Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David look set to help Canada qualify for the 2022 World Cup; in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, their English coach John Herdman explains how the team overcame controversy and discord to succeed...
Friday 28 January 2022 11:42, UK
Canada are still the only team with an unbeaten record in CONCACAF qualifying as their 2-0 win over Honduras on Thursday moves them one step closer to next year’s World Cup.
It was the opportunity to co-host the 2026 tournament that was supposed to be the true catalyst for football in Canada. But this exciting new team led by Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies and Lille forward Jonathan David are not prepared to wait that long.
Their coach, perhaps the one man who has helped pull everything together, is an Englishman. John Herdman, 46, is a former Sunderland academy coach who reinvented himself overseas as a skilled women's coach before transitioning to the men's game in 2018.
A Newcastle fan, he grew up in Consett about half an hour's drive south-west of the city. "A lad from Consett trying to help Canada qualify for the World Cup," he tells Sky Sports. "You don't really have that written in your script when you are going to school."
Speaking from his home in Vancouver, looking out over the border with the United States, Herdman admits it was frustrated ambition that drove him to leave English football behind.
"Opportunities were few and far between in England. It was a sarcastic culture. It was made clear that you had not played at the level so you were not really going to progress.
"There were great coaches in the academy at Sunderland who were never given that chance to move to the next level. I could sense there was a ceiling and I could see opportunities closing in the profession that I wanted to stay in. I had a desire to prove people wrong."
He relocated to New Zealand, eventually becoming coach of the women's national team. "Moving there opened my mind. I had to get out of the hamster's wheel of the English system. I was pulled out of that patterned thinking, having the same conversations."
His office in Invercargill allowed him to share ideas with international hockey coaches and former rugby heroes. Robbie Deans, an ex-All Black, became his mentor. "There was this cross-pollination on a daily basis. There were so many opportunities for innovation."
Herdman impressed enough to be given the job with Canada's women's team in 2011, winning the bronze medal at the following year's Olympics, the country's first in a traditional team sport for 76 years. They repeated the feat in Rio in 2016.
He describes that team as "the darlings of the nation" and speaks with great pride at working with - and learning from - Christine Sinclair, the highest scorer in the history of international football. So it caused a stir when he left for the men's job in 2018.
"The controversy was probably how it was handled," he explains. "It was leaked to the media. I had one hour to call Christine after a seven-year relationship and tell her I was leaving. I should not have been in that situation but that is football.
"This was a programme with back-to-back podiums. Why take the coach from a successful programme and put him with the men's team? But the critical decision in my mind stemmed from the fact that my budget with the women had not changed from day one.
"We'd had back-to-back podiums, we'd hosted a World Cup, but the same envelope kept appearing on my desk year after year. How could I take it to the next level?
"We needed millions more to innovate, we needed a professional women's league. There was no way forward in my mind without that investment. The only way to get that investment was to have a strong men's team qualifying for World Cups consistently.
"That is the windfall that will bring an injection across the game. I had been hitting brick walls. Canada could not move forward until this men's team qualified, that is the reality.
"People will never understand it but my heart is still in that women's programme. There is a massive opportunity to take the whole game forward in Canada. That is what I have told the men's team. We have the chance to change football in this country forever."
Herdman appears vindicated now but that was not obvious at the time. Canada's men had talent but no tradition of success having qualified for only one World Cup in 1986. They had not even reached the final phase of CONCACAF qualification for the 2018 tournament.
In some respects, the team was in disarray. "We had good players but there was something missing." Herdman sought opinion from the players as to why they were not performing and received various explanations that laid bare the lack of trust and togetherness.
"One of the comments was that we did not have the heart when it really mattered. That it became all about me too quickly. We were going to start with some tactical work but tactics mean nothing if they do not trust the person next to them or their coach."
In his first two camps in charge, there were fights. "I am not talking tough tackles," says Herdman. "I am talking groups of guys getting after each other in big scuffles. They were really getting into it. I was like, 'Holy ****, what have I got into here?'
"The Scottish lads went one way, the Hispanic lads went the other. We have Colombians, Uruguayans, Scottish, Serbian, Jamaican. All sorts. That is the beauty of Canada, that diversity. It is our greatest strength but at that moment it was our greatest weakness.
"The trust was not there. It was not a safe environment where people felt they could perform to their best. There was an internal enemy that had to be dealt with first. I went after them about it. I had to draw a line in the sand. I spoke to everyone.
"I explained that this was not me trying to create a harmonious group, this was just dysfunctional. This is why we don't get through. When it gets tough, we split. It was about understanding that if we do not change this then we are not going to a World Cup.
"The real leaders in that group understood it and they helped to bring it all together because they knew that if we could build the culture and the team spirit, this could really go off. With the talent that we had, we could do this. It never happened again."
Of course, the potential of this team has been boosted by the emergence of a so-called golden generation of players. Herdman was there when Davies made his debut for Vancouver Whitecaps at 15. Now he is a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich.
"He is an interesting character. Every time you meet him something new has happened in his life. Maybe he has won a trophy or he has just had a wonder moment against Barcelona. His motivation is that he is an artist. He wants to entertain and enjoy his football.
"He also helps us learn. I remember him telling us about his preparations for the Champions League final. He is there giving us a list of the processes that Bayern went through. He told us what worked and what did not work. I ended up with three pages of notes."
Herdman speaks of having "a learner's mind" and working with elite talent encourages that. "When you are in an environment with a Sinclair or a Davies, you know that you cannot have a day off here. You have to be on your game or they will feel it."
Davies is a left-back for Bayern but is used further forwards by Canada. It is a decision, Herdman explains, that is made with both the player and the team in mind.
"What lights his fire? More importantly, from an analytical point of view, where does he have the biggest impact for Canada? We all see that being in that forward area. He knows the level of dread he can bring to any back four in CONCACAF. It is a bit scary."
As for David, he scored the winner against Costa Rica and continues to meet all challenges before him. He has already been the top scorer at the Gold Cup, the top scorer in Belgium and helped Lille win the title in France. Herdman thinks he can achieve even more.
"He is just so calm under pressure. It is a gift this young man has been given. He just seems to have ice in his veins, never seems flustered. He just glides in games and ghosts into positions. He is special. Very special. I think he is destined for a really big club."
Such talent is allowing Canada to do more than just stay in games but take them to the opposition. They have already negotiated away fixtures against United States and Mexico in maintaining their unbeaten record, the second coming in the Estadio Azteca.
"Being there was surreal. I remember watching Diego Maradona against England with my dad in the front room. It was the moment I fell in love with football. It can be a daunting place but I was proud of how the team went for Mexico from the first minute.
"I was crying in 1986 but I was not crying that night."
Next up it is a home game against Mexico in front of an anticipated crowd of 50,000 Canadian fans. "We are looking forward to having another crack at them in the cold of Edmonton and really ignite this local community. The country is catching on."
While hockey continues to dominate the discourse in Canada, football is already the biggest participation sport, but the chance is there to grow it. That can happen both gradually and suddenly. Everyone understands the importance of the World Cup.
"When I was presented with this role it was with a 2026 vision. But the key to success in 2026 was always qualifying in 2022. Players need to experience World Cups before they can genuinely compete in them. We need 2022 to build the foundation for 2026.
"When I took the job, Alphonso Davies was 17 and Jonathan David was not really on the scene yet. Nobody really believed 2022 was possible but in our mind it had to happen and they believe now. It is not bravado any more. It is built on results and performances.
"Our purpose is clearer than it has ever been. These players know that if they qualify, they change the game here forever. The money from FIFA. The guys with dual passports who will see Canada at a World Cup and want to play for us. That is all key to our success.
"We need World Cups to change the culture. If we qualify, we will genuinely connect the country in a way it has not been connected before. It will bring the country together. This country is ready to build off a World Cup. It is ready to go.
"So, no pressure."
Canada reclaimed top spot in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying with a 2-0 win over Honduras on Thursday, after the United States briefly led the standings thanks to their 1-0 win over El Salvador.
Mexico trailed 1-0 to Jamaica with less than 10 minutes left before Henry Martin and Alexis Vega scored from close range to snatch victory in Kingston.
Canada top the table on 19 points, one ahead of the United States, with Mexico third on 17 points.
The top three sides qualify automatically for the World Cup in Qatar, with the fourth-placed team, currently Panama on 14 points, going into an intercontinental playoff.
In San Pedro Sula, Honduran defender Denil Maldonado handed Canada the early advantage with an own goal in the 11th minute and Lille forward Jonathan David made it 2-0 with a sublime chip over the keeper in the 73rd minute.
The win extended Canada's unbeaten streak in the final round of qualifiers to nine games, with a crucial home match against the United States set for Sunday in Hamilton.
The United States, held 1-1 by Jamaica in their previous qualifier, did not deliver the dominant performance against El Salvador they had hoped for, as freezing temperatures tested both teams in Columbus, Ohio.
Defender Antonee Robinson broke the deadlock in the 52nd minute, driving the ball home from close range after forward Jesus Ferreira headed to him.
Robinson then launched a celebratory backflip to the delight of a roaring home crowd.
"They made it difficult for us, they were aggressive," Robinson told reporters. "We kept patient, we kept doing what was working."
El Salvador, second bottom of the eight-team group, made a flurry of substitutions late in the second half but were unable to wrest back the momentum amid temperatures hovering around 31 degrees Fahrenheit (-0.56C).