Former NRFL player becomes national hero as Canada heads for World Cup

Ten years ago, he was playing in the Lotto NRFL for Hibiscus Coast — today, he’s a national hero in Canada after taking the country to their first FIFA World Cup finals in 37 years.

John Herdman (46) earned himself a special place in Canada’s football history when his side beat Jamaica 4-0 in the CONCACAF qualifiers in March.

The win ensured Canada will qualify for the Qatar finals in Qatar.

For Herdman, who has taken Canada to 33rd in the FIFA world rankings, it caps an amazing journey since he worked for NZ Football a decade ago, helping design the country’s Whole of Football plan.

He took over as head coach of the Canadian national side four years ago, when the side was 94th in the FIFA international rankings and considered long-shot contenders for the CONCACAF qualifying group in the World Cup.

In a remarkable run of success, Herdman’s Canada have thrived in his 40 games in charge and they sit atop the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying group, clear of highly-regarded United States and Mexico who are now scrambling to take the other two qualifying spots.

So, how did Herdman find the international spotlight after a football journey from his native County Durham, England, via a five-year stint in New Zealand?

Herdman has publicly acknowledged his failure to make the grade as a player in the UK and he began coaching in his 20s at Northumbria University and as a development coach at Sunderland AFC’s academy.

In 2001, he moved to New Zealand and in 2003, he landed jobs as Coach Education Manager and Director of Football Development with NZ Football.

He specialised in coaching women’s football and led the U-20 squad to the 2006 World Championships and the U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2010. He led the Football Ferns to the 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cup finals, and to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Herdman in action for Hibiscus Coast in 2010. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

For recreation, he still turned out as a useful midfielder for Hibiscus Coast in the Lotto NRFL’s second division.

Having built a reputation with the New Zealand women’s teams, he landed the job of head coach of the Canadian national women’s team in 2011.

During his seven years in charge, the Canadian women took bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympics and at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

His transition from coaching the Canadian women’s team to the men’s side also has a New Zealand twist – his replacement as women’s head coach is Bev Priestman, who was a colleague of Herman at NZ Football between 2009 and 2011.

(Priestman led the Canadian women to Olympic gold at the last games in Tokyo).

Click here for more about Bev Priestman’s New Zealand career >>>>

Herdman’s philosophy

In an interview with The Canadian Press writer Neil Davidson, Herdman explained his approach to creating a successful team.

“When you’ve got trust and people are clear on what they’ve got to do on the pitch, then chemistry forms,” he said.

“That’s where people are willing to mask each other’s weaknesses and highlight each other’s strengths. They’re willing to do things to make you look good.

“That chemistry piece, it can only form when trust is strong and when people are clear on the roles and responsibilities of the collective.

”It’s a formula that I used with the women’s team and it’s a formula that I’m using here.”

Herdman has made believers out of his players report that Herdman has a reputation for detailed planning and an ability to convince his players they can win at any level.

“I’ve said this all along. These guys are fighting for something way beyond just the three points a game and qualification for Qatar,” Herdman says.

“And we have been since I took over the team. There’s been a real clarity. It took time for the players to really burn it into their minds and, I think, connect around that shared purpose. And it’s there now. It’s so clear.

“As I say at times as a coach, you know it’s going to happen. You just know.”

Herdman has made believers out of his players.

Fullback/wingback Richie Laryea, who recently left Toronto FC for England’s Nottingham Forest, explained: “It’s a ‘we versus me’ mentality’ here which has been amazing to see.

“Everyone’s in it for the bigger and greater goal … It’s a challenging environment but he makes it very open and a big brotherhood for all of us.”

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