It was the best of times, it was the first of times - thank you Halifax, and goodnight.
Six months that felt like five minutes. A long, lovely summer of football in the company of a really good boy. And now... it's over. Finished. Could whoever's cutting the onions, please stop.
To try to sum up the past six months in a clean, linear manner isn't easy. You can't bend the story of the season into a well-defined shape that sits neatly on a shelf, nor can you force an ending that satisfactorily resolves all the strands and subplots that have run alongside the headline story of HFX Wanderers Football Club becoming a genuinely beautiful part of this city.
And that's a story worth telling, but it's also one that has been told already. In local media, by fellow bloggers, on here... and it's one that should continue to be told in years to come because at its heart is a masterclass in how you build a sports organization that a community falls in love with at first sight.
But it's not the story we're going to look at today. Instead, we're going to look at the story of HFX Wanderers' debut season from an on-field perspective. To try to pick our way through the good, the not so good, and everything in between. To see if there was a defining moment somewhere that shaped what this team became by the season's end.
And, as it turns out, on July 27th there was.
But before that, spring.
For the players that landed in Halifax towards the end of February, a reality check was waiting in the wings.
The snowstorm that hit a few days into pre-season training was Canada’s version of a burly centre-half plowing through the back of a striker in the opening minutes to let him know he’s there. Sheets of white, temperatures below zero. Welcome to Canada, boys - grab a shovel.
For the club’s management those early training sessions were a chance to see if this hastily assembled group of players sourced from four continents would be able to gel.
Conditioning was the first port of call, and fortunately most arrived in good shape. Next came the task of figuring out how to arrange this group into the best lineup possible; no easy task in just two months.
Those intense, relentless opening months of training ended with a trip to Dominican and the chance to restock the Vitamin D cabinet. Different shapes were still being worked on at this point and the best XI still up in the air.
Two friendlies versus Valour and Edmonton took place during this trip, and the consensus following those matches was that the level of most of the league’s teams was pretty comparable. Even so, no-one who watched any of those behind closed doors friendlies would've been surprised to see Cavalry & Forge running away with things by the season's end.
Back home, an opening weekend defeat versus Pacific started the season anticlimactically. It was the first instance of travel being the 12th man for the opposition as the fatigue of distance weighed heavy.
Wanderers own 12th man introduced itself the following week as Forge arrived in Halifax for the first ever game at the Wanderers Ground. A rapturous, joyous occasion ensued and a late Luis Perea goal gave Wanderers its first ever victory in what was a legitimately important moment in the sporting history of Halifax.
After that some wins, some defeats, a draw and the beginnings of a fun ride in the Canadian Championship.
But really, really, the spring season was little more than pre-season. It was a squad of 22 getting to know one another and a backroom staff trying to build something functional from this assortment of parts. No more, no less.
Regardless, the record books show that HFX Wanderers finished the Spring season in 4th place with 11 points. It was a decent start. Not perfect, but decent.
During those opening weeks the hint of an identity was also starting to flicker. Much of the attacking threat tended to come down the flanks, with the anachronistic Mohammed Kourouma doing his best impression of a mid-80s winger and Akeem Garcia always looking the most likely to score.
Up top, Tomasz Skublak was a robust, bustling presence and an able deputy for the injured Luis Perea. In midfield Elliot Simmons, Andre Rampersad, and Elton John did what they could in a system that would often bypass them.
After a strong end to the Spring season and a 1-0 win at home to York to kick things off in the Fall season, hopes were raised that Wanderers could challenge at the top end of the table. These hopes were raised further as the team put in a genuinely stirring performance against Ottawa Fury in what was perhaps the Wanderers Grounds' finest moment of the season.
Despite the level Wanderers reached that night the game ended in a 2-3 defeat, and things were soon to get worse. A brutal stretch of away games followed, hitting the team with a flurry of blows before landing a KO that they spent the rest of the reason recovering from.
The reality is that this season can be split into two periods for HFX Wanderers, but not the Spring and Fall seasons as most would likely expect. Because the real bend in the road came on July 27th in the penultimate game of that punishing run of away games as an exhausted, fatigued Wanderers side were dismantled in Ontario.
York 6 – 2 HFX Wanderers.
It goes without saying that this result was an anomaly and almost entirely down to disastrous scheduling from the league, but even so it was one that came to completely define the team from a stylistic perspective and greatly inform how the next three months of the season panned out.
Despite never displaying a propensity for gung-ho attacking football, the version of Wanderers that fans saw early in the season was far more open and forward-thinking than the one found after that day in York.
A quick glance at the numbers tells its own story: including goals scored and conceded, the 10 Wanderers games from June 19 – July 27 featured 32 goals, but the 10 proceeding games from July 31 – September 2 featured just 14. 3.2 goals a game to 1.4 is a pretty steep drop off and an indication of a clear ideological shift at both ends of the pitch.
For Wanderers, it was a case of going back to basics. Marshaled by Matthew Arnone, the defence refocused itself into a unit that took few risks and was simply a very, very difficult outfit to score against. The holes that were present early on were gone, the flanks far more secure.
Teams could no longer play through Wanderers by targeting the full-backs and attempting repeated cut-backs from wide positions. And it wasn’t only the back-four that improved in this department, the midfield also played its part by dropping deep and limiting opportunities for the opposition to play between the lines.
As a defensive strategy it was a resounding success, but in doing so the attackers were left a little isolated. There was something of the blanket being too small: pull it up to your chin and your toes are cold, pull it down and your neck’s exposed. You can’t have it all.
Still, slowly but surely Wanderers had developed a well defined on-field identity. They were to be compact and organized at the back … then try to kill teams in transition.
And it almost worked, because a familiar pattern began to emerge during games at the Wanderers Grounds: the opposition would grow frustrated at being unable to breakdown a well-drilled back-line and to compensate for this they’d commit too many players forward. One mistake later and Wanderers were launching a counter attack against a disjointed, out of shape defence.
There were limitations to this tactic though, because while it was a fairly productive way of playing it did rely a little too much on the opposition over committing in attack or making an individual error. Usually one of those things happened, but it’s no surprise that Cavalry –who rarely lose shape or make individual mistakes – were the only team to leave Halifax with 3 points.
A sense grew during this time that Wanderers were lacking a technical leader on the pitch, someone who could control the tempo and momentum of a game if Plan A wasn’t quite working. Unfortunately, no-one ever really carved out a niche in this role and it's likely to be an area the club will address during the upcoming transfer window.
And so the second-half of the Fall season followed a similar pattern: defensive solidity but a lack of goals up top. There were 0-0s, heartbreaking last minute equalizers, and then a final, redemptive win at the stadium they suffered their season-defining defeat.
That Wanderers finished last in the final standings should cause little alarm to fans because in this league, at this point in its evolution, the difference between 3rd and 7th is minor. In fact, if you were to run 100 simulations of this inaugural season, Cavalry would still win it, Forge would still finish second, but 3rd – 7th would come out in a completely different order each time. It’s that tight.
So, what happens next?
Ch-ch-ch-changes is what.
One thing is certain: there’s going to be a very high turnover in playing personnel for the majority of clubs in this league.
For anyone to strike gold in year one was nigh on impossible (unless you were Cavalry which essentially had a CanPL-ready squad in place for a year before the season began), but now, with a far greater understanding of the CanPL’s level, everyone is more equipped to build a team capable of competing.
For Wanderers and a few other teams, you can expect the turnover in players to be as high as 30-50%. An eye-opening number whichever way you look at it, but with a proposed international age cap, the teams in this league are being forced to do things a little differently.
Such a large scale makeover will bring challenges but there’s recognition within the club that on-field improvements must be made to sit alongside the fantastic work that’s being done off the field.
There is certainly the core of a squad in place, but considerable fat needs trimming from the edges to ensure Hart and his team can still be competing for honors deep into the autumn in 2020.
So, who stays and who goes?
At the back, Christian Oxner is nailed on to return but Jan-Michael Williams may be a victim of the aforementioned age cap. He'd be a useful character to keep around though, ideally in a coaching role.
Elsewhere in defence there isn’t too much that needs to change. More full-back cover may be required if expected departures happen but with the likely return of Peter Schaale Wanderers will be well-stocked centrally. Any two of Arnone, Schaale, Lee, and a born-again Hocine should be enough to inspire confidence from the stands.
Across the midfield, there's a solid base to be built upon. In Andre Rampersad HFX Wanderers have a genuine talent; a player who has flown under the radar throughout but is now undoubtedly in the top 4 or 5 midfielders in the league and, if there's any justice, likely to be a capped international within the next 12 months.
Both the Trinidadian and Elliot Simmons – perhaps the squad’s most technically adept player and at only 21 still with a very high ceiling - should have their services retained. Scott Firth, too, showed flashes of potential and with one of the highest possession stats in the squad (and still only 18) he certainly lends himself to a team that will likely strive to keep the ball better in future.
Elton John should, on merit, be re-signed but once again with the rumored limits on internationals over a certain age being implemented next season, it may be difficult to do.
Further forward one player who has made himself indispensable is Akeem Garcia. Often charged with performing a thankless role, he's gone about his business professionally and with a willingness to learn that has enamored him to the backroom staff at the club.
The transience of Luis Perea's career path thus far suggests he'll be plying his trade elsewhere next season. For the other attackers - Tomasz Skublak, Mohammed Kourouma, Kodai Iida, Juan Diego Gutierrez, and Vincent Lamy - opinion remains split. You'd expect at least one or two of them to still be at the club come April, though.
And as for Yousef, well, what exactly is a Yousef? Does he really exist? Is he the result of a collective hallucination? A half-seen image in a flu-soaked fever dream? Tell me, friends, if a Yousef falls in the forest but no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Perhaps we'll never know.
So as they sit back and reflect and all that's happened since April, Stephen Hart and his staff will have a renewed sense of what kind of team can be successful in this league. They'll have their targets lined up; players who fit into their plans not just on the pitch, but off it too. There should be trust from fans that next season is going to be a lot different from this one, because all being well it will be. This is a club with the right people running things and results will follow.
But whatever happens next, the HFX Wanderers side that lines up for the opening game at the Wanderers Grounds next spring is going to look far, far different from the one we’ve all enjoyed watching over the past six-months, and there’s a poignancy there.
Perhaps it’s a case of over-sentimentalizing things because it’s the first year, or maybe the person writing these words is just a maudlin sap, but it’ll be genuinely quite sad to see some of these players leave.
And so we end at another beginning. The grass at the Wanderers Grounds will go dormant. The cold will destroy our collective will. And then one fine day we’ll wake up and spring will have arrived, and with it another season of watching HFX Wanderers in this beautiful city we call home.
Until then, Up the Wanderers!
With that, I just want to say a genuine thank you to anyone that’s taken the time to read this blog over the course of the season. It can be quite a time consuming thing to do, but it’s worth it when I get to interact with people about the club we’ve all grown to love.
I’m not entirely sure that I’ll continue doing this next year - it’s a pretty expensive hobby what with domain name costs, monthly podcast host fees, Wix fees etc – but even so it’s been a blast doing it up to now.
Saying that, I'm sure once we sign some unknown third-tier Ecuadorian the blog cost will go out the window and I'll no doubt make it my life’s work to find out every single tiny detail about his career. And at that point, any thoughts of stopping will be well forgotten. Thanks again.
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 @GaryG86 or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.