Arriving in 2011, Canada Women’s National Team head coach John Herdman came with a substantial vision for the future, and whether through music, accents or on-field philosophies life is never dull with the people around him.
There is a real feeling that this is a fantastic time for the women’s game around the world. The London Olympics were memorable for so many reasons and certainly for the surge in interest and publicity for women’s soccer. The Canadian team made one of the strongest impacts in the tournament as they secured Bronze only a year after ranking last at the 2011 World Cup in Germany.
The head coach who played a principle role in making it happen was John Herdman and it was all the more meaningful on a personal level as the Englishman enjoyed success in his homeland. The 38-year-old is one of the most recognised coaches in women’s soccer today and there was strong interest in his services from the English FA following Hope Powell’s departure after Euro 2013.
Despite an extremely understandable attraction to the job he pledged his future to Canada and signed a contract taking him through to 2020. The deal of course gives him the chance to lead the team as they host the World Cup next year and he remains an integral part of what he believes is a special group of people.
As goalkeeper Erin McLeod and strikers Kara Lang and Christina Julien have discussed on here, music is inescapable when it comes to the national team. One artist takes precedence over all others however and that is Celine Dion. As the legendary vocalist provides such a fundamental part of the team’s soundtrack it led me to ask if John has an aversion to her repertoire sounding out so often!
“No she’s got some class songs! I don’t mind, so Celine, she gets a tick!”
After the achievement in the Olympics, John was nominated for the 2012 FIFA Coach of the Year award. Canada had already won Gold at the Pan American Games in 2011 under his stewardship and the belief in him from the Canada Soccer Association is clear to see.
With the experience of five years as head coach of New Zealand, John took over his current post with big plans. While aiming to make Canada perennial podium finishers he also wants to help shape a prosperous future for women’s soccer across the nation.
As would be expected, he and his staff get together regularly to set out their various plans of action. The interviews on here are a little different to the usual as music talk gets brought in. When on this conversation topic, John revealed the kind of sounds that often lead him and his colleagues into those vital discussions!
“I play music prior to the meetings and so do my staff and I don’t even know if they like it or not. They don’t complain about it but I’m sure it’s not in their playlists!
“There’s not much I don’t like – old school and contemporary. Oasis, U2, Armin van Buuren or anything that’s sort of dance/trance kind of stuff.”
Getting together in a huddle to sing ‘The Power of Love’ after a victory is a unique ritual for the Canadian team. Aside from the shared music on offer when the squad meets up each player has their own personal collection of course. Most people can remember the first record they ever bought and national team members Kara Lang (Salt-n-Pepa), Erin McLeod (MC Hammer) and Christina Julien (The Offspring) have all shared theirs on here! Going with the theme of the coaches, Arsenal Ladies manager Shelley Kerr revealed hers to be Elton John and Kiki Dee’s ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’, so what was John’s first?
“(I’ve) never bought a record in my life – my sister used to buy them and I used to pinch them off her. Yeah the first one was Madonna’s ‘Holiday’!”
During his time with the New Zealand national team, John took a studious look at how other countries work within their respective infrastructure for women’s soccer. While freely acknowledging that Canada cannot spend the volume of funds that some nations are able to in this regard he did note how people can be connected and driven by a shared goal.
Leading the Football Ferns at the 2007 and 2011 World Cup as well as the 2008 Beijing Olympics were notable feats for John but his overall input in his nine years in New Zealand was vast. His roles included Director of Football Development and Coach Education Manager and he presided over the Under-20 side as well as the senior team.
John left to take up the job with Canada in September 2011 replacing Carolina Morace but New Zealand currently have another Englishman at the helm. The man in question was the Ferns’ coach at the London Olympics and was named by John as the most memorable of all his career colleagues for singing performances.
“Oh it’s got to be my assistant coach in New Zealand – Tony Readings, the current New Zealand manager. He sang a song called ‘Nicotine’ and it’s the best song I’ve ever heard and he played the smallest guitar in the world as he sang!
“The players loved it.”
Every coach on the touchline at a major international tournament or at club level has had their own journey to that point. In the men’s game, there are those like Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho who made it to the top despite never having scaled the heights in a playing career. Conversely, there are others who tasted glory as players before turning to coaching. The women’s game has one such example in Antonio Carbrini – a World Cup winner with Italy in 1982 before becoming the coach of his country’s women’s national team.
John may not have represented a professional club as a player but he played at amateur and college level and his love for the game naturally goes all the way back to his childhood. Growing up in County Durham in the North East, he had his best times as a Newcastle United supporter in the mid-90s as the club led the way in the Premier League before famously relinquishing the title to Manchester United.
The Consett-born former school teacher recounts that era at St. James’ Park as well as the former England midfielder and captain who had him pulling on another jersey for a time.
“I was actually a Man U fan for a small period of time when I was young, as well as being Newcastle. Only because Bryan Robson was playing for Man U and he’s from just outside my local town, so I did have a Man U shirt, but I had a Newcastle shirt as well.
“I pretty much fell in love with Newcastle when Kevin Keegan took us to the dizzy heights of Premier League challenging so I think everyone fell in love with the team at that point. Prior to that, I had some cold, wet nights on those stands and games that were cancelled due to the fog.
“I remember going with my dad and watching grown men throw pies at people from the back of the stadium!”
John actually got the chance to return to his spiritual football home in the Olympics. Canada’s final group game took place at St. James’ Park and despite falling two goals behind it was a happy homecoming as Melissa Tancredi’s double sealed a vital point to send them through.
Different and distinctive voices help make the world what it is and the native Geordie twang of Newcastle can be a whole other language for some people to try to understand! John has his roots in the North East but has of course spent so much time working with players from New Zealand and Canada. With that in mind, has he ever passed on any Geordie phrases to those in his squads?!
“Yeah the players have picked up quite a bit of my dialect actually and they’ve all got an impersonation of me – I’ve heard it slip out now and again! I would say my accent’s softened; if I go back home now people think I’m trying to talk posh.
“I’ve heard a couple of the players taking the Mickey out of us but they sound more like Cockneys than Geordies!”
Canada rounded off 2013 by taking Bronze in the International Tournament of Brasilia (won by Brazil). John speaks impressively about the aims he has for the women’s game and as a reported 40 per cent of 850,000 soccer participants in Canada are female the basis is surely there.
Charmaine Hooper’s goal to defeat China in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final was a landmark moment as the team finished 4th in the tournament. Nine years later, it was Diana Matheson’s late, late winner against France in Coventry to take the Bronze medal and John saw that as a pivotal achievement for Canadian women’s soccer.
A crucial area of John’s plan is to make the route to the top of the sport a much clearer one for kids. He wants children who play the game to learn a swift style that they can hopefully take with them all the way to the senior team. If all goes as hoped, the ‘Canadian way’ in years to come will be attractive to watch but with the ferocity when breaking forward to really sting opponents.
Implementing such changes can only realistically be achieved over a long period of time and John has cautioned that there will be bumps along the way. We have seen the willingness of US Women’s National Team coach Tom Sermanni to give chances to younger players and new England boss Mark Sampson has done something similar with his first training camp selection.
John gave playing time to 16-year-old right-back Sura Yekka recently and he hopes the national team’s up-and-coming talents and more experienced names will ultimately be led by women. That is part of his wider vision but until that time he is the one in the hotseat and he continues to savour that role.
His family members back home were eagerly asking him last year whether he would be the new England coach and John admitted it was an honour to hear of the interest. He has an ambitious project with Canada though and it remains the only road for him at this time. Besides the prospect of managing the team in a World Cup on home soil he describes what he loves most about his job.
“The country’s phenomenal – it’s a great place to ply your trade. I think the players that I’ve got in this group currently, I keep saying what we did with the Bronze medal was a unique accomplishment.
“(The) first medal since 1936 and that takes a special group. Opportunities come and you have that nagging doubt of ‘should you, shouldn’t you?’ but you look at the players sitting in front of you – (Christine) Sinclair, (Diana) Matheson, (Erin) McLeod, (Desiree) Scott, (Rhian) Wilkinson, (Carmelina) Moscato – to name but a few.
“I could keep going – just great people that bring the best out of us. It’s interesting that, because my time in New Zealand – I enjoyed my time working with the Football Ferns – but this group of players in Canada really have helped bring the best out of me.”
The national team captured the affections of the Canadian public with an outstanding display in the gripping Olympic semi-final with the US. It may have been a dramatic 4-3 loss but people connected with the team and felt something strong as they watched them battle while playing great soccer.
As an England fan, I am looking forward to seeing the direction in which Mark Sampson leads the team after the superb job he did with Bristol Academy. It is also great to see John doing so well with a major nation and I asked for his view on what he thinks his career has taught him up to now.
“The football journey’s shaped me as a man – I’ve had good times, I’ve had bad times. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about how to behave in this world and how not to behave.
“I think the sport itself is just a great vehicle to give you an experience in hopefully becoming a better person.”
John has certainly worked hard to reach his current standing in the game, studying sports science before combining teaching in the day with coaching in the evenings back home. He was a lecturer at Northumbria University and worked with youth football clubs prior to his move to New Zealand.
From watching the sublime skills of David Ginola from the stands at St. James’ Park to coaching the likes of Christine Sinclair, the sport has provided all kinds of highlights for John. With the music angle thrown in too, this has been a unique glimpse into one of the women’s game’s top coaches. John lives in Vancouver with his wife Claire and their two children now but what does he like to do in his time away from coaching? Here’s an answer that is anything but unconventional!
“Football – that’s about it really! I’m probably the most boring man on the planet – either work, football, going watching my son play football, talking about football or now and again going out for a run.
“I’m lucky to still be married after 12-odd years – I don’t know how my wife puts up with us!”
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