Canada men’s soccer head coach John Herdman stands out as one of the most fascinating characters at the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
One of the only coaches at this year’s tournament to have never played professionally prior to his coaching career, Herdman made the unique jump from the women’s game to the men’s side in 2018, despite also having never previously coached a men’s team.
Herdman has been a huge success, leading Canada to a meteoric rise in the world game. Les Rouges, 72nd in the FIFA world rankings upon Herdman’s hire four years ago, now sit inside the top 50. They topped the standings in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying final stage to book their place in Qatar.
With Canada now heading to a first World Cup since 1986, all attention will turn to their enigmatic head coach and just how far he can take them, as the figurehead who has brought an identity and a swagger to the men’s national team looks to take yet another giant step in his extraordinary career.
Who is Canada head coach John Herdman?
Born in Durham, England, Herdman began coaching in the Sunderland youth academy until 2001, when he moved to New Zealand.
He joined the New Zealand national setup in 2003, quickly becoming director of football development. He was eventually hired as the New Zealand women’s head coach in 2006 and stayed on until 2011.
During that time, he led the country at the Women’s World Cup in China in 2007, the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the Women’s World Cup Germany 2011.
Herdman was hired as the Canada women’s national team head coach shortly after that tournament in 2011, and his success continued by leading them to a gold medal in the Pan American Games in Mexico in his first year in charge.
He also coached Canada at one Women’s World Cup (2015) and two Women’s Olympic Football Tournaments (2012, 2016).
After seven years at the helm of the Canadian women’s national team, Herdman made the unconventional move across to the men’s side in 2018. It was a move questioned by some at the time, but it paid almost immediate dividends.
“I am keen to put a lasting mark on a program full of potential as we work towards the ultimate goal of representing Canada on the world’s biggest stage at the FIFA World Cup.”
– John Herdman outlines his ambitions upon being appointed Canada men’s head coach in 2018.
Under his watch, Canada has risen from an afterthought in the shadow of the United States to a CONCACAF powerhouse, on both the men’s and women’s side.
The men’s team eased to a place in their first World Cup since 1986 and only their second World Cup tournament ever. With that, Herdman became the first-ever coach to lead both a men’s and women’s national team to World Cup qualification.
He has also been given significant credit for the growth of Canada’s talent base, with stars like Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Milan Borjan and Stephen Eustaquio excelling in Europe, while those such as Alistair Johnston, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Maxime Crepeau and Jonathan Osorio have found good homes domestically.
What nationality is John Herdman?
You only have to hear him speak to realize that Herdman is not a born-and-bred Canadian.
The 47-year-old is English, and grew up in the north east of the country — hence his thick Newcastle accent.
Despite starting his coaching career at arch-rivals Sunderland, he is also a staunch Newcastle United fan and has continued to follow the Premier League club from afar even when moving abroad, first to New Zealand and latterly to Canada.
Herdman credits his departure from England as a critical move on his career.
“Heading to New Zealand was probably the best decision I made because what it ensured is I broke away from that hamster wheel in the traditional British coaching system, which for me was very insular,” Herdman said.
His background means there will be two English coaches at the 2022 World Cup, with Gareth Southgate in the dugout for the Three Lions.
John Herdman tactics and style of play
With Canada’s men, Herdman has shown tactical flexibility to match the strengths of his squad and weaknesses of his opponent, but his preferred formation is a 4-4-2 with high wingers playing in support of the central strikers, and an imbalanced full-back setup with one playing high and another remaining defensive.
However, when needed, Herdman is capable of deploying a 4-4-2 diamond, a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3, depending on the situation.
Herdman’s calling card is the overloaded flanks, with one full-back — often Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies — pushing high in the attack and providing width, while the other full-back — latterly Alistair Johnston — remaining defensive in nature. This allows the team to essentially play a three-CB system while on the ball and then drop back into a flat 4-4-2 structure while defending.
John Herdman salary, contract with Canada
Upon his arrival with the men’s team in 2018, the details of Herdman’s contract with the national federation were not released, but Canada Soccer president Steve Reed referenced at the time “two World Cups”, so it’s assumed his contract runs beyond the tournament in Qatar.
Despite the wild success he’s had with the national team, Herdman has been linked with a move into club football, and it is possible he could be tempted away at the end of the World Cup for a step up, possibly in England.
In May of 2022, Herdman reportedly received interest from a host of English clubs, with Burnley, Blackburn and QPR apparently on the list, but it was always unlikely he would bolt from Canada before Qatar 2022.
There are no publicly available details regarding Herdman’s salary in charge of Canada, with the Canadian federation notoriously tight-lipped about player and coach compensation.
John Herdman women’s coaching record
A much-discussed move at the time, Herdman created plenty of headlines when he swapped the Canada women’s national team for the men’s team in 2018.
He said at the time: “It’s an exciting new challenge at a time in my career where I feel like I’m ready for it.”
With the women, Herdman had led the team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, while repeating the feat at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Between that, Canada hosted the 2015 Women’s World Cup and while a quarterfinal defeat to England was tough to swallow, it was still a respectable finish featuring a loss to a similarly growing England side.
Culture is often a buzz word for coaches but for Herdman, changing the men’s national team feel was a key first step.
“It’s totally different,” forward Junior Hoilett reflected earlier this year. “What John Herdman put in place here, it’s a real ‘brother culture’ and there are no self-agendas. Everybody’s on the right path and everybody knows why they’re here: for the national team.
“Everybody’s on board, and you can see it. Everybody’s fighting and each one of us wants the best for the team and for the country as well. It’s an exciting time for Canada.”
John Herdman trophies, success with Canada
Herdman will be looking to add to his list of accolades already achieved in his career at the Qatar 2022 World Cup:
Canada women’s national team
Gold medal, 2011 Pan American Games
Bronze medal, 2012 Summer Olympics
Bronze medal, 2016 Summer Olympics
Canada men’s national team
1st place, 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying (CONCACAF)
John Herdman wife, son
Herdman married his wife, Claire, whom he met in high school growing up in Consett, just 14 miles south-west of Newcastle. The two reportedly live in Vancouver.
“I love Newcastle but I love Canada too,” Herdman said in 2015. “I feel at home here and I feel I can have a positive influence. The only thing I miss is watching Newcastle United live.”
Herdman got to coach at Newcastle’s home, St. James’ Park, in the 2012 Summer Olympics, where Canada’s women earned a 2-2 draw with Sweden that secured a place in the knockout stage.
“When that group came out,” Herdman said in the run-up to the Olympics, “we pull Japan and then we get Sweden. It was looking pretty bleak. The saving grace was getting to play in St. James’ Park. That put a smile on my face, let me tell you. To take your team back to play in your hometown, in the park where you watched all your heroes…”
One of Herdman’s two children, Jay, is on the books of Vancouver Whitecaps and was recently called-up to represent New Zealand, where he was born, at the OFC Under-19 Championship.