Friday 12 April 2019, 09:38

Herdman reflects as former teams face France duel

  • John Herdman coached Canada and New Zealand at the Women’s World Cup

  • The two nations will meet again at France 2019

  • Herdman looks back to 2015 meeting and predicts “wide open” title race

France 2019 will be the first FIFA Women’s World Cup since 2003 that John Herdman will follow as a mere spectator.

The tournament’s highs and lows have punctuated the Englishman’s career, from his debut in the dugout at the tender age of 32 to bearing the hopes of the host nation four years ago. And while he is now coach of Canada’s men’s team, Herdman expects - and is hugely excited by - “the most open Women’s World Cup ever”.

He will, of course, be keeping a particularly close eye on his former teams, New Zealand and Canada. The pair face off in Group E two months from today and, with that date drawing ever closer, Herdman spoke to about the Kiwis and Canucks’ prospects.

“Credit to New Zealand: they made a great appointment in Tom Sermanni,” he said. “They’ve also got real talent coming through - the recent U-17 Women’s World Cup showed that.

“I would mark them down as a team for the future and, if they get through the group stage, they’ll have overachieved in my view. But with Tommy in there, you never know as he’s got such a great way of bringing the best out of people.

“Canada obviously have higher hopes, and when I look at them and the other top teams, it’s wide open. There are at least ten teams that could go on and reach the semi-finals - Canada included - and we weren’t able to say that in the past. It's so much more unpredictable than it used to be, and that’s brilliant for women’s football.”

Herdman’s highlights

  • 2007: Led New Zealand to first Women’s World Cup since 1991

  • 2011: His side secured Football Ferns’ first Women’s World Cup point

  • 2012: Bronze medal with Canada at the London Olympics

  • 2015: Led Canucks to World Cup quarter-finals

  • 2016: Another bronze-medal finish at the Rio Olympics

He may be excited about the possibilities for this Women’s World Cup, and might even feel a slight pang of regret as the showpiece kicks off without him. But hearing his memories of the Canada-New Zealand match in 2015, it’s clear that Herdman won’t be lamenting his absence from the sides’ upcoming Grenoble reunion.

“I hated that game and, to be honest, I’d been dreading it,” he reflected. “For me, drawing New Zealand was the worst thing that could have happened because there was so much pressure on the team and myself at that World Cup. I felt I really didn’t need the added pressure of going up against my old team because I knew their players would be doing everything to beat their ex-coach.

“In the end it was a 0-0 draw, as tough as I'd expected, and I was probably happy with that in truth. The fear of losing had always been there. But yeah, I didn’t enjoy the game one bit.”

There is, in truth, a regretful tone to much of Herdman’s 2015 reminiscences. Though proud that his Canada side “captured the hearts of the country”, his verdict on the tournament - and the hosts' quarter-final exit - is unequivocal.

“There’s no doubt it was a missed opportunity,” he said. “We were all devastated. The World Cup is very different to other events – it’s a tough, tough environment to play in. We had team psychologists in and did everything we could to create the right environment and take away the pressure. But it’s an oppressive sort of environment.

“The big lesson I took away from it was that the fans really wanted creative football to inspire them, but in that environment – with that pressure – it’s very hard to produce creativity because your natural instinct is safety. That’s the big thing I’d change. I feel I should have tapped into that as a coach, made Canada hard to beat and just ground it out - almost like the French did at the men’s World Cup in Russia. Looking back, I got the psychology wrong.”

It’s a typically candid admission from a famously forthright coach. And while now in the role of spectator, expect Herdman to be kicking every ball and critiquing every decision as he watches France 2019 unfold from afar.