Herdman: Davies can help take Canada to the next level

28 Jan 2019
  • John Herdman swapped Canada’s women’s team for the men’s side

  • As national programme director, he is also revolutionising the entire set-up

  • Herdman tells FIFA.com about his surprise switch and the rise of Alphonso Davies

It was a move that stunned a nation and shocked the football world. While many had speculated over John Herdman’s next job after Canada’s women, no-one predicted it would be with the Canucks’ men.

The surprise was not that Herdman had been targeted. Though he had no coaching experience in men’s football, the Englishman boasted a proven track record of impressive achievements with Canada and New Zealand. He had won two historic Olympic medals with the former and, in both nations, had initiated and overseen much-lauded structural, programme-wide changes.

Instead, the questions centred on his decision to agree to the switch. Canada’s women are, after all, well established as one of the world’s elite teams and, having moved up to fifth in the global rankings under Herdman’s leadership, will be genuine contenders for this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The men’s side, on the other hand, languished 94th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking when he took charge. They had not qualified for the FIFA World Cup™ since 1986 and, in recent decades, hadn’t even come close, having gone over 20 years without making the final stage of Concacaf qualifiers.

But Herdman saw the 2026 World Cup glimmering on the horizon and, in the foreground, exciting young talent capable of putting Canada in the frame for a place at Qatar 2022. And so it was that the 43-year-old – in his own words, “a builder, a developer” by nature - accepted the challenge of unlocking the unrealised potential of this vast football nation.

Results have duly improved, and Canada will head into next month’s Concacaf Nations League matches with five wins from their last six outings. But Herdman, as he explained to FIFA.com, is not just the head coach, but also national programme director, a broad role that entails responsibility for the entire set-up from U-14 age level up.

VANCOUVER, BC - JUNE 27: John Herdman Head Coach of Canada high fives fans on the way to the team room prior to the start of the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Quarter Final match between the England and Canada June, 27, 2015 at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

FIFA.com: A lot of people were surprised when you switched roles, given the respective global standings of Canada’s women and men. Was it a tough decision? John Herdman: It was a huge decision. Massive. There was a lot going on at that time, with some international interest and job opportunities that would have taken me away from Canada. Also, I’d been with the women’s programme for seven years, and it had come a long way and was in a good place. But when you’ve been somewhere for that long, you definitely begin to question your own motivation and whether you’re still the right person to be leading.

We’d all worked so hard. We’d delivered a medal in 2012 – Canada’s first Olympic medal in a summer sport since 1936 – then filled stadiums coast to coast at the World Cup in 2015 and won another Olympic medal, becoming the first team in over 100 years to do that back-to-back. So you would think that after all that, the programme would be in a much better place financially – and it just wasn’t. What was so clear was that, while the women’s team had captured the hearts of the country, we still couldn’t generate the kind of revenue that could take us to the next level. And it was also clear that the only team that could do that was the men’s side.

What I could see, having been in the country for those seven years, was that the men’s team hadn’t reached its potential and maybe just needed a change to push it to the next level. The board proposed to me something that brought the operational knowledge from the women’s side, putting in place a more symbiotic system where staff work across men's and women’s football, and it just made a lot of sense. Plus, my family wanted to stay in Canada, and the challenge of trying to take this country to the World Cup in 2022 really appealed to me. So while it was a huge decision, it ended up being a no-brainer.

While you clearly improved the ‘A’ teams of both New Zealand and Canada, much of the praise you’ve received is for the structural changes you’ve put in place throughout their national set-ups. Was the chance to do the same with the men’s programme part of the job’s appeal? Absolutely. The scope of the previous coach was to build the elite player infrastructure and align it to the men’s national teams. But it was felt that that connection wasn’t being made quickly enough, especially with the 2026 World Cup on home soil on the horizon, and there was a feeling that I could transfer across the organisational knowledge and regional relationships and trust that had been built up on the women’s side.

It made a lot of sense and, for me, holding dual roles is just the way I’ve become accustomed to working. In New Zealand I was head coach and technical director for the whole country, from grassroots to elite, and it has followed that way with both the women and men here in Canada. I don’t think there are many coaches who take on those two aspects of an organisation but I think my skill-set make me well suited to it. And I like it this way. It’s like being the head chef in a kitchen where you’ve designed that kitchen, grown the ingredients and developed the menu. I’m not just there to focus on the final product. I’m across everything, and I feel that has been important to the successes I’ve had in my previous roles.

You must also enjoy hard work, because a ‘regular’ head coach job would surely be a lot less demanding? Probably! But I’ve been doing 15 hours-a-day since I was 22 or 23. I’ve always had high energy levels, and the staff I surround myself with are all the same. And there’s a lot of work that needs done. There’s a big shift needed to get this country going in the direction it needs to, just as there was on the women’s side. And yeah, maybe there is something in me that needs that. There was a point there just before I moved over to this role when I did feel it was almost becoming too easy, or too comfortable, for me here.

Canada coach John Herdman.

You’ve always put a big emphasis on the emotional and mental side of player-management. How much, if at all, have you needed to adapt your techniques, switching from female to male players? There has been some adaptation. In terms of team development and a tactical framework, those things stay consistent. I remember our first camp together, the men’s team were watching some of the tactical organisation from the women’s team. I don’t know if there’s any other national team in the world where that would happen. But it tells you something about the character of the guys that they responded very positively to that.

The adaptation has been on the mental side as you say because, generally speaking, you can be a little more aggressive and firm with male players. On the other side, I’ve also learned to limit the amount of time we spend in meeting rooms. You get a sense for where the thresholds are, and I definitely think your average female player has a deeper foundation for spending longer in those meetings, wanting to know more about their individual roles and the team in general. But a lot of our systems have transferred across, and the guys are lapping it up.

Your players also say that you’ve established an identity in the team, which they felt was missing before. For people who haven’t seen much of Canada lately, can you explain what that identity looks like? We’re looking at a transition from being a hard-to-beat, gritty team to one that can impose itself and be on the front foot, even against better opponents. That’s what you’ll see from Canada – a team that is fluid and ready to defend, but certainly doesn’t go into matches to sit off our opponents. The mindset is shifting to being proactive and taking the game to the opposition. With the likes of Alphonso Davies, Junior Hoilett, Scott Arfield, Jonathan David and Jonathan Osorio, we have players who’re ready to take the team in that direction. And I think the fans are yearning for it.

Davies in particular has been attracting a lot of attention following his move to Bayern Munich. While he’s still very young, do you see him being the kind of game-changing player who can take a national team to another level? He’s got us all excited. Canada hasn’t really had that kind of player and it gives people hope, seeing that we’ve got a genuine game-changer who is bordering on being world-class. Alphonso’s got a long way to go and we’ve seen plenty of other 18-year-olds who’ve shown fantastic potential and then not reached that potential. But he’s at a great club that will give him the chance to finish his formation in a way that should set him up forever.

Will he get to play there week in, week out? Well, we all believe he’s good enough. If he does keep on moving forward, you’ve seen with the Welsh national team what one Gareth Bale-type player can do. It’s the same with Sigurdsson and Iceland. You can have a good, well organised team but it’s players like that who take you to the next level.