Fresh off the heels of today's CanPL announcement that a shortened 2020 season would be taking place in PEI in August, I had the chance to chat with HFX Wanderers owner Derek Martin about the journey the club and the league have been on to get to this point.
Hi Derek, great to speak to you again. I realized earlier today that the last time we spoke face to face was way back in December, and it'd be an understatement to say that quite a lot has changed since then. But even so, here we are today with a 2020 season - albeit a shortened one - finally announced. So I was hoping you could talk us through the process yourself and the league went through to make this happen...
Well, firstly you’re right – a lot has happened since then! In terms of the process to get this season going though, I think like a lot of people we went through these stages of understanding with regards to what was happening with the pandemic.
I remember when it first started we were still holding out hope we could start on time. We were thinking ‘Ok, it’s March… but if we can get through this by the end of the month then we can get things back rolling by April and hit opening day’ or ‘It’s April now, so we’re not going to hit opening day, but we might be able make them games up a month later…’
But it was probably around the time of the opening game where it certainly started looking like we’d missed a lot of those gates to make it work as a full season.
So then you had to come up with something else…
Right, so at that point we really started looking at alternative ideas, concepts and locations – and obviously while we were doing this we looked at other leagues and sports to see what they’re doing, too. Around this time – and still - PEI was doing extremely well with controlling the virus, so I suggested that I’d reach out to the province there to see if they’d be interested, and that was when the conversations really started to get to the point we’re at today.
The one thing we’ve really tried to do here is to get this right. There’s an advantage sometimes in not being the first because you can take a look at the leagues which have already started up again and make a note of what they’ve done well and what they haven’t done so well. So I really feel confident that we have taken the time to get this right; to really go through the health and safety protocols needed to keep everyone safe. And in my opinion, going to PEI – which literally is an island – gives us the best chance to stay that way and be able to get through the entire shortened season in a way that not only keeps everyone safe, but is also able to be completed. Because you don’t want to go through all this effort to have something go wrong and then have to cancel it. That’d only be a double whammy of pain and suffering for fans. So yeah, I’m confident we’ve taken the time to ensure that doesn’t happen.
I know we’ve gotten some flack online from people who were mad that it wasn’t done quickly enough but I think that’ll get pushed aside when they see what we’ve created and set up over there.
What were the biggest challenges for you?
The number one challenge by a very wide margin was working with the PEI Chief Public Health Office to determine the protocols that would not only work for them from a provincial perspective but also for us. Because there are 2 different desires from both parties: from a PEI perspective it’s about protecting islanders. And for us, we need to know that first, players are as safe as possible, and second we aren’t allowing them to interact with islanders who may have slipped through the cracks in any other situation they have that could then bring the virus into our bubble.
So each challenge we’ve faced has had its own host of challenges, whether it be logistical or financial and it just adds up. When you look at bubbling 300 people… the teams, media personnel, Mediapro’s team, the medical folks… you know you’ve got this group of 300 you’re looking to put up in a hotel and do everything for, for 60 days… that’s quite a financial commitment. So then obviously you get into working on some revenue opportunities such as advertising, sponsorship, or government funding to make it work.
Is there any chance fans will be allowed into the games?
I think at this point unfortunately no, but as we all see with this situation it’s an ever evolving situation… so if the Maritime provinces open up to the rest of Canada and we continue to manage it well, I think those things may come back into play. But as of today it will be more of a media-driven event because we want to give the fans something great to watch and enjoy. So, right now it’s about being on TV and exposing the CPL not only to our fans but new fans as well to the CPL product and get them on board. So at this stage I’d say probably not, but you never know if things will change.
Just to bring the focus to HFX Wanderers right now. How have preparations been going for the season – have you managed to make it over to training much to get a look at the group?
Yeah I have, but not as much as I’d like because I’ve been so busy with not only doing what we’re trying to do in Halifax but also with the league and PEI – because I’m the person on the ground here dealing with them. Last week, for example, I was over there to report back on the facilities and the hotel and all these different aspects.
But I have had the chance to watch them a few times and I chat to Stephen (Hart) and Matt (Fegan) everyday, and from all accounts it’s a vastly improved team. And a much more cohesive team, too. As you know - we’ve talked about this together before - one of the challenges last year was some personalities that didn’t mesh, and some people who were new to being professionals. But this year there’s a totally different attitude between the guys. You know it’s a challenging and competitive atmosphere but in the way you are with your buddy, where you come off afterwards and shake hands and joke around. It’s been a refreshing change. And what Stephen is excited about now is that our biggest strength now was probably our biggest weakness last year…
In the middle, yeah. It’s not just more skillful but it’s also a much more mature and in control group of players. So we’ll certainly do a much better job of controlling games rather than being out of control. Even at times when we did well last year it was usually on the counter-attack and I know, even from conversations with Stephen 2 years ago, that he likes to control games from a tempo perspective, so that wasn’t a style he was particularly happy with.
I wrote in a squad review piece recently that I thought our midfield for the coming season is perfectly balanced. There are ball distributors and ball winners; tidy passers and individuals capable of dominating physical battles. I’m excited to see how it transpires.
Yeah for sure, and it’s such a nice thing that the biggest challenge is how you get them all on the field.
Well, we now have a squad that’s full of depth, which is certainly not something we had last year…
Absolutely, yeah…and the revelations in this squad – well maybe not revelations because everyone was pretty high on them in the first place- but the two players that have really, really impressed are Aboubacar Sissoko and Joao Morelli. They’re going to be two very different noticeable talents that we didn’t have last year.
On Joao Morelli, it’s clear that if you’re good enough to get scouted by a Championship club in England, you’ve definitely got something going for you.
Yeah, he’s just got the knack. He’s very fluid, very competitive. He’s filling the role of the straw that stirs the drink, if you know what I mean. And he’s got a really great mentality to go with it too.
And I tell you, Sissoko is a stud, too. He’s going to be a really big player for us this year.
What’s the status of Eriks Santos and Alex Marshall?
We’re still not completely sure the situation with Santos, but we’re very happy that we’ve got Marshall in. He’s been isolating and will be ready to practice next Wednesday when his quarantine is up. We’re really excited to have him.
Will there be any new additions to the squad before they leave for PEI?
Well, we’ll have Jake Ruby who’s still with us and it looks like we’ll bring him along. We’ve also had a young local centre-back Luke Green – who’s the same age as Scott Firth – training with us, so we’ll likely bring him along too to fill the squad out and give him some experience. We’re trying to find ways to develop as many locals as we can and in a shortened season like this it’s a good chance to get him in and around the guys, even if he doesn’t get on the pitch.
I’m interested in how the club will approach this season. Is it something you’re viewing in the short-term as a competition you’re desperate to win, or will you use it primarily to take a look at some of the players you’re not 100% sure on yet, who are still trying to earn an extension to that contract?
Firstly, I’ll say that I always want to win so we’ll never go on the pitch not to win the game, but that being said we are using the opportunity as a chance to really see what we have. I don’t think there’s a surprise that we believe very strongly in Akeem Garcia as a striker. It’s something you and I have talked about one-on-one before, and we know there are people that question whether he can do that job - so what better opportunity to give him an 8-10 game window to see if he delivers there.
Also, I think we’ve got a few other players – and these players know this – who are out to prove something. Look at Alessandro Riggi… he knows we rate him so, so highly in terms of the skill he has and what he can do, and this is his chance in a shortened season to show he can be someone we commit to long-term. So I think for the players and the club it’s a great opportunity to see how these games go to really give us a better idea long-term.
It’s no secret that we had a strategy last year to keep our contracts shorter because we didn’t know what we were getting into. We didn’t have a feeder club like Cavalry did for example, so we were trying to create this thing from scratch. But now, with a better idea of the level, we’ve started signing some players to long-term contracts based on what we’ve learned from watching then. But before we commit to multi-year contracts with some of these other guys we need to see what they can do. So yeah, it’s important for me to win but we can also look at other stuff too.
Maybe it’s pre-season positivity, or just general happiness at the fact that a season of sorts is happening, but there’s a part of me that really believes we could win this…
It’d be a great story. And I agree… but you know every team feels that way. However, I do like what we’re doing and who we have – and in some cases what we didn’t completely realize we had. Look at someone like Matteo Restrepo… he’s this kid that’s got such a fire about him, and this really great competitive streak that we didn’t know he had until we saw him… so if guys like him can turn it on in games and exceed expectations then I think we could be very, very competitive.
And what a day it’d be if we could all celebrate winning it together on the first day of next season. The players, the coaching staff, the fans, all back at the Wanderers Grounds in carnival mode.
That’s the thing right – I know it’d be such a shame if we couldn’t win it in front of the fans, but think about what that opening day would be like next year… the party… the celebrations… it would be awesome.
Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.