John Herdman believed when virtually no one else did. Canada was going to the World Cup in 2022.
That was the message at his first camp in charge, in March 2018 in Murcia, Spain.
“He told us the goal in that very first meeting — which was to qualify for the World Cup. He said it then and there,” said Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio.
“He had the vision long before anybody else did. Nobody there was thinking about 2026. We were all focused on the next thing right in front of us — which was the chance to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.”
Some 46 matches and 56 months later, Herdman and Canada are in Doha, back at the men’s soccer showcase for the first time in 36 years.
Osorio is one of nine players from that first camp that made the World Cup roster. The others are Milan Borjan, Derek Cornelius, Samuel Adekugbe, Atiba Hutchinson, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Liam Millar, Samuel Piette and Cyle Larin.
When Canada made its World Cup debut in Mexico, Herdman was 10 years old and living in Consett just outside Newcastle, England.
“I still have moments (where) I’m pinching myself (like) when we arrived in Doha here,” said Herdman.
“It’s going to be a hell of a ride,” he added. “I’m going to be rubbing shoulders with world-class coaches like (Belgium’s) Roberto Martinez. And for me that’s where I want to be — on that razor’s edge and letting people from Consett, County Durham, know that anything is possible.
“Anything is possible.”
The son of a steelworker who had to find employment in the oil industry in Scotland when the steel mill was shut down, Herdman did not have it easy growing up.
An “OK” central midfielder, he went on to play semi-pro football in the Northern League and for his university. But knowing a pro career was not in the cards, he got into coaching.
He took courses at 16 and had his own soccer school at 23.
At university in Leeds, he had met a teacher/businessman named Simon Clifford who was enthralled with the Brazilian style of football and opened Brazilian soccer schools. That appealed to Herdman, a slick player whose nickname later on when he took part in Canadian women’s team practices was The Black Flash.
Players from Sunderland started sending their kids to Herdman’s soccer school, which led to a job offer in the Sunderland academy. Herdman spent three years there, working with a young Jordan Henderson, who is now a Liverpool and England star.
Herdman was lecturing four days a week in the sports science department at Northumbria University and going to the academy in the evening. His passion was soccer but he recognized there wasn’t a future for those who hadn’t played at the highest level.
Herdman thought about going for a PhD, using his experience at Sunderland as research. Then Dr. Paul Potrac, his supervisor at university, moved to Otago University in New Zealand.
Potrac told Herdman about a soccer job as a regional director in New Zealand, selling him on the chance to essentially take over a blank football canvas.
Herdman threw himself into the task, coaching all ages while creating a soccer blueprint for the region.
“I can’t remember when I haven’t done an 80-plus-hour week,” he once said. “It’s my personality, probably my mental disorder — when I’m tuned into something I’m passionate about, I’m a bit crazy about it.”
He took New Zealand’s under-20 team to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2006 and 2008 and led the senior women to the World Cup in 2007 and 2011.
His last outing at the 2011 World Cup proved to be a turning point. After losses to Japan and England, the Football Ferns rallied to score two stoppage-time goals to tie Mexico 2-2.
Herdman says that game “saved my career.”
“The team was right on death’s door and to get them up for that last game and for us to go 2-0 down, you knew you had to fight for their pride, you had to fight for your career, you were in it big-time.”
After that World Cup, Canada offered him a job coaching the national women’s team with the lure of a home World Cup prompting another move around the world.
“The players laugh about it now, but until he became our guy, we thought of him as that annoying little man on the sideline wearing an earpiece,” Canada captain Christine Sinclair writes in her recently released memoir Playing the Long Game.
Herdman fixed a Canadian women’s team that was broken after finishing last at the 2011 World Cup, leading it to back-to-back Olympic bronze before taking over the men’s helm.
Sinclair calls Herdman “the best coach I’ve ever had, hands down. He is life-changing.”
“He helps you rediscover your passion,” she said in an interview. “And within a team he creates a culture of unity, one where your egos are left at the door. You are doing this for the team and for each other.
“You spend 10 minutes in a room with him and you’ll be ready to walk through a wall for him. He’s just that charismatic and that passionate about what he speaks about. You can totally see it in the way the men are playing — and the men have played. I can’t wait to see it on the world stage (in Qatar).”
“I think he’s an absolute genius when it comes to coaching and man-management and inspiring people,” said former Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest.
“And he’s worked for it. He’s worked for everything,” he added. “He’s not been given anything in his life, either.”
Herdman’s appeal is not just restricted to his players, says Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis.
“Some of the highest-profile club coaches in the world also love John,” said Bontis, noting Herdman is under contact with Canada Soccer through 2026.
After each national team game or camp, Herdman provides his players’ club coaches and technical staff with a detailed report, ranging from how their man did on the field to possible recovery issues and things they could work on.
“There are coaches who’ve contacted me directly who’ve said ‘Lord have mercy, the reports we get from John when our players go to (Canadian) national team assignments are better than anything we’ve seen from any other national coach around the world,”’ Bontis said proudly.
Canadian women’s coach Bev Priestman also grew up in Consett, some five or 10 minutes away from Herdman. She was 13 when she was first coached by Herdman at his Brazilian soccer school. Soon she was helping him.
“What he was like back then is what he’s like now — I would say intense, passionate. Innovative. (He) does things differently, which is obviously been a big part of his success,” she said.
Priestman would follow him to New Zealand and then Canada, before striking out on her own for a job coaching with England’s Football Association, returning to take over Herdman’s Canadian women’s team.
Herdman’s attention to detail is legendary.
“He’s the hardest-working guy I know. To get all those details right, you have to put in the extra hours,” said Priestman.
“I don’t think he actually able to sleep, because there just can’t be enough hours in the day,” added Canadian defender Alistair Johnston: “He has everything mapped out to a T. It’s really impressive. We are going to be the most prepared team (at the World Cup) by far.”
Paul Dolan, a goalkeeper on Canada’s 1986 World Cup squad and former member of Herdman’s coaching staff, believes Herdman excels when it comes to closing the gap between his team and the opposition.
Herdman connects with his players, gives them a road map and knits them together.
“If you do that, that’s all you can ask,” said Dolan. “But it gives you a better chance to beat even the best opponent.”
Priestman said Herdman’s X-factor is a well-stocked tool box.
“John has a lot of skills. He can plan, he’s strategic, he can zoom out then he can get into the detail. A lot of coaches are just coaches on the grass. And I think he’s much more than that.”
Herdman, she says, has a profound effect on his staff as well as his players.
“He dreams big and he sort of pushes you to new limits that you didn’t know you had,” she explained. “At times that’s really difficult. But myself I wouldn’t be where I am or wouldn’t have won a (Olympic) gold medal without his pushing me in those really tough moments, when at times you’re like ‘Wow.’ But actually they pay off. You look and back and you go ‘The reason I can do these things now is because I’ve lived that sort of pressure and scrutiny.’ Because he has really really high standards.”
Herdman’s wife and two kids will be in Qatar, although they are going via England on what Herdman calls “their own football pilgrimage.” Which includes taking in a Newcastle United game.
“The investment my wife’s put into the relationship and making sure I can do what I do at the level I have to do it at has been just unbelievable. My kids have been to every event. They’ve experienced it all. I couldn’t do it without them.”
“And they’ve got be there,” he said with a laugh. “They’ve got no choice.”