HFX Wanderers head-coach Stephen Hart is the kind of man you might, in a moment of mid-conversation, what-the-fuck -did-I-just-say madness, refer to as ‘dad’, before scampering away to a dimly lit corner to give yourself a straight red card for social foul-play.
These things happen, believe me. I had a mate at school who once referred to our math teacher as ‘mum’. How do you come back from that? You don’t, is the answer.
What this anecdote means to illustrate is that in Stephen Hart, HFX Wanderers have a head-coach that demands respect.
It’s evident in the quiet authority that comes from a career which has seen him manage the national teams of Canada and Trinidad & Tobago, as well as various age groups in both countries’ youth systems.
It’s also evident when you hear the tonal shift from the league’s other managers as they talk about him. There’s a reverence there, an acknowledgement that their total combined experience as head coaches doesn’t come close to matching Hart’s.
It’s no great stretch to imagine Brennan, Silberbauer, Gale et al, cross-legged and rapt beneath a willow tree as a white-robed, heavily-bearded Hart delivers a sermon detailing the negative effects that playing with a trequartista can have on defensive stability.
A touch absurd, granted, but the reality is that no-one associated with the CanPL has the experience in top-level football that Stephen Hart does, at least not in a role directly pertaining to their current job. An argument could be made that Jimmy Brennan’s playing career puts him alongside Hart but being a professional player and a professional coach are wildly different disciplines.
It’s this experience that has also armed Hart with a War & Peace-length folder of contacts within the game. While most coaches have connections in Canada and maybe one other country, the Wanderers coach’s talons stretch across vast geographical areas. Namely, Central and South America.
It’s these contacts that helped him land a player as established as Jan-Michael Williams, the league’s most-capped international.
(A brief aside, while we’re on Jan-Michael Williams: HFX Wanderers FC have an internationally established, 80-cap player in their squad, but you wouldn’t know it, would you? Beyond Halifax, this eye-opening piece of information has been largely ignored. Like an overworked, balding father who can barely glance up from the newspaper at his tapdancing son, the Canadian football community appear entirely unmoved by the league capturing such an established player.
Compare this to the buzz generated by Marcel De Jong, the only other player that comes close to William’s international caliber. The giddy, love-struck swooning from our friends on the west-coast (and the league as a whole) makes the collective blindness to Williams all the more baffling. HFX Wanderers FC, bottom of most fans Power Rankings (more on that nonsense some other time) have a goalkeeper with 80 international caps and a club career that has seen him play in front of 20,000+ fans in the CONCACAF Champions League in their squad, but that’s apparently not a big deal.
You can have your high-profile left-back, I’m sticking with Big Jan.)
But back to Stephen Hart…
I heard an interesting story concerning last July’s Atlantic Select XI’s penalty shootout victory against Fortuna Dusseldorf U23 that demonstrates the caliber of manager we have at HFX Wanderers: a few days prior to the friendly the two teams faced each other in a warm-up match at Saint Mary’s and, to put it bluntly, the Atlantic XI team got absolutely battered. In the days that followed, Hart used his years of experience to take a well-beaten team and restructure them tactically, rebuild their confidence, and eventually turn them into an outfit that earned a 2-2 draw and the subsequent win on penalties.
Anecdotes like this, coupled with his years of experience, make it no great stretch to say that in Stephen Hart, Wanderers have the finest manager in the league.
Assisting Hart against Fortuna Dusseldorf on that balmy July day was the man that will be alongside him at the start of the season, too. Michael Hunter is the owner of Serious Soccer Consulting, a Halifax-based developmental school for local footballers (Christian Oxner and Scott Firth count themselves among his clients, with both spending time with him recently preparing for pre-season). His role covers a wide range of services, from one-on-one coaching and fitness work to post-game evaluations and analytics. It’s these analytical skills that Stephen Hart referenced when he was announced as assistant coach.
It’s in keeping with the trend towards versatility in this fledgling HFX Wanderers team that Michael Hunter brings a variety of qualities to his role with the club. Not only will the club use him as an assistant coach, he’ll also take responsibility for performance analysis and be the goalkeeping coach. He was once a goalkeeper himself, so this is a role that will come naturally to him.
Completing the coaching set-up is Hart’s fellow Trinidadian, Derek King.
Derek King had a distinguished playing career that saw him turn out for the Trinidad & Tobago national team 33 times, scoring once in the process. It’s remarkable, really, that he managed to acquire so many caps considering he was forced to retire at 24 years old due to a career-ending injury. It's a testament to his character that within three-years he'd gained the necessary badges and was ready to enter the world of coaching.
His career as a coach began at the delightfully named Joe Public FC (“who’ve we got on Saturday lads, John Doe United?”) before spells with Trinidad & Tobago’s U20 side. During his time as a head coach he has won a number of national championships in Trinidad, most notably collecting five trophies in one particularly prosperous year. He leaves his home country with a glowing reputation.
King's prior relationship with Hart has almost certainly played a part in his hiring. The two worked together with the Trinidad & Tobago national team for over two-years to largely great success. Notably, the pair managed to guide Trinidad to 49th in the FIFA rankings, a tremendous achievement when you consider they currently sit at 93rd.
King could most recently be found as head-coach of FC Santa Rosa, winners of Trinidad’s Super League One, where he managed a team featuring Wanderers new boys, Akeem Garcia and Andre Rampersad.
Stephen Hart’s life can perhaps be divided into two distinct periods: those spent in Trinidad and those spent in Canada, and in the construction of his backroom staff, whether consciously or unconsciously, he’s chosen two men that reflect his own cross-continental career path. With one foot in Canada, in the form of Michael Hunter, and one in Trinidad, in the form of Derek King, his coaching staff have been built in his own image.
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 @GaryG86