Since taking over the Canadian women’s soccer program in 2011, John Herdman has proved he is a difference-maker.
His on-field success is well-documented, helping Canada reach an all-time high of fourth in the world rankings in the wake of back-to-back Olympic bronze medals. It speaks volumes that the Canadian women were disappointed with their sixth-place finish at the 2015 World Cup on home soil.
Off the field, Herdman literally changed lives. He has made better players and better people.
Goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, a force of nature in her own right, credits Herdman for helping push her to widen her horizons outside of sports.
“He basically said to me ‘If you think your purpose on this Earth is to kick a soccer ball for Canada, then I’ve failed you … You have something that is more than just the sport,”‘ she recalled.
“And it triggered me. And it made me ask myself ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose on this world?”‘
Now retired after five World Cups, two Olympics and 110 caps for her country, LeBlanc works as a UNICEF ambassador, media personality, motivational speaker, and FIFA and CONCACAF representative.
Even tougher challenge
After reviving the women’s team, which flamed out in spectacular fashion to finish last at the 2011 World Cup, Herdman faces an even tougher challenge in resuscitating a moribund men’s program — currently ranked 94th in the world, sandwiched between Gabon and the Faroe Islands — that has verged on irrelevance in recent years.
The 42-year-old Herdman will likely face resistance from those who choose to denigrate — unfairly — the women’s game. Skeptics would be better served to listen to the Canadian women about Herdman and wait and see how he does with the men.
Women like LeBlanc see the former university lecturer in England as a master motivator and source of inspiration. A Geordie Tony Robbins, he found ways to empower and connect with his players.
His work ethic is unparalleled. And he thinks outside the box. At the 2015 World Cup, Herdman’s management team had nailed down everything from training the brain (via mental performance consultant Alex Hodgins) to driving time to the stadium.
Herdman’s philosophy is built around “four pillars” — physical, technical/tactical, mental and social/emotional. There’s a lot more to winning a soccer tournament than just putting the ball in the back of the net, in Herdman’s mind.
He coached New Zealand before coming to Canada and credits former Kiwi ‘keeper Kristy Hill, one of the team’s Maori leaders, for helping him understand the importance of the spiritual side of team-building.
‘Touch the heart before you take the hand’
“With her influence you start to realize that you really do have to touch the heart before you take the hand,” he said. “And that is a philosophy that I’ve maintained throughout my coaching over the last six or seven years.”
The question is: Will men buy into what Herdman is selling?
While men and women both play the same beautiful game, they come at it from vastly different circumstances.
For one, Herdman will have less time to work his magic with the men’s senior team. Unlike the NWSL, which accommodates the U.S. and Canadian national teams, pro teams in the men’s world are reluctant to share their talent more than the minimum.
And while most of the Canadian men are making modest salaries by pro soccer standards, they are far better compensated than the women.
While soccer may have done little for the Canadian women’s bank accounts, it has opened doors and given them time to expand their horizons with Herdman’s blessing.
His 2015 World Cup team featured a chiropractor, fitness DVD guru, artist, Zumba instructor, food truck owner and documentary video-shooter, among others.
Challenge players to become leaders
Herdman challenged his players to become true leaders, a subject they literally studied off the field through books and lectures. He had them strip away defence mechanisms to share their emotions with their teammates, further strengthening team ties.
There are positive signs on the men’s landscape, with Canada part of a North American bid for the 2026 World Cup and the Canadian Premier League under construction.
The Canadian men’s program has long been dogged by the fact that talent did not have proper places to develop. Finding work overseas was complicated by red tape and intense competition. And while Major League Soccer has helped development, it has not always produced playing time for domestic talent.
Herdman knows talent when he sees it. The CPL will help develop it as the CSA works towards 2026.
Herdman is also good at surrounding himself with quality off the field.
When Herdman came to Canada from New Zealand, he took some of his staff with him. But not Tony Readings, a grassroots coach Herdman hired first as a technical analyst and then assistant coach. Readings stayed and took over the Kiwi team.
Herdman’s rationale was Readings, who stepped down as New Zealand coach last year, was ready to become his own coach.
‘He’s a high-performing guy’
“My mantra was you’ve got to put things down better than you found it,” Herdman said.
He believes that is the case with the Canadian women with former Danish coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller, his former assistant, taking charge. Herdman speaks highly of the Dane but makes no secret of the fact that he sees former national team players like Rhian Wilkinson and Carmelina Moscato as the team’s coaching future.
Ask his players what it like working under Herdman and they say it’s an honour and a privilege.
“[He’s] somebody that knows absolutely how to get the best out of people,” Moscato said prior to the 2015 World Cup. “He’s a high-performing guy. He’s created the environment for that. And you talk about squeezing blood from a rock, I mean he’s really done it with a lot of us — reinventing us.”
“John has affected all of us in huge ways and only a tiny piece of that is soccer-related,” added Wilkinson. “It sounds ridiculous but he’s changed me probably as a person and I only met him when I was 29.”
The transition of power Monday proved hurried and messy as the CSA rushed to get the news out before reporters did.
Herdman did call captain Christine Sinclair before the news broke. She was still obviously stunned.
“Speechless right now….,” Sinclair tweeted.
Other players, seemingly equally shocked, offered Herdman their best wishes.
“I’ve never been more inspired by a head coach then I have with @coachherdman and I’m Canadian so I want the men’s team to succeed as much as I want our women’s team to,” tweeted veteran goalkeeper Erin McLeod. “I believe in our program and the people in it. Great things lie ahead and I’m grateful for my time with John.”
Fired men’s coach Octavio Zambrano has said little publicly other than a tweet in which he wished Herdman and the CSA well. He also gave his blessing to a supporter’s tweet that suggested he had ruffled feathers with his ambition and desire for change.
The time was right
“I will explain at a press conference in more detail,” Zambrano said in his tweet. “I enjoyed every minute in this great country and the genuine support of the fans.”
The CSA offered no reason for Zambrano’s ouster other than to call it an “organizational decision” required for the long-term development of the men’s program.
It did not mention in its release Monday that Herdman’s long-range mandate is essentially the same given to Zambrano last March.
As for Herdman, he had already thought about a move to the men’s game, although initially that plan was linking to making through the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics.
While loyal to his players, he had rebuilt the women’s framework and established a pipeline of talent. He also knew that Canada, in part because of its failure to grab the pot of gold available every four years to men’s World Cup finalists, does not have the resources of the teams above it.
Herdman had other job opportunities but denies that he used them to get the men’s job. His family wanted to stay in Canada, he wanted a change and the CSA evidently wanted Zambrano out.
The time was right.