoke that with my players too, telling them to bring that childish spirit to this World Cup environment. I think it will stand us in good stead.

Text from FIFA

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