John Herdman believed when hardly anyone else did. Canada was going to the World Cup in 2022.
That was the message from his first camp in charge, in March 2018 in Murcia, Spain.
“He told us the objective of this very first meeting, which was to qualify for the World Cup. He said it on the spot,” said Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio.
“He had the vision long before anyone else. Nobody there was thinking about 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 for a final tune-up match against Japan en route to the men’s soccer showcase in Qatar for the first time in 36 years.
Osorio is one of nine players from that first camp who made 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 their World Cup debut in Mexico, Herdman was 10 and living in Consett just outside Newcastle, England.
“I still have moments (where) I pinch myself (like) when we got to Doha here,” 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 Roberto Martinez (from Belgium). And for me, that’s where I want to be – on the edge and letting the people of Consett, County Durham know that anything is possible. Anything is possible.”
Son of a metallurgist
The son of a metalworker who had to find a job in the oil industry in Scotland when the steelworks closed, Herdman did not have it easy growing up.
Central midfielder “OK”, he then played semi-professional football in the Northern League and for his university. But knowing that a professional career was not in the cards, he threw himself into coaching.
He took lessons at 16 and had his own football school at 23.
At the University of Leeds, he had met a teacher/businessman named Simon Clifford who was fascinated with the Brazilian style of football and opened Brazilian football schools. This pleased Herdman, an astute player whose nickname later, when he took part in practices for the Canadian women’s team, was The Black Flash.
Sunderland players began sending their children to Herdman’s Football School, which led to a job offer at Sunderland’s academy. Herdman spent three years there, working with a young Jordan Henderson, who is now a Liverpool and England star.
Herdman thought about doing a doctorate, using his experience at Sunderland as research. Then Dr. Paul Potrac, his supervisor at the university, moved to the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Potrac spoke to Herdman about a football job as a regional manager in New Zealand, selling him the opportunity to essentially take over a blank football canvas.
Herdman threw himself into the task, coaching all ages while creating a football plan for the region.
“I can’t remember when I haven’t done an 80+ hour week,” he once said. “It’s my personality, probably my mental disorder when I’m listening to something that excites me, I go a little crazy about it.”
He took the New Zealand 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.
His last outing at the 2011 World Cup proved to be a turning point. After defeats to Japan and England, the Football Ferns rallied to score two stoppage time goals to level Mexico 2-2.
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The game ‘saved my career’
Herdman says this game “saved my career”.
“The team was on death’s doorstep and to pick them up for that last game and for us to lose 2-0, you knew you had to fight for their pride, you had to fight for your career, you were big – time.”
After that World Cup, Canada offered her a job coaching the Women’s National Team with the lure of a home World Cup, prompting another move around the world.
“Players laugh about it now, but until he became our man, we thought of him as that annoying little man on the sidelines wearing an earpiece,” Canadian captain Christine Sinclair wrote in her recently released memoir “Playing the Long Game”.
Herdman repaired a broken Canadian women’s team after finishing last at the 2011 World Cup, leading them to a back-to-back Olympic bronze medal before taking over the men’s helm.
Sinclair calls Herdman “the best coach I’ve ever had, hands down. He’s been life changing.”
“It helps you rediscover your passion,” she said in an interview. “And within a team, it creates a culture of unity, a culture where your ego is left at the door. You do this 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’s just as charismatic and passionate about what he’s talking about. You can totally see that in the way the men play – and the men played. I can’t wait to see him on the world stage (in Qatar).”
“I think he’s an absolute genius when it comes to coaching and managing people and inspiring people,” said former Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest.
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Herdman’s appeal isn’t just limited to his players, said Canada Soccer President Nick Bontis.
“Some of the most prominent club coaches in the world also love John,” Bontis said, noting that Herdman is in contact with Canada Soccer until 2026.
After each national team match or camp, Herdman provides his players’ club coaching and technical staff with a detailed report, ranging from how their man fared on the pitch to any recovery issues and things that they could work on.
“There are coaches who have contacted me directly and said, ‘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 around the world,” Bontis said proudly.
Canadian coach Bev Priestman also grew up in Consett, five or ten minutes from Herdman. She was 13 when she was first coached by Herdman at his Brazilian football school. Soon she was helping him.
“What he looked like then is what he is now – I would say intense, passionateª Innovative. (He) does things differently, which has obviously been a big part of his success,” said she declared.
Priestman would follow him to New Zealand and then Canada, before retiring on her own for a coaching job with the English Football Association, returning to take over Herdman’s Canadian women’s team.
Herdman’s attention to detail is legendary.
“He’s the hardest working guy I know.ª To get all those details, you have to work overtime,” Priestman said.
Paul Dolan, goaltender for Canada’s 1986 World Cup team and former member of Herdman’s coaching staff, believes Herdman excels at closing the gap between his team and the opposition .
Herdman connects with his players, gives them a roadmap and knits them together.
“If you do that, that’s all you can ask for,” Dolan said. “But it gives you a better chance of beating even the best opponent.”
“He is strategic”
Priestman said Herdman’s X Factor is a well-stocked toolbox.
“John has a lot of skills. He can plan, he’s strategic, he can zoom in and then he can go into detail. A lot of coaches are just coaches on the grass. And I think he’s so much more than that.”
Herdman, she says, has a profound effect on her staff as well as her players.
“He dreams big and he kind of pushes you to new limits that you didn’t know you had,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s really hard.ª But myself, I wouldn’t be where I am or I wouldn’t have won an (Olympic) gold medal without him pushing me in these really difficult times, when sometimes you’re like, ‘Wow.’ But actually, they pay off. You look back and you’re like, ‘The reason I can do these things now is because I’ve been through this kind of pressure and scrutiny. “Because he has really, really high standards.”
Herdman’s wife and two children will be in Qatar, although they are going through England on what Herdman calls “their own football pilgrimage”. Which includes attending a Newcastle United match.
“The investment my wife has put into the relationship and making sure I can do what I do at the level I have to do it has been just amazing. My kids have been to all the events. They’ve been through it all. . I couldn’t ‘I won’t do it without them.’
“And they have to be there,” he said with a laugh. “They do not have the choice.”