Meet unknown English boss who has gone from council flat to World Cup with Canada… via women’s football in New Zealand
GARETH SOUTHGATE is not the only English manager in Qatar this winter.
And John Herdman, the 47-year-old from Consett in the North East, is ready to flourish after leading Canada to World Cup qualification.
From living alone at 16 before finding coaching, Herdman’s rise has been nothing if not unconventional.
Having found breaking into the system in England near impossible without a CV as a player, he moved to the other side of the world and found a role in New Zealand.
Eventually that led to coaching their women’s team, taking them to two World Cups and an Olympic Games before making the move to Canada.
Starting out as the women’s coach there, Herdman made the switch to leading the men’s side in 2018, before guiding them to their first World Cup since 1986.
There have been doubters at every turn but the focus is no longer on keeping them quiet.
Prior to the tournament, Herdman said: “I think, in simple terms, there’s been a desire to sort of prove people wrong.
“And you have to let that go because it’s quite a toxic motivation.
“Over the last two years, I’ve had that motivation goal. I mean, that was pretty toxic.
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“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. Therefore we have to approach it with that sort of freedom.
“The desire to prove people wrong, that’s already been done.”
Herdman has had to battle from a young age, growing up in County Durham when the local steelworks closed down and watching his parents divorce.
Then his father, who used to take him to watch Newcastle United as a boy, started suffering from mental health problems.
He decided to go it alone, living by himself in a council house at 16.
Herdman revealed: “I later read some work by (American philosopher) Ralph Waldo Emerson, his piece on self-reliance.
“That to me just really laid the foundation for what my future was going to be — that you’re relying on yourself here. Your parents aren’t here any more for you.
I’m very strong-willed. If this is the direction we’re going, I’m going to give my life to it
“You’re almost going to be looking after your parents to some degree. 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.
“I’m very strong-willed. If this is the direction we’re going, I’m going to give my life to it.”
He added: “It stemmed out from that moment, I think at the age of 16, 17.
It was a tough period of time, I could have easily went in the wrong direction
“I’d 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 a tough period of time, I could have easily went in the wrong direction.
“You know, I think with the coaching, it was what pretty much saved us.”
It has not only saved Herdman but taken him to the biggest stage in football.
Even before New Zealand there were battles back home. Herdman explained: “I’d had experiences working in academies in England.
“You just got that sense that there was a culture of almost protecting the players that had given their life to the game and really squeezing out anyone who hadn’t really been part of that club.”
Now Herdman has the chance to unite a nation with Canada’s first-ever goal at a World Cup finals — all in preparation for a home tournament in 2026.
He said: “If you progress this team, to a certain stage, the whole country will stop.
“That’s a big part of what we know the legacy can be.
“That’s the opportunity — when I say we’re going into this with genuine opportunity, the country hasn’t had that feeling for some 36 years.”
While he has had enough of proving people wrong, there may still be a few more doubts to get out of the way, too.
Progressing with a team which boasts a number of MLS players could also change a few minds.
He said: “MLS has had a massive impact on football in this hemisphere.
“In the last three years there’s been a change of mentality.
“People are seeing Americans and now Canadians like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David as ‘OK, there’s a market here that we need to invest in’.”
Regardless of what is to come this month, Herdman has already done wonders for that market, his players and Canada as a whole.