John Herdman becomes the second England manager at the World Cup.
Unlike Gareth Southgate, he did not play football professionally and his path to Qatar is filled with wanderlust, adversity, adventure and innovation.
Born in Consett, County Durham, Herdman has spent the last 22 years abroad. Despite his protests, he has retained his northeastern accent. However, no one tells us when I leave. I get ‘breastfed’, he laughs.
And while he was once driven by a desire to prove people wrong, now he just wants to keep making history with Canada.
John Herdman from County Durham is one of two England coaches at the 2022 World Cup
After becoming frustrated with the lack of coaching opportunities in her home country, Herdman headed to New Zealand in 2001 to hone her craft and revolutionize women’s football. He has been with Canada since 2011 and is the first coach to qualify for both the women’s and men’s World Cups.
He first did so with New Zealand women in 2007 and 2011. Then – after coaching Canada women for seven years, leading them to two Olympic bronze medals and the World Cup quarter-finals as hosts in 2015 – Herdman took charge of the men’s side in 2018 .
The 5ft 6in ball of energy and enthusiasm has transformed an ice hockey-mad nation, taking newly confident Canada to a World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
Notably, Herdman’s successor in the women’s game, Bev Priestland, also hails from Consett and guided Canada to Olympic gold in Tokyo.
‘We are hard-working, down-to-earth people. We really respect where we come from and understand how that has really contributed to our DNA – hard work, blue collar, but also the North East spirit. The ability to be able to connect with people and bring that levity to important moments,’ says Herdman.
Another Englishman, Tony Waiters, took Canada to Mexico 86, finishing bottom of their group without scoring a goal.
Canada qualified for their first men’s World Cup since 1986 under Herdman’s leadership
Despite being drawn in a daunting-looking Group F alongside Belgium, Croatia and Morocco, Herdman is typically upbeat.
“There is nothing but opportunity for Canada at this World Cup,” he enthuses. ‘We have to approach it with that kind of freedom – the desire to prove people wrong, I think that’s already been done.
‘Now is the time to enjoy this one, to go and experience all the hard work you’ve put in and to embrace it with an open mind and enjoy everything the World Cup is going to give us.
‘You’ve got to make sure you tap into that part of the brain that’s going to allow these players to enjoy an experience and an opportunity for what it really is, which is the first time this country has been a World Cup. aged 36.’
His coaching style is said to be intense and demanding, but cerebral, nurturing and innovative.
“Bobby Robson is my idol as a manager,” he says. ‘He was one of the coaches that I definitely associated with my coaching style and tried to model some elements on. Especially the more humanistic side, the ability to just get the best out of people.’
Herdman is making history as he has also led the Canadian women’s team to the World Cup in 2015
Gone are the days when Canadian players considered international duty a chore; a foregone conclusion to play second fiddle to CONCACAF heavyweights Mexico and the United States.
“One of the most important steps we took with the team in June was to look at what makes us favorites to win the World Cup,” says Herdman. And you do it with a small smile on your face, because you know that asking a team that has never been to a World Cup to win a World Cup might be a bridge too far. But the reality is that they need to think about what makes them favorites.
‘The fact that we have Alphonso Davies, a Champions League winner in our team. We have guys who have won championships in their home environments. So when we look at what makes us favourites, there are things that are very unique to Canada. And we can exploit certain elements of our tactical identity, we can exploit elements of our team spirit that no other team can do because they just haven’t had the same experiences.’
Herdman is an open book and speaks passionately about everything. He grew up loving football but it took a while for him to support Newcastle United after his father took him to St James’ Park to watch his childhood hero in 1986.
‘I was actually a Man United fan at the time. My father was Newcastle mad. I liked Brian Robson, he was from Chester-Le-Street. I just remember him being like England’s hero at the time, Captain Marvel. I got a Man United kit for Christmas.
‘And I came away hating Man United because when they got off the bus I was there with my Man United kit – I’m probably the only one welcoming them to the stadium. And none of the players would sign autographs. And I remember Norman Whiteside telling us to do one too!’
Herdman chose to leave England for coaching opportunities elsewhere in the world
Herdman looks back on his formative years, which were marked by two seismic events.
In 1980 came the closure of the Consett steelworks where his grandfather and father worked – an early memory is his maternal grandfather, a former boxer and union leader who protested against Margaret Thatcher’s government.
In his teenage years, his father’s deteriorating mental health culminated in his parents’ divorce. This was a particularly unhappy time, with Herdman repeatedly getting into fights with his peers in a disadvantaged area.
Unable to choose which parent to live with, Herdman chose to live alone in a council house at 16. The second of three brothers acted as a father figure to his younger sibling, seven years younger, and immersed himself in coaching 11-year-olds as part of his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. It changed his life.
‘I’d had two really tough years, whether it was being beaten to within an inch of my life, and then the family fell apart. And then acknowledge, “Yes, my father will probably never be the same again”. It was a tough period, I could have easily gone in the wrong direction. I think the coaching thing is what pretty much saved us.
Jonathan David, centre, is among the Canadian players making history in Qatar this winter
“I later read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance,” Herdman says. ‘For me it laid the foundation for what my future was going to be – you trust yourself here. Your parents are no longer here for you. You will almost look after your parents to some extent. That’s it, you’re on your own, son. Ask nothing from anyone, take nothing from anyone. And just keep doing it.
‘And so it has been. Anyone who knows us will know that you won’t find us in anyone’s pockets. I am very strong willed. If that’s the direction we’re going, I’ll give my life to it. And typically we get where we need to go. Or very close.’
Herdman studied sports science at Leeds Metropolitan University and after a spell as a primary school teacher – where he introduced futsal, a typically pioneering move – he coached at Sunderland’s academy.
“I felt like it was a bit of a boys’ game in the nineties, where it just seemed like if you hadn’t played the game, you weren’t going to get the job at the next level,” says Herdman.
Herdman has global attention and turned down the chance to lead England Women in 2017
Frustration at the lack of opportunities in England led Herdman to persuade childhood sweetheart Clare to move 12,000 miles away to Invercargill to develop football. The rest is history.
‘I think in simple terms there has been a desire to prove people wrong. And I’ve had to let go of that because it’s a pretty toxic motivation,’ he adds.
Unsurprisingly, Herdman’s achievements have not gone unnoticed in his home country – he turned down the chance to be women’s manager in 2017 – but he insists he is not going anywhere.
‘I have signed a contract with Canada until 2026. We have a home World Cup. A big part of that mission was to take a team where we can build the foundation of a high-performance structure that was non-existent in this role – it was a complete rebuild.
‘When we get to 2022, we will have it in a certain place. And the aim is to take it to the next level as we push forward towards 2026.’