Canada coach credits time in New Zealand for helping shape his philosophy

EDMONTON — Four years ago, John Herdman led New Zealand to its first ever point at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. And the Football Ferns did it in dramatic fashion, scoring in the 90th and 94th minute to pull even with Mexico at 2-2.

“To win our first point in this way is like winning the World Cup,” Herdman said at the time. “If we’d had another three minutes or so, I reckon we would have gone on and won.”

The tie followed eight straight tournament losses for New Zealand. And on the heels of impressive showings in losses to Japan and England in Germany, it helped showcase the young coach on the world stage.

The Football Ferns had already been eliminated from contention, losing to England on an 81st-minute goal. So Herdman had work to do in getting his young team back on track.

The coaching job did not go unnoticed.

“Ultimately that (Mexico) result caught the eye of some people … it was the result that got us the Canada job,” Herdman said.

New Zealand (12th) finished ahead of Canada (16th) at the tournament. A feat accomplished, as Herdman notes, “on a 30th of the budget and a tenth of the population.”

Less than two months later, Herdman was Canada’s coach.

On Thursday, the 39-year-old Herdman renews acquaintances with New Zealand and former assistant coach Tony Readings at the World Cup.

The former under-20 coach, English-born like Herdman, has experienced success of his own at the New Zealand helm. In London at the 2012 Olympics, the 39-year-old Readings led New Zealand to the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time.

The Kiwis lost 2-0 to the U.S. in the quarter-finals. Canada, under Herdman, won bronze after losing to the eventual champion Americans in the semifinals.

No. 17 New Zealand is coming off a 1-0 loss to the 12th-ranked Netherlands at this tournament. Canada, ranked eighth, downed No. 16 China 1-0 in its opener.

A win Thursday and Herdman’s team can head to Montreal for its final pool game Monday against the Dutch, knowing that progress to the knockout rounds is assured. The goal is to finish first in Group A which means less travel while — temporarily at least — avoiding elite opposition.

New Zealand will always have a special place for Herdman. It gave him the chance to develop and flex his coaching muscles.

It also shaped him as a man, as he looked to rebuild New Zealand football while juggling the duties of technical director and women’s World Cup and Olympic coach.

Herdman essentially worked around the clock.

“What I did learn with that team is it takes a lot to break you,” said Herdman, whose work ethic is renowned. “And you start to realize the real potential of human capacity.”

He also learned to connect with his players.

Herdman credits former New Zealand goalkeeper Kristy Hill, one of the team’s Maori leaders, for helping him understand the importance of the spiritual side of team-building.

“With her influence you start to realize that you really do have to touch the heart before you take the hand,” he said. “And that is a philosophy that I’ve maintained throughout my coaching over the last six or seven years.”  

Herdman brought some of his closest advisers with him to Canada.

When he lined up for the anthems for the Mexico game four years ago in Sinsheim, he had goalkeeping coach Simon Eaddy and sports scientist Cesar Meylan next to him. Both are on his Canadian staff.

But not Readings, a grassroots coach Herdman hired first as a technical analyst and then assistant coach.

“People always ask, ‘Well why didn’t you take Tony with you?'” Herdman said. “The reality was I think, he was ready to become his own coach and start pushing this team to the next level, which I think he did.”

Added Herdman: “My mantra was you’ve got to put things down better than you found it.”

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press