Search

Interview: Matt Fegan, Halifax Wanderers FC Sporting Director

Hey Matt, thanks for doing this. Let’s start with the off-season. How did it compare to previous off-seasons? Were there any extra challenges? Do you feel pretty happy the club’s transfer business? The off-season already seems like a long time ago, to be honest! I think, overall, it was good. We had already made guarantees on a bunch of players, right? So you've got six or seven guys who were on guaranteed two year contracts, which gives you a foundation. And then you look to try to... Where are the areas that we want to be better at? And theoretically and tactically, the discussion was around us being more attacking out from the back, and because of this one of the priorities was to go after quick full-backs. We already had Jake (Ruby), but unfortunately he had an injury that he came out of last season with, but we were still planning for him to be part of the group. But we got (Zach) Fernandez in, who gives us U21 minutes, and then on the opposite side, we were pretty open about the fact that we wanted a left full-back, like an actual left footed left-back. So we brought (Obeng) Tabi in, and I think with him we always acknowledged he might take a little bit to kind of settle. He's coming out of junior college, but by all accounts, he is just an incredible athlete… you know physically very similar to Alphonso Davies at a young age, just raw talent and raw speed.


Obeng Tabi (canpl.ca)

I’m interested to hear about how an unknown player like Obeng Tabi comes on the club’s radar. You get a lot of tip-offs from people that are watching all levels of the game in the country. He was playing in Quebec in the summers, and it was mostly just us putting our ear to the ground on the kind of talent we were looking at. And left-full back… that’s just randomly a position that there's not a lot of Canadian players in. And we had talked to JGL going into this season, because obviously he filled in a bunch at left-back last year and he acknowledged to us that he wanted to play more in the middle, and we recognized that and saw value in it. So we knew that we needed to get somebody who gave us attacking impetus going forward. We also got into the U-Sports scene, where we had previously identified (Colin) Gander. I think he gives us something there.


Moving onto our attacking players, we were pretty early in trying to recruit Aidan (Daniels). We wanted to have something a bit more dynamic through the middle, something that's a bit more creative, and then you get into... Once the season pans out, you start to see how pre-season looks and you start getting people like (Ryan) Robinson in who's an U21, who we played against with Vaughan and who gave us a ton of problems. So I think I would say that the off-season, in terms of player recruitment, made strides towards where we want to get to, but we didn't get in everybody that we definitely wanted. Now, the only other thing I would say is, from the off season, one of our biggest improvements was bringing in Alejandro (Dorado).


Alejandro Dorado, Halifax assistant coach.

What he's really added is the ability to help Stephen (Hart) communicate the way he wants to play and build a far more definitive visual of our style of play. When you look at what we've done, maybe some good performances haven't gone our way, but we have a very clear style of play. And from my perspective, that helps me go and actually find specific players rather than say, "Let's just get as many good players in and see how they all work together."

It certainly makes recruitment easier if you know exactly what type of player you’re looking at. Rather than looking at every player in a certain position, you can identify their role on the pitch and whether or not that role tallies with how we play. Yeah, exactly. And Stephen has traditionally been more of a national team or provincial team coach, and in that sense you work with who qualifies versus being like, "I'm going to go and find that particular player." And to his credit, he's a coach that's willing to be flexible with what he has to work with. And the other signing I want to mention is Mo Omar, and his was a super long play, but again, we identified that we wanted something more in the middle and something that could be versatile at the back, and Mo was someone that we had had an eye on for a while. Again, in similar vein to Sissoko in many respects… who was available… but to be honest, Sissoko just didn't... He didn't want to commit to coming back to CPL until he'd exhausted all of his other options, so there's only so long you can wait. No, exactly. Would Mo be seen as Andre Rampresad’s replacement as that lone #6, or more of an #8…. or even as a centre-back? I think he's more of a #6, but he can also do a job at center-back. Now, he's had a hard time with injuries so far. I was sitting with him earlier… and it’s gutting for him because he looked good in pre-season and then picked up a high ankle sprain. So he was out for the first bunch of games. Then he took a while to come back in, and then when he did come back in, other guys were doing well and it was tough to break in. And then he was in line for a start versus Edmonton… but picks up something else, so it's just been... sometimes that's kind of the nature of the game.

Moving onto the average age of the squad now. It’s circling between 23 and 24, right? 24, yeah. And I remember chatting to you when you were recruiting in early 2020 for the second season, and you identifying 22/23 as the age you were looking for. They’re pre-prime, there’s sell on value… Yeah.

Is that still the vision, to target that sort of age group? Definitely on the international level, the ideal target age is somebody who can continue to develop in this league and move forward. When I got asked to take on more of this responsibility going into the season, one of Derek's (Martin) mandates was that if we are in a pinch between two players, to err the side of youth. Now, we are at an average age of 24. And of the eight back-line players, five of them were born in 2000 and younger. That's a really young back-line. Just Schaale and Santos aren’t, right? Restrepo too. And I think sometimes we could use a bit more of an experienced head in there, but with people like Jeremy and Rampy and the guys who've been in the league now a few years, I think we're getting that experience, but in terms of actually recruiting, yeah, it's intentional... I don't think adding guys mid 30s into the squad work necessarily works. I think this is a young player’s league. Yeah. It's a very sprint-y league, isn't it? Very athletic. Nik Ledgerwood was the exception because he could just sit there and- Becker too, 100%. Also David Edgar. There's guys who have been around the block a long enough time who have learned how to adapt their game to accommodate being a bit slower after their prime, so you can obviously still offer something as you get older. It's just that there's certain positions in this that youth is a factor. And I think the way the league is structured, the incentives we have, the way that U21 players hit the cap, the way that U21 minutes have to be fulfilled… we’re building for something that helps develop players, rather than finding them at the tail end of their careers.


Credit: @hfxwanderersfc

This is kind of a double barreled question, but looking at the start of the season… we had clearly built a system designed to get the best out of João Morelli. Everything is set up for him to drop into pockets, to link play, to score… but then he gets injured. So firstly, was there every any conversations among yourself and the coaching staff where you thought, “Okay, maybe we need to pivot to something different stylistically?” And I guess the second part of the question is… how is João doing? What does the timeline look like on that? Sure. Well, in terms of the style, we were pretty committed to this style of play, even though that was only really only one or two games into the season. And we still feel that we have players in the squad who have the capability to still play that false 9, right. Aidan Daniels can play that false 9 position. He can come deep, he can pick up the ball, and when he turns, he wants to shoot. Akeem's (Garcia) done a good job of playing through there at times. But what we definitely recognized, even before this season, was if we were going to challenge at the top end of this table, we need goals from other players beyond Morelli. So you have to look at everything with a silver lining. And if anything, it's forced everyone to step up, and I think you've seen that already. Akeem is scoring… and okay, some have been penalties, but you still need to score them. Bent is scoring. And Salter is really contributing goals, too. So I don't think we ever looked at it and said, "Right, we need to totally change the system."


What we're trying to find is the balance right between “Do we need somebody who can cover for João while he is out the squad by having someone come into the squad or can we find that within?” Or can we use the spot that he's vacated for the time being to get us maybe somewhere that... We still feel we could add another player on the left hand side, for example. We’ve brought Mour (Samb) in. We were in a unique situation at that time when we signed Mour because when João got injured on April 16, by the time we knew that it was definitely ACL a few days later... and we were really quick, to be honest, on getting a diagnosis, he was told within a day. He was getting an MRI and within a day, we knew it was an ACL… but the international transfer window closed May 3rd. And as you know, a lot of contracts for players don't really end at the end of April. They're either ending at the end of May or the end of June, so we were in a bit of a time crunch. We felt that we didn't have the right option internationally and Mour was somebody who we had looked at before, admittedly. Even in pre-season we had considered him because he adds something different. He can play through the middle. He can play out wide. He's played relatively at this level in USL. He knew JGL. He knew Daniels, and those things kind of tick some boxes, and the key piece was that he had Permanent Residence, which meant he was domestic, so we still kept our international spot. But again, he was coming into the system in the hopes that he's played a false 9 position before, so he gives us something there. And I just think as well, in the forward-line, we have a bunch of players who are pretty versatile that can play wide, play through the middle, even- Yeah, I’ve noticed that this season. There’s a lot of positional interchanging with the front three. When it works, it looks very fluid.

Yeah, they've all definitely got the ability to do that.


So, how is João doing now?


Things are okay. He went home. He was pretty quick to say, "I don't want to be sitting here all season just watching everyone train and that," so we respected that. His girlfriend had come up here to finish her studies long distance, and it was just one of these things where it just didn't make sense, so he went home. His surgery's actually this week (interview conducted on June 17th). It took a little bit to get that going, but admittedly, his surgeon at home actually was one who preferred that he work on strengthening things a little bit to help with his post-surgery recuperation versus just being like, "Get under the knife. Let's get it done." So timeline wise, these ACLS are... We hate seeing it but you look at what happens when players are rushed back. And it's just awful to see it, but they get rushed back in and they're maybe back in before they probably are ready. I mean, from my perspective I feel like you almost have to accept that he won’t be 100% for at least the first few months of 2023. We’ve got to plan on 12 months, let's be honest. We really do. And I'll admit, I'm talking 12 months since he did it, but I don't think he's walking into full training camp at 100%. We have to plan that he's going to take a bit of time, and we have to manage his game time as well. With that injury, they come back, but it's another three or four months normally before their level is back to sort of… because the risk of re-injury is higher, and then if you do re-injure it, the timeline to recuperate from that is almost triple. So why would we do that to him? He's still in the prime of his career.

So there are some people – on Twitter, on social media - that feel the club should’ve brought in a replacement immediately. How do you see that? So João is still contracted for next year as well, and we have to keep an eye on that reality. What would be the point of bringing in a big name player to replace him, and then lo and behold, the two of them are sitting on top of each other next season? So we got Mour in who we felt was a good option for what we wanted to add, but it also gave us a time to kind of see how the team evolved through the season. And then by the time July rolls around, we could be a little bit closer to finding the right person that fit exactly what we needed, versus just being like, "Let's just take a good player and see how they fit into the system." But I'll tell you it was night & day of just consistent effort to try to get and identify the right person, talking to players who we have identified, who maybe weren't out of contract at the time. We were trying to see, could they get out of contract? There's also reality that when you're talking about a certain caliber of player, they want to wait and see what their options are.

Yeah, of course. Right? So you get guys who are coming out of contract, but they're like, "Great, love to hear you’re interested, but I've got two more games left in my season by which point the international window's closed or I've got offers coming from other clubs."


We talked to a number of players who were coming out of contract, guys who were winning Player of the Year in Scotland in the second and third division, who were interested in coming, but they get an offer to move up in Scotland and they're only 26, 27, and they have a family there, right? These are all factors in this that play in.

What's the PR international situation now? Because we're still waiting for Peter and Corey to get PR, and when they do… that’s more international spots available, right? Has there been any movement on that? Well, we're just going off what the public pool is, to be honest, and the immigration... federally, the immigration in Canada said that they're going to do a new draw in July, so we're waiting to see if they're included in that. Converting them to domestic is a really important piece of our future recruitment for international players, and that will hopefully play out. It remains to be seen how quickly it comes. We've got people who are willing to support and back our application, but it has to kind of pass a certain step before they can really help. So we don't get preferential treatment. But if you look anywhere Canada, immigration is completely backlogged.

And I did a thing with The Herald a few weeks ago because we're... been in this situation with Rampy and Garcia, who got international call-ups, and they... again, a combination of the pandemic and immigration taking so long, they don't have international travel visas renewed at the moment because Canada immigration's not in a rush, because they're in Canada with a work permit. They're not in a rush to be like, "Right, we'll get you in the country." They've no reason to do it, so we're trying to get those things done. And yeah, that'll help.


So going back to the Morelli injury, what exactly is the league's policy on a season-ending injury? So every team can declare one season-ending injury to get a roster spot back and the balance of the player's salary back into the cap. So obviously, the player still gets paid, but in terms of the cap value, that money comes back into the cap, right? So now you can spend that amount on a future player or whatever you have left in your cap. So that's really it. Now, the season-ending injury has to be season-ending. It can't just be like, "Oh, he is injured. We don't want him anymore." It has to be medically verified, so the process was literally... As I said, we got a pretty quick MRI, got a quick diagnosis. Everyone acknowledged that this was him done for the season, so you get that back in cap space. And now, you have a budget to work with to try to get in future replacements. This kind of ties into the whole off season recruitment. Strategically, we intentionally left a couple of spots open on the squad because we wanted to see how the squad goes. I think maybe in the past we've settled for certain signings by just being like, "Let's just fill the squad to 23," and then you kind of get stuck and you can't react to certain situations. And I think that not only now do we have João's cap space, but we also had cap space that we felt could be used on players who were going to come in and give us something when the July window opened, so it gave us options.

Speaking of the squad and cap space, there was a bit of a furor on Twitter recently over a pretty small bench for the game in Edmonton. Well, that particular situation was a combination of a series of unfortunate events. First of all, we were on a two game road trip. We went with with 18 players, one of whom got suspended, so then we were down to 17, and that should still be a sufficient number to work with. But then we got a couple of injuries on the trip might have been okay, but might not have been. The second injury to Mo Omar happened the night before the game, and the hope was still, "Can he pass a fitness test in the morning?" But when you're a three hour time zone away and you have extensive travel through a major hub... It's difficult to react immediately. In the moment, really the majority of the players who were back home were not 100% fit. Could they have come and sat on the bench and been thrown on for 5, 10 minutes in a pinch? Probably, but again, from my perspective, us sending a player out to travel on short notice was only going to impact future opportunities and truly didn't really help the team. Naming a player who's unfit and who may not really pass a fitness test on the bench, again, optically, may have been a better impression there, but we don't travel with 20, 22 players in case we get an injury and can still name 18. You have to manage the budget and you have to manage the realities of where we are with the squad at the moment.

For sure. So, we’re ten games into the league season now. How do you view the progress the club has made thus far? Well, I think we could definitely say that we're well on the way towards a really consistent style of play. I think the players all feel that and they have really bought into the system that Stephen and Alejandro are implementing. I think that, considering we've lost the best player in the league and top goal scorer in the league, we are... again, we've been sort of accused of having really bad road travel woes and things like that, but here we are at the moment. We've gotten points in York, gotten points in Edmonton (and after the recording, also got points in Pacific) , and you could argue, we probably could have had points in Calgary.

Valour, too.

And Valour 100%. I think we still are... I think we're creating the chances, and we need to start putting the ball away and everyone would admit that. I think there's been a lot of games where maybe we've not really finished as well as we probably could have, but that comes with confidence, and you can see that in someone like Salter, who has hit the ground running. And you can just see not even just the goals he's scoring, the fact he's scored a number, but it's the actual type of goals, that he's taken the ball… sometimes on the chest… sometimes turning and being composed … the second goal against Edmonton to the other night for example, it's a tremendous finish, that. Any player in the squad's capable of hitting that, but sometimes it just is a bit of confidence of knowing you can take it and actually try it.

You can only score that goal if your muscles are relaxed. And you only feel relaxed if you feel confident. Exactly. So I think there's elements of that. I think players have stepped in. I think when we look at the composition of the squad, we can always say that we're further along in terms of our depth of quality. Stephen and Alejandro can now look down the bench and say, "Okay, this guy can come in and interchange." And I think what that's also done, to be honest, is it's meant things like Polisi, Ruby, who've had longer term injuries… they've now been given a chance to actually properly recover.

And unfortunately with Jake (Ruby), in his particular situation, he had an injury towards the end of last season that has led to a couple of setbacks along the way, but we're not going to announce every week whether he's made a setback or made progress. Fortunately, you've watched Fernandez come in and more than handle competing for that spot which is a testament to, I think, just a little bit better recruitment to give us a better, more rounded squad. I think things are positive. 100%, I would admit you get these blights. You get these games against Forge of course, but from my perspective at least, is I drill in less to the individual game results. Obviously I want to know what contributed to that particular result, but if you have trust in the process, we're going in the right direction.


As I say, some of these good performances, we have to turn into wins. And some of those games where maybe we would've lost them in the past, we've gotten draws. We still have to fix goals in the last 10 minutes of games that, admittedly, we suffer from at times, but I think that we're going well. And we're looking to add some players in July that we feel will strengthen the squad as well. So would that be around July 1st?

July 7th is when the window technically opens. Now, you can still bring players in advance of that. And just to be clear, that's players overseas who are registered for the international window. If we found the right domestic player that we wanted to add, you can sign someone like that, but you have to acknowledge that a player like that, at this point in the season, has been sitting out of contract for a number of months and the time it's going to take them to ramp up to match fitness might take a while.

There’s been talk over the past couple of years of Halifax having an U23 side. Is there any movement on that?

Yep. So we will have a game at the end of July against the PLSQ side that we're going to try to make public in the next few days here. We’re planning to announce that the soon. And the nice thing about that as well is that it's going to be against a side who have a few younger players in PLSQ who we've kind of had an eye on, and it brings them into our environment and gives us a chance to see them in a different way, the same way we kind of saw Zach, really. We saw what he could do at this level. And I don't mind saying this, but we were quite a ways down having a couple of clubs... One, like Hibernian, coming from Scotland- That would’ve been fantastic. Their U23s? Yeah, they were supposed to come, but they qualified for the Europa League and ended up having to divert all their travel budget to that. Most of the clubs, what we're willing to do is, if they can get themselves here, we're covering their stay and everything like that, so it's incentivized.

So it's just the flights they're paying for, basically. Yeah, so we’re trying to get two games this summer, but the big thing as well is we really want to have a role to play in trying to launch a 2023 League next summer as well, regionally. Not necessarily in Nova Scotia alone, but also trying to piggyback off the programs in AUS that are strong, trying to get them in a situation where they can try to keep their best players around for the summer. And if we can do that, then we can tie these showcase events into having a better caliber of player in the region for summers.

So would something like that be attached to the universities?


Yeah, I would say we're talking to basically every AUS program about the prospect of them having a U23 summer team next year and trying to make that feel a little bit more like a League 1 model. And some of these things, unfortunately, especially if you start talking about doing it with New Brunswick and PEI, you cross provincial borders. It just becomes a little bit more logistically challenging. And then, of course, Newfoundland are interested, but then there's a ton of cost involved to fly in there and all that. So I think, again, that's all heading in the right direction, but it's all... This is the part of the reason why it's not easy for us to just call on U18 development players at the last minute, locally. Until we get to a point where we've got something for them to be developing in, it's going to be difficult to rely upon players to be ready to go into the fold on short notice.


Are there players in that local talent pool that the club has already identified as having potential?


I would say, next season, we will likely have four development players signed for this squad. We talk regularly about having a certain caliber to make sure that the quality level doesn't drop. I'm in touch consistently with Soccer Nova Scotia’s Matt Holton, who develops the players. He's running the Canada Games team, who's your top three Depth Chart players on the next '03s, down to '07s or '08s.


What we’re working on at the moment, is finding solutions that we can offer to players because we could bring youth players in here all the time, but if they can't play games, if they're not ready to play games in our fold, it doesn't really do them that much good to be coming in here. We can't pull them out of the situation and be like, "All right, you can just be a training player," because I don't think we see them develop enough, so it's about getting that right. I would definitely say, though, it's well within our pathway that we want to have four development players. It might be a mix of some guys that we identify from outside the region that we're able to bring here or as guys that are in this region already.

Yeah, exactly. So next up, and I know this is more Derek's world, but any updates on a permanent stadium?


Yeah, so I would definitely say it's full tilt at the moment behind the doors, just trying to get support behind it. I think we've definitely created the environment in which we can do it and sustain it. I think what we really need to maybe do to try to get it over the line is just show that we can show a little bit of diversity in programming. I think a men's football team... Maybe they'd look to see could there be a women's team as well, which we would have in a minute. If there was a national league in Canada, we would have a women's team, 100%. Is there a women's rugby team that can play here? There's an effort right now to try to get a men's pro rugby team in Atlantic Canada. Is it that team? So I think Derek's... Again, it's a huge piece of the puzzle in the moment and it's something we're really pushing towards. And hopefully, by 2024, worst case 2025, we're playing here in one. We want it to be here, 100%.

 

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.