It’s the penultimate Friday night before Christmas, and Patrice Gheiser – the real Patrice Gheisar that is, not the new-coach-of-Halifax-Wanderers Patrice Gheisar – is in trouble.
“Gary man, I’m sorry!” he laughs as his face and voice coalesce onto the screen, “But we got a Christmas party going on here tonight that I totally forgot about… and you know, my wife… well you might hear her yell my name in a moment telling me to come help because – hah! – well, you know… but no man listen, it’s been a busy day. I was at this youth soccer camp all day looking at players and…”
And this is how he talks. The energy, the passion, the relentless flow of ideas. It’s easy to see why Derek Martin and Matt Fegan were so taken with him. He’s extremely likable, Patrice, very much of the I-bet-he’d-be-fun-to-grab-a-beer with mould. But threaded throughout his gregariousness is a deeply serious love of football. It’s something that came to him early on.
“Growing up, my dad – God rest his soul - he always wanted a little soccer player” he says. “He loved the game and he wanted me to go as far in the sport as I could and, well, here we are”
Here we are indeed. On November 30th, after a two month search, Patrice Gheisar was named the new head-coach of Halifax Wanderers Football Club, the second in the club’s short history. It was an appointment that took some by surprise, but also one universally applauded by those who’d worked with Patrice within the Canadian football ecosystem.
But long before Patrice-the-coach existed, there was Patrice-the-player.
A competitive player, at that.
“Super, super competitive” he remembers with a smile. “I always gave 200%, you know. I played at a high pace, I covered a lot of ground… I was very combative”
He played as a holding midfielder, a position that requires 360-degree vision and a football brain that’s constantly recalibrating, assessing risk, and painting pictures across the pitch. An early stylistic reference point was Barcelona.
After spending some time living in Spain as a youngster, he fell in love with the team. But if Cruyff’s Barcelona was the gateway drug, the 2009 Pep Guardiola iteration was the addiction.
“That team… Messi, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta… that football... wow” he says, blowing out his cheeks.
Despite early promise as a player, injuries took their toll.
“It was all going well, you know, but then – boom - as a teenager I had my first ACL injury and I had to stop playing for a while.”
The ACL injury was the first of many. Over the following decade he had seven knee surgeries. There came a moment he had to consider the implications this repeated physical distress would have on his future.
“After my last surgery I was like, you know what, I want to have kids someday and I want to be able to run around with my kids in the backyard. So, as I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair, I think it's time for me to take a step back from playing”
Throughout the duration of these injuries, he started to approach the game from a slightly different vantage point.
“I remember with the World Cup in 1994 just sitting down and watching every single game of that tournament and seeing the game completely differently. So instead of just watching the ball, I would watch the off-the-ball stuff too. Like, okay, a player has passed the ball but what does he do next? What are his actions? Why does he do that?”
After the second ACL injury in his early 20s, the tactical side of the game was no longer just a flight of fancy, it became a viable way of staying engaged with the sport. Before long, Patrice had taken his first coaching job.
“At first it was just to make some extra dollars, but I actually did better than I thought” he remembers.
Even so, the fact that coaching has ended up as a career remains a surprise.
“To be honest Gary, if I closed my eyes twenty years ago when I first started coaching and tried to imagine myself here today, I wouldn’t believe it. I mean, let me be truthful with you… I was never a big fan of coaches! It was always ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’… And I would be like, ‘Well, what about the things I can do? But hey, look at me now, look where I am” he says with a laugh.
“It’s funny how life works out, right?”
Those of you with particularly astute memories will remember that May 22nd, 2019 was a bitterly cold day in Halifax. Rasping winds, temperatures close to zero; it was an apt environment for the type of performance Halifax Wanderers produced that evening versus Vaughan Azzurri, in only the second home game of the club’s history.
And it was here, within this context, that Patrice Gheisar – then head-coach of Vaughan - took his first steps into the stadium he will soon call home.
“I remember thinking – ‘What a great setting, what a great city’” he says. “It felt good to be there in front of 6500 fans.”
It was a culmination of the hard work and graft he’d put into his club.
“When I came to Vaughan we didn’t have high-performance or anything like that” he says. “I started with our 1991 team – a team that ended up having seven or eight pros come from it - and then I started to grow Vaughan so we went from one team with high-performance, to 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…”
His growth as a coach was also accelerating as he took on a supplementary role in college football.
“I did an assistant job at Ryerson which was great, and then the Seneca head-coach job came up and I just went for it”
Was that a challenge, I ask, juggling jobs with Vaughan in L10 and Seneca college of the OCAA?
“You know what Gary, that was a big lesson in time management. There was a lot of overlap. There are days when you’re losing your mind. You’re wearing so many different hats. But like I said, it was a good lesson in how to prioritize things and also, you know, I really believe that a good leader surrounds themselves with people smarter than them. So I made sure I had some really great people supporting me”
It was during this period that the game at Wanderers Grounds took place. The result, a 0-1 victory for Vaughan is, on reflection, no surprise given the quality in their lineup that day.
“I left that day saying Alistair Johnston is a star. Ryan Rapaso is a star. Look at how many of that team ended up turning professional… 7? 8? You see players in that environment and it’s either the making of them or the death of them”
It reminded me of the Halifax’s game versus TFC last season, I tell him. How I looked at some of the players playing that day and thought “Okay – the CPL is definitely your ceiling”, but how I also looked at others and thought “Wow – your level is MLS, not CPL”. Andre Rampersad, for example.
“Rampersad, yeah… I mean, he’s an MLS player playing in the CPL, isn’t he? A big man who can move. The hearts and brain of the team”
Gheisar’s time at Vaughan has been a resounding success. From the battles with Bobby Smryniotis’ Sigma – “it was a good rivalry!” – to an undefeated season, there’s a sense of pride in how he describes his time there. But there’s always a new challenge around the corner. Always another mountain to climb.
So when Halifax Wanderers announced the departure of head-coach Stephen Hart in October, many within the Canadian game would’ve expected to see Patrice Gheisar’s name on the 70+ list of applicants for the empty position
Interestingly though, it wasn’t.
“The club actually called me first” he remembers.
Why hadn’t you applied?
“A few reasons. Firstly, I know Coach Hart really well” he says. “You know, in May he was in town and we went out for beer and wings. It was a great night. He’s always been great with me, you know. Always happy to lend his ear with advice. So to be honest, I was a bit reluctant to put my name into the hat because of my respect for him”
But then one day, the phone rang.
“It was Matt Fegan. He said to me ‘Patrice – we’ve had 75 applicants but you’re the one guy who hasn’t put his name in. Why?’ And I said, ‘Well to be honest, I think this is how I was brought up. I think the work I’ve done in this job should speak for itself, and if you’ve earned something, people will give you the chance.’ Maybe this is just my understanding of life, you know…, and I said to Matt, ‘Do not mistake this for a lack of ambition'. It's just that I believed the work I'd done should get me noticed, you know?”
Some flex, that. A real bollocks-slammed-on-the-table move. But it was done out of a sense of pride for what he’d achieved with Vaughan. Soon enough, the job was his.
“There were a lot of calls, a lot of back & forths” he remembers, “and then eventually we got to the PowerPoints and the discussions about my vision for this team. It was intense, for sure. But it was a really good process”
Building a new team is the stuff of dreams for many of us, but finding the right players for the right system takes work. It’s work that Patrice Gheisar has jumped into headfirst in his opening month as Halifax Wanderers head-coach.
Before arrivals though, decisions had to be made over who would remain at the club.
“The first thing I was looking at was the person, right? How is their rapport with the team, with the staff, with the fans? The second was their abilities as a player, and the third was their adaptability to fit into our system. What I want to tell you Gary, is that this year we’re going to be different. Now I don't know if it's in a good way or a bad way” he laughs, “but we're going be different from last year. That's the only thing I can promise”
Derek Martin and Matt Fegan, he says, have been an incredible support over the past month. Together they’re working to change the direction of travel for the club. It’s relentless work, but fulfilling work, too. He’s getting to know his squad, meeting with players individually, and laying out his expectations for them. We discuss the players the club has retained, and I ask him for a one or two line summation of how he sees them. We start with João Morelli, the club’s former Golden Boot winner who spent last season out with an ACL injury.
“Morelli? Prolific. A goal-scorer. A fantastic player. He can play in-behind or underneath. A modern day nine-and-a-half”
“Endless potential. We’re going to transition him into a full-time defender. He reads the game incredibly well. Great passing range and great, great leadership skills. I enjoy it every time I speak to him. If I had to describe him in one word, I’d say ‘winner’”
“Young, a high level of desire and potential, and a great passer. If we play with a back three he’s going to fit into that system fantastically. He’s going to really enjoy this system”
“A big surprise to Halifax and CPL coaching staff. A good full-back. And now our job is to push him to an even higher level. We're going try to make him like a Dani Alves, like a real attacking full-back who almost plays as a right-winger. Good attitude, brave, and also a guy who wants to win”
And finally, Aidan Daniels. From a talent perspective, I tell him, I believe Daniels is potentially the best player in the Halifax squad. But last season it didn’t quite click. Why does he think that is?
“I’ve know Aidan for a long time and I really believe his best days are coming. He’s a super technical, silky smooth player. But Aidan needs to be challenged in a way that makes him feel empowered. He needs to really know his role. I think he’s going to love it here next season.”
With the nucleus of the squad in place, the club is now tasked with bringing in quality signings to improve the level of the group. Gheisar’s contact book is bigger than people probably realise – in one anecdote he mentions how the Inter Miami GM is a friend – but despite this, he’s adamant there are members of his Vaughan squad, and L10 in general, who are good enough to make the jump.
“Obviously it depends on the level of the CPL team and the level of the L10 team, but the gap isn’t very big. I’ll tell you – in April, during pre-season, we played against Halifax, Forge, and TFC2. We lost 0-1 versus Halifax. Close game. But with Forge, we beat them 3-1. We tied with TFC2. So I think our team last year, we were right there. And I mean listen Gary, we had players laying bricks before the game or painting houses. Working normal jobs all day. Put them in the CPL where they get strength & conditioning coaches, physios, food and rest… these guys are going to grow a lot more with those resources”
Where do you stand on international players, I ask him. Especially as someone with such close ties to the Canadian game.
“The first thing I will say, is that this is called the Canadian Premier League. Its primary function should be to serve and develop Canadian players. So I’m not going contradict that by finding a 37-year-old Portuguese player just for the sake of it. I mean, if there’s an international player out there that can come and make the team better, then great, of course we will take a look. But there needs to be a balance.”
International or domestic, a key factor in this off-season’s recruitment is how they’ll fit into the system Patrice is looking to implement in Halifax. He likes his teams to operate in an aggressive, front-footed manner. He wants his players to be protagonists. Does he worry that sticking to these principles will be challenge in a league where other teams may have the better players?
“Well one way of dealing with that challenge is in recruitment. We’re hoping to have the best technical players, you know? It’s how I’m doing 99% of my recruiting. You want players to fit the plan. That’s the number one criteria. But we want the technical level to be very, very high. Now of course what may happen is that we feel pressure and have some bad defeats, but what’s important then is to stick to our identity. To know who we are”
Knowing who they are will be key to Halifax’s success in 2023. Vaughan played with a complex, rotational system in 2022. Players were multi-positional. Rarely did anyone stay in one place for the entire ninety-minutes. It’s useful to think of his team as being one of roles rather than formations. Take the Vaughan left-back, for example. He was everywhere but left-back at times last season.
“I think the most underrated position is full-back, right?” he says. “So I look at full-backs as playing defensively, but also in central midfield, in attacking midfield… and I like them to have a midfield background. You know, my Vaughan U19 team was playing today – and I have the same system throughout the age groups – and we have a mini version of our left-back playing with that group. And I’m standing there with this guy, a college coach, and he says to me ‘Bloody hell, I feel like your left back is playing everywhere!’ But that’s what I like… a free flowing attacking game that allows our players to feel joy”
Is it a risky way of approaching the game?
“There’s risks for sure, but it’s gotten me to the position I’m in now, and I’m certainly not going to change because it’s a different level. No, I’m not that guy.”
Gheisar cites Pep Guardiola, Louis Van Gal, Arsene Wenger (“I’m more Wenger than Mourinho”) and, interestingly, Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi as influences. The common thread between all four is an aggressive, attacking approach to the game. It’s these values he’ll try to transmit to his players in February.
“I’ll say ‘Okay, look. Let’s talk principles. For example, we can’t be on the same lines vertically and horizontally. Okay. That’s a basic principle. Then we’ll start layering those principles up… we’ll talk rotations and roles. And then we’ll talk about smiling and loving what we’re trying to do, which will increase the intensity and ball movement, right?”
And then, hopefully, the goals will come.
“Right. We scored 83 goals with Vaughan last season. 83! With Seneca it was 53 in 10 games. And I had people asking me, like, ‘How did you do that?!’ And honestly Gary, it’s movement and it’s creativity… but that creativity needs to also come from inside the players. You have to encourage that. And that will be my message”
It often comes back to messaging with Patrice. The challenge of making the gap between what people hear and what people understand as small as possible.
“If I’m in a room talking to my team, the content doesn’t matter. The 995-page PowerPoint doesn’t matter. None of it matters. What matters is what the audience leaves the room with. How the audience feels after they’ve left. That’s what’s important, that’s how you lead”
As he speaks, the outline of a Christmas party begins to form behind him. His children arrive. Guests won’t be too far behind.
“So anyway, the audience…” he starts to say, but his train of thought is quickly interrupted by a presence nearby. He turns the camera away from himself and faces it towards the doorway where his wife stands with an unmistakable come-on-Patrice-hurry-up look on her face.
“You see that, Gary” he says laughing, "I think I’m in trouble!”
And so we wrap up and say our goodbyes. He tells me he’s enjoyed our chat and is looking forward to meeting and talking football when he arrives in Halifax early next year. With most people this would feel like an empty platitude, but with Patrice it feels genuine.
For now though, he has a Christmas party to host.
In the background, two glasses clink and someone laughs. Another audience awaits.
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 at @FromAwaysHFX. He also guests on the Down the Pub Podcast - a CPL/Halifax Wanderers-focused podcast - alongside Anthony Abbot.