Quinpool Road, a long, stretching artery that connects downtown Halifax with suburbs to the west, has had its nose bloodied this year. For a district of restaurants, cafes, and newly opened bars, the previous nine months of closures and restrictions has burdened the area with a palpable weariness. White mounds of old weather line the sidewalks and melt into drains. So far, it’s been a quiet winter; a strange year.
Strange too, for HFX Wanderers, but no less busy. Located at the mouth of Quinpool and Robie - another of the city’s main arteries - is the club’s HQ. It’s a tall, odd-looking building; peculiar in all the right ways, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Here, above the retail store on the ground floor, the Wanderers management and coaching staff run the day-to-day business of the club, and despite the team not playing a game for three months, and realistically being at least four months away from its next one, life has been anything but quiet of late.
“The offseason has been remarkably busy” laughs VP of Football Operations Matt Fegan. “Just ask my wife. My phone is constantly lighting up with chats between Stephen (Hart), Derek (Martin) and I. Then there’s meetings with immigration lawyers, visa issues… all sorts of things like that”
It’s quite the undertaking, this offseason lark, and perhaps frustratingly validation for the decisions made today won’t even be felt until late 2021. Just as the decisions made this time last year weren’t felt until the summer of 2020 when HFX Wanderers completed its surprising redemption arc by finishing runner-up at the Island Games.
Considerable fat was trimmed from the waist of Halifax at the end of its disappointing debut season to get to that point of success. Of the 24 squad members that represented Wanderers during 2019, only 7 returned in 2020. Some supporters were displeased, but after a campaign which saw Halifax finish bottom of the table, it was hard to disagree with its necessity.
During last year’s offseason Fegan, who joined the club in January 2019, worked alongside Wanderers head-coach Stephen Hart, club owner Derek Martin, and other staff members to build a more competitive group of players for 2020. Stung from the lack of professionalism and unearned hubris of many of the previous season’s squad members, they sought players who represented the values and culture of the club off the pitch as well as on it. Vindication for this upheaval came during the Island Games.
Professional football, however, doesn’t allow for periods of stillness and reflection, so barely had the dust settled on this summer’s success before planning began for 2021.
The first order of business at the start of the offseason was keeping the core of the group together. Quickly, all 7 of the international players were re-signed. This being a pandemic though, the logistics of making sure all can return to the country in time for the 2021 season is currently at the forefront of the club’s to-do list.
“I’m on the phone with an immigration lawyer two or three times a week at the moment to be honest” says Fegan. “Akeem (Garcia) is in. Alex Marshall will probably be in by the end of the month. (Andre) Rampersad never left.”
Nor did Peter Schaale or Cory Bent, who have both spent much of the offseason out west.
Engineering the return of the two Brazilians, Joao Morelli and Eriks Santos, poses slightly different challenges, but there’s positive news on both fronts. Morelli, with an Italian passport, shouldn’t have too much difficulty returning to Canada, while Island Games absentee Eriks Santos is further along the process than the club was able to get him this summer.
“Last year, Santos was the most difficult one” says Fegan. “But we’ve already had a bunch of approvals from immigration this time around that we couldn’t get before so it looks good”
Alongside the international returnees came five confirmed domestics in the shape of Christian Oxner, Mateo Restrepo, Omar Kreim, Alessandro Riggi, and Jems Geffrard, along with Scott Firth and Jake Ruby who’ll join the group for pre-season and a chance to earn a contract.
The core then, is in place, but question marks still remain over three players: Aboubacar Sissoko (“we’re letting it play out, we’re not bugging him”), Ibrahima Sanoh, and Daniel Kinumbe.
Several places then still to fill. According to Fegan, 18 players have already been signed for 2021 and several more deals aren't far from being completed, but announcements won’t start being made until January.
With all international spots occupied, the remaining HFX Wanderers’ signings will be domestic, a prospect made easier by the increasing number of places Canadian talent can be found.
“We’re looking at local players, USL players, other players in the league, Canadians who are playing abroad, players who are coming from USPORTS. There’s more choice now” he says. “Take the USL for example, the Canadians there are now international players so that’s a huge change that will impact us and this league”
Not a lot is known about the anatomy of transfers at this level of the game. Who approaches who, for a start? What is it like dealing with agents? How high up the football pyramid can you find players interested in playing professionally in Canada? What does a club’s transfer strategy look like?
For the HFX Wanderers management and coaching staff at least, the answers to all these questions began with a whiteboard at the end of the first season.
“We had a big session around a whiteboard where we really tried to focus our strategy around having different tiers of players” remembers Fegan.
“So, we had Marquee Player – Core Player – Squad Player – Development Player written on the board and then we decided ‘okay, to have a championship winning team we need X amount of Marquee Players, X amount of Core Players' and so on” he says. “And then we had to fill these tiers with players we were interested in”
It wasn’t, Fegan admits, a revolutionary idea. But it’s one that stood in stark contrast to the first year’s squad building.
“I’d say the first season was a case of throwing things at the wall and seeing where they landed. We probably overpaid in some areas. We also had older guys like (Luis) Perea and Jan (Michael-Williams) who – don’t get me wrong – contributed greatly, but you're not sure how much they can continue to produce on the pitch as they move deeper into their 30s”
This offseason has been easier. The club’s performance at the Island Games meant the priority was retaining players rather than overhauling the squad.
“We had discussions midway through the season (about who to retain), but you’ve got to give players a chance to bed in” admits Fegan. “And then at the end of the season we really sat down to discuss it”
Personality plays a part in these discussions. While Hart concentrates primarily on the on-pitch aspects of a player, Fegan considers the player’s character.
“I come at it really in terms of the more human aspect of it. So, maybe ‘this player can be challenging off the pitch’ or ‘this player is a joy to work with’. While from a footballing perspective, Stephen will always take the advice of Dan (Clark), Mesut (Mert), Jan (Michael-Williams), and previously Mike Hunter or Derek King”
Once it’s clear which of the current crop of players will be returning, the club can start to look outwardly to plug personnel gaps. An important factor to consider at this point is the decision made by Wanderers’ management during last year’s offseason to restructure its use of the salary cap into something a little more balanced.
While some clubs in the CanPL have a handful of extremely well-paid players buffeted by younger, less well-compensated talent below them, the Wanderers hierarchy opted for a different approach.
“We decided on a model which involves trying to spread the wealth throughout the squad.” recalls Fegan, “Having a far more financially balanced group helps us with versatility throughout”
It’s a factor that likely aided the bond formed by this season’s squad, too. A bond that other clubs at the Island Games struggled to replicate.
With the clubs recruitment strategy set, identifying players that match these requirements becomes the priority, along with assessing players that are introduced to the club by outside representatives.
“We do get tipped off on players by agents, but there are also many players we find ourselves. It’s 50/50”
And then there’s the pool of players recommended by the league, too. Much maligned, but perhaps rather misunderstood, is CanPL’s partnership with 21st Club, a talent sourcing agency based out of the UK.
Some reports have suggested that the league has been strong arming clubs into signing from this pool of players, but this isn’t the case, according to Fegan. The reality, instead, is that 21st Club, along with the league's own database of players, acts as a centralized scouting network.
This network provides clubs with categorized lists that may be of interest to them. For example, Canadians that are overseas or Canadians coming out of NCAA, USL, or USports. There isn't, however, any obligation to sign these players.
“As far as the direction the league are giving us, all they’re saying is ‘Hey – this player is available and wants to come back to Canada’. There’s no one at the league saying ‘You guys have to sign this player”
It’s at this point, as well, that Stephen Hart’s contact book comes into play. The Wanderers head-coach has been around the game long enough to have established a deep pool of relationships with players, agents, and coaches of other clubs. It's another string to the bow for Halifax.
Using these different avenues, a list of players is drawn up for positions the Wanderers management have determined to be open, and Stephen Hart and his staff begin to review footage of them alongside statistical data.
“We use InStat which has a database of players and chopped up footage. So, for example, you can search for a player and see all the types of passes they played last season, or all the tackles they made” says Fegan. “They also have their own scoring index but that can be a bit more subjective.”
It was using this database that Wanderers identified one of the standout performers from the Island Games, Joao Morelli.
“We knew we were looking for a certain type of player. There’d been discussions about signing a domestic no.10, but we thought ‘Okay – let’s look internationally instead’”
Dan Clark, HFX Wanderers’ High-Performance Manager, got to work. Using the InStat database to filter strengths, weaknesses, and other requirements, Clark identified Morelli as a promising player and one the club should pursue. The next step was a little unusual.
“I sent him a message on Instagram” laughs Fegan. “Sometimes it’s not as glamorous as it seems!”
Usually though, a club's first contact in negotiations is with a player’s agent. As a young league in a new territory, the CanPL has had to deal with a mixed bag of agents. There are good ones, of course, but the landscape can also occasionally resemble the wild west, according to Fegan.
“It can be quite bad in North America. We’ve had a few situations where some agents talk to you as if they’re representing a player and then you get three conversations in and it becomes more and more apparent that they’re not. There’s a fair bit to sieve through” he says. “But you do build confidence and trust in certain people, especially the ones who can provide players who are respectful and who you want to build the club round”
This polarisation of standards among agents exists at all levels of the professional game, so there is a sense that dealing with them is just a necessary part of life at a professional football club. But once a representative’s integrity is established and negotiations begin, things tend to move smoothly, and this city and this league are becoming increasingly persuasive selling points.
“There’s definitely been interest in us recently, and from players and teams higher up, too” admits Fegan. “We’ve been actively speaking with a range of top-level Scottish clubs, for example, about player partnerships”
It’s a tantalizing prospect for the future of this club and this league. There’s hope that the turbulence of the past year will soon give way to the exciting future that the league’s first season promised, and for Matt Fegan and the staff at HFX Wanderers, there are targets set that the club will strive to meet.
“Regarding long-term goals, we want to have at least 6 homegrown players in the first-team squad by 2026 – so that’s one target. Also, we want a player who’s been through HFX Wanderers to make the Canadian national team squad at the World Cup. And I know that sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky” he admits with a smile, “but you never know, do you?”
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.