John Herdman believed when virtually no one else did. Canada would go to the World Cup in 2022.
This was the message at his first camp in charge, in March 2018 in Murcia, Spain.
“He told us the goal in that very first meeting – which was to qualify for the World Cup. He said it there and then,” Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio said.
“He had the vision long before anyone else. No one there thought of 2026. We were all focused on the next thing right in front of us – which was the chance to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.”
Some 46 games and 56 months later, Herdman and Canada are in Doha, back at the men’s soccer showcase for the first time in 36 years.
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Osorio is one of nine players from that first camp to make the World Cup roster. The others are Milan Borjan, Derek Cornelius, Samuel Adekugbe, Atiba Hutchinson, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Liam Millar, Samuel Piette and Cyle Larin.
When Canada made its World Cup debut in Mexico, Herdman was 10 years old and living in Consett just outside Newcastle, England.
“I still have moments (where) I pinch myself (like) when we arrived here in Doha,” Herdman said.
“It’s going to be one hell of a ride,” he added. “I’m going to rub shoulders with world-class coaches like (Belgium) Roberto Martinez. And for me, that’s where I want to be – on that razor’s edge and letting the people of Consett, County Durham know that anything is possible.
“Anything is possible.”
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The son of a steelworker who had to find work in the oil industry in Scotland when the steelworks closed, Herdman did not have an easy time growing up.
He was an “OK” central midfielder and went on to play semi-pro soccer in the Northern League and for his university. But knowing that a professional career was not in the cards, he took up coaching.
He followed courses at 16 and had his own football school at 23.
At university in Leeds he met a teacher/businessman called Simon Clifford who was fascinated with the Brazilian style of football and opened Brazilian football schools. That resonated with Herdman, a slick player whose nickname later when competing in Canadian women’s team practice was The Black Flash.
Sunderland players began sending their children to Herdman’s football school, which led to a job offer in the Sunderland academy. Herdman spent three years there working with a young Jordan Henderson, now a Liverpool and England star.
Herdman lectured four days a week in the sports science department at Northumbria University and went to the academy in the evenings. His passion was football, but he realized that there was no future for those who did not play at the highest level.
Herdman thought about going for a PhD and using his experience at Sunderland as research. Then Dr. Paul Potrac, his supervisor at university, moved to Otago University in New Zealand.
Potrac told Herdman about a football job as a regional director in New Zealand, selling him on the chance to essentially take over a blank football canvas.
Herdman threw himself into the task, coaching all ages while creating a soccer blueprint for the region.
“I can’t remember when I didn’t do an 80-plus-hour week,” he once said. “It’s my personality, probably my mental disorder – if I’m set on something I’m passionate about, I’m a little crazy about it.”
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He took New Zealand’s under-20 team to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2006 and 2008 and led the senior women to the World Cup in 2007 and 2011.
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His last outing at the 2011 World Cup was a turning point. After losses to Japan and England, the Football Ferns rallied to score two stoppage time goals to draw Mexico 2-2.
Herdman says that game “saved my career.”
“The team was right on death’s door and to get them up for that last game and for us to go 2-0 down, you knew you had to fight for their pride, you had to fight for your career, you was big on it. -time.”
Canada qualifies for its 1st Men’s World Cup in 36 years
After that World Cup, Canada offered him a job coaching the national women’s team with the lure of a home World Cup prompting another move around the world.
“The players laugh about it now, but until he became our guy, we thought of him as that annoying little man on the sidelines wearing an earpiece,” writes Canada captain Christine Sinclair in her recently released memoir . Play the long game.
Herdman fixed a broken Canadian women’s team after finishing last at the 2011 World Cup, leading it to back-to-back Olympic bronzes before taking over the men’s helm.
Sinclair calls Herdman “hands down the best coach I’ve ever had. He is life-changing.”
“He helps you rediscover your passion,” she said in an interview. “And within a team he creates a culture of unity, one where your egos are left at the door. You do it for the team and for each other.
“You spend 10 minutes in a room with him and you’ll be ready to walk through a wall for him. He is just so charismatic and so passionate about what he talks about. You can totally see it in the way the men play – and the men played. I can’t wait to see it on the world stage (in Qatar).”
“I think he’s an absolute genius when it comes to coaching and man management and inspiring people,” former Canadian goalie Craig Forrest said.
“And he worked for it. He worked for everything,” he added. “He was also given nothing in his life.”
Herdman’s appeal isn’t just limited to his players, says Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis.
“Some of the highest-profile club coaches in the world also love John,” Bontis said, noting Herdman is in touch with Canada Soccer until 2026.
After every national team game or camp, Herdman provides his players’ club coaches and technical staff with a detailed report, ranging from how their man performed on the field to potential recovery issues and things they can work on.
“There are coaches who have contacted me directly saying, ‘Lord, have mercy, the reports we get from John when our players go to (Canadian) national team assignments are better than anything we’ve seen from any other national coach . the world,” Bontis said proudly.
Canadian women’s coach Bev Priestman also grew up in Consett, about five or 10 minutes from Herdman. She was 13 when she was first coached by Herdman at his Brazilian soccer school. Before long she helped him.
“The way he was then is the way he is now – I would say intense, passionate. Innovative. (He) does things differently, which has obviously been a big part of his success,” she said.
Priestman would follow him to New Zealand and then Canada, before striking out on her own for a coaching job with England’s Football Association, returning to take over Herdman’s Canadian women’s team.
Herdman’s attention to detail is legendary.
“He is the hardest working guy I know. To get all those details right, you have to put in the extra hours,” Priestman said.
“I don’t think he can actually sleep because there just can’t be enough hours in the day,” Canadian defender Alistair Johnston added: “He’s got everything mapped out to a T. It’s really impressive. We’re going far be the most prepared team (at the World Cup).”
Paul Dolan, a goalkeeper in Canada’s 1986 World Cup squad and former member of Herdman’s coaching staff, believes Herdman excels when it comes to closing the gap between his team and the opposition.
Herdman connects with his players, gives them a road map and knits them together.
“If you do that, that’s all you can ask,” says Dolan. “But it gives you a better chance of beating even the best opponent.”
Priestman said Herdman’s X-factor is a well-stocked toolbox.
“John has many skills. He can plan, he is strategic, he can zoom out then he can go into detail. Many coaches are just coaches on the grass. And I think he is much more than that.”
Herdman, she says, has a profound effect on his staff as well as his players.
“He dreams big and he kind of pushes you to new limits that you didn’t know you had,” she explained. “It is sometimes very difficult. But myself I wouldn’t have been where I am or wouldn’t have won an (Olympic) gold medal without him pushing me in those very difficult moments, when sometimes you’re like ‘Wow’. But actually they pay off. You look back and you go ‘The reason I can do these things now is because I lived that kind of pressure and scrutiny.’ Because he really has very high standards.”
Herdman’s wife and two children will be in Qatar, although they will go via England on what Herdman calls “their own football pilgrimage”. This includes taking in a Newcastle United game.
“The investment my wife has put into the relationship and making sure I can do what I do at the level I need to do it has been just incredible. My children were at every event. They experienced it all. I couldn’t do it without them.”
“And they have to be there,” he said with a laugh. “They have no choice.”