“It’s challenging but exciting at the same time. How many people get an opportunity to build a team from scratch?” – Stephen Hart
It’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it? A thrilling prospect that appeals to the sweet spot in our collective imaginations. The chance to build a team from the ground up. The chance to play God. It’s something that kids in playgrounds around the world do every day. It’s something that adults in pubs around the world do every day, too. But it’s always hypothetical, never something that someone would actually have the opportunity to do. Except, that is, for Stephen Hart and his six fellow CPL coaches who are currently poised in front of a blank canvas, paintbrush in hand, ready to create something unique.
So, where does the HFX Wanderers manager begin? Today we'll look at two of the key building blocks he must forge in the early days of the club: identity and players.
Of all the criticism leveled at Jose Mourinho recently, the most repeated charge is the lack of identity in his (now former) Manchester United team. Who, exactly, were they? Were they a possession-based team? Were they a defensive unit that liked to absorb pressure before launching counter-attacks? Were they gung-ho, a rabid carousel of all-out-attack? No-one was ever sure. A team inevitably becomes a reflection of their manager, so addressing this issue had to be one of the first things Stephen Hart did after taking the reigns at the club in July. What does Stephen Hart’s HFX Wanderers represent? What is our identity?
“He’s got a great eye for football, and really understands it… I know the way he’s going to play, unless he decides to change 180. But I can’t see it because his style is in his DNA.” – Jimmy Brennan, York 9 Coach.
The strength and conviction in those words don’t offer a hint at who Stephen Hart is as a coach, so much as have it printed in bold lettering on an airplane banner that’s circling the Citadel. Stephen Hart has been in the game long enough to know exactly what he wants his team to look like (a thirty-year managerial career that has included two stints as a national team coach will do that to a man). There will be no vaguely defined ideologies on show. No hazy philosophies. Stephen Hart knows what he wants from a team.
“I like players that have the ability to express themselves and I like the collective game in a dynamic, attacking manner”.
Music to our frost-bitten ears, this. A collective game. A dynamic game. An attacking game. For most fans, this is the framework of a footballing utopia. It conjures up an image of free-flowing, progressive football. Of diminutive Brazilians playing in half-spaces, of rapid wingers piling forward with reckless abandon, of no.10s conducting a symphony of movement and finesse, and of goals, goals, goals. And I know, I know, it's very easy to be cynical right now, to take a sideways glance at the talent pool and to think… really? But, as with all things, this ambition needs to be contextualized. An exciting, attacking team relative to the standard of play in the CPL is well-within the realms of possibility. It is a vision that should be encouraged, not scoffed at.
Speaking while Trinidad & Tobago coach, Hart also talked about his desire to develop individual skill.
“Where have the dribblers gone? I think it is very important that coaches remember that they must also run sessions to encourage individual talent and show players how to use their skill as a tactic and take away their fear of losing the ball”
What seems to set Hart apart from the other coaches in the CPL, is the manner in which he regularly references back to developing players and producing an entertaining on-field product. The win-at-all-costs rhetoric regularly spouted by factory line manager-bots tends to be the order of the day when discussing their aspirations for a team. Hart, though, appears to be just as preoccupied with developing talent. He recognizes the responsibility he has for raising the profile of the game in Canada. Years spent in and around the Canadian U17, U20 and U23 teams have undoubtedly impacted his coaching ethos, and it’s hard not to commend the vision he has of HFX Wanderers being a conduit for this ambition.
Once the foundations of an identity have been built, the next step is finding the personnel that can perform a role within that vision. Hart, as we have seen, knows how he wants his team to play, and it’s encouraging to see him talking about finding players to complement his ideas rather than recklessly signing a collection of talent without having a game plan. The perfect case study for why this can't work is the Real Madrid team of the mid-00s. The Galacticos. Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, Beckham, Owen... all world-class, but all, within a structureless system, resembling drunk toddlers trying to navigate an ice-rink garnished with marbles. It is a football-dream that simply doesn’t work on the pitch, an act of sporting suicide more suited to Playstations and Xboxes. It is also worth noting how dangerous it would be to run the club in this way off the pitch, too. We all know that during the early years of the CPL, finances must be managed carefully. Therefore, signing a player just because he’s good isn’t going to work. It must be a player who will perform a very distinct role within a clearly-defined system. To Hart’s credit, this appears to be his intention.
The next question, and the one that as fans we’re desperate to know the answer to, is who will he be able to sign?
Hart, with all his experience at various age groups within the CSA, will have a good understanding of the homegrown players at his disposal. Signing the top Canadian talent may prove difficult though. These players will be known to all the coaches in the league, and with Nova Scotia lingering close to the relegation zone in terms of producing provincial football proteges, Hart is at a slight disadvantage. The signing of Zachary Sukunda was an interesting one (as is outlined in this excellent profile by The Merchant Sailor) because it suggests Hart isn’t only looking within Canada for Canadian talent. Lack of opportunity at home (until now) means a large percentage of in-country prospects leave these shores for chances further afield. If Hart can access this market, as well as selling HFX Wanderers the club (and Halifax the city), to Canadian players, the job of building this team will be made a lot easier.
Due to this competition for Canadian talent, having an in-depth knowledge of a market that is largely a mystery to the other coaches in the league will be a huge advantage. And fortunately, it’s something that Stephen Hart can claim to have after his spell as Trinidad & Tobago boss from 2013 – 2016. Those years spent navigating the international landscape with Trinidad would have seen Hart come up against a variety of teams from Central and South-America. Jamaica, Honduras, Panama, Haiti… St Kitts. All untapped markets. All with players who would presumably be in the league’s pay-grade. Hart has spoken about “players from Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago that are extremely athletic" as potential signings. He’s also referenced “players from Latin America that are technically sound”. Working through the talent available to him, before then molding it into a team that reflects his ideologies, will be key to the success of Hart's alchemy.
What we have in front of us then is a giddy daydream of what this HFX Wanderers team will look like. Nothing concrete, nothing clear. Just a fanciful hint at what is to come. In this daydream we can see a team that is attacking, dynamic, collective; an assortment of parts working in tandem, each cog informing the next. It has athleticism and technique. It’s entertaining. Successful. But most importantly, it’s Stephen Hart’s.