Gareth Southgate will not be the only English manager at the World Cup as John Herdman’s continued knack of proving people wrong will see him lead Canada to their first finals since 1986.
A son of Consett, County Durham, the 47-year-old got the coaching bug when working with a local under-11s team as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award before going onto work in Sunderland’s academy.
But Herdman’s progress was stunted by what he saw as an “old boys’ club” in the English game so he made the life-changing move to New Zealand in 2001 – a leap of faith that has been rewarded in spades.
He eventually became women’s national team coach before taking the same post with Canada, where he became men’s team manager in 2018 and led them to just their second ever World Cup.
“From the career progression it was definitely a challenge when you hadn’t played at the highest level,” Herdman told the PA news agency.
“I’d had experiences working in academies in England and you just got that sense that there was a culture of almost protecting the players who had given their life to the game, and really squeezing out anyone that hadn’t really been part of that club. That’s what I sensed.
“I felt it was a bit of an old boys’ game back at that time in the ’90s, where it just seemed like if you hadn’t played the game you weren’t going to get the job at that next level.
“There’s been a desire to sort of prove people wrong. There’s no doubting that and over time you’ve had to let that go because it’s quite a toxic motivation.
“It’s now coming into this World Cup just with a freedom to really enjoy the experience with these players. There’s nothing but opportunity for Canada at this World Cup and therefore we have to approach it with that sort of freedom.
“The desire to prove people wrong, I think that’s already been done – you know, doing what we achieved as a staff, as a coach, as a player group.
“Now it’s time to enjoy this one, to go and experience all that hard work you’ve put in and to embrace it with an open mind and enjoy everything the World Cup is going to throw at us.”
Belgium, Croatia and Morocco are Canada’s group opponents, with Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and Lille forward Jonathan David the star names in a squad that has benefited from Major League Soccer’s growth.
Herdman has been deliberate in crafting the group’s mindset in preparation for their tough-looking group and believes his upbringing in Consett has aided his managerial capabilities.
Furthermore, coaching helped him through a challenging time after moving into a council house on his own aged 16 at a time when his father was dealing with mental health issues.
“It just really laid the foundation for what my future was going to be – that you’re relying on yourself here,” Herdman said with a north-east twang still intact.
“Your parents aren’t there any more for you. You’re almost going to be looking after your parents to some degree, and you’re on your own here. ‘This is it, you’re on your own, son’.
“Ask nothing from nobody, take nothing from nobody and get on with it. Just get on with it and it’s been like that. Anyone that knows me will know that you’ll not find me in anyone’s pocket.
“I’m very strong-willed in if this is the direction we’re going, I’m going to give my life to it and typically we’ll get to where we were going to go or very close.
“It stemmed out of that moment. I think at the age of 16, 17 I probably had two really tough years – whether it was getting beat within an inch of my life and then the family breaking down, and then recognising, yeah, my father’s probably never going to be the same again.
“It was it was a tough period of time. I could have easily gone in the wrong direction.
“I think with the coaching, it was what pretty much saved me and the passion to follow that path into teaching and then ultimately into professional coaching.”
That commitment provided the platform for Herdman’s remarkable journey to Qatar, having become the first manager to lead both women’s and men’s national teams to World Cup qualification.
“With this team, we’ve just got nothing left to prove,” he added. “We’ve just got everything to gain and a great opportunity ahead of us.”