For more than 30 years, Trinidadian/long-time Halifax resident Stephen Hart was a part of Canadian soccer, from playing with the Saint Mary’s Huskies to coaching the Men’s national team. Among his other positions he held included technical director for Soccer Nova Scotia, head coach of Saint Mary’s women’s team and revered Nova Scotia amateur side Halifax King of Donair. He also played with Texaco and San Fernando Strikers in T&T, earning 7 caps for the Trinidad and Tobago national team.
He served as the Canadian men’s head coach twice, as interim in 2007 and as full head from 2009-12, leading the team to the 2007 Gold Cup semi finals and 2009 quarter finals. He exited the team (with a combined record of 20-10-15) following the failed 2014 World Cup campaign, which notoriously ended with a 8-1 loss to Honduras.
He currently serves as the head coach of Trinidad and Tobago, which he’s lead to back to back Gold Cup quarter finals and a Caribbean Cup final. We spoke to him about his time with the Canadian program, how the games has changed over 30 years, soccer in the Caribbean and the east coast, his career as a coach and player with Trinidad and Tobago, the 8-1 loss and his legacy.
SSPC: Since departing Canada, you’ve taken over the Trinidad and Tobago national team with great success. What do you feel has been the factor to your success with Trinidad and Tobago?
SH: I would not say that it was great success, but we had a good run in two successive Gold Cups, which were quite similar to when I was in charge of Canada. With T&T the response from the players has been tremendous, considering the hardships they face and the well documented financial constraints faced by the Association. Another plus is that we have quite a few very attacking players with good balance.
SSPC: When one looks at the current roster of the Canada men’s team players’ birth places, one of the first things you notice is the lack of east coast talent. Do you, as a long time Halifax resident, former technical director of Soccer Nova Scotia and head coach of Canada, feel there’s a lack of support for young soccer players in Atlantic Canada?
SH: Ante Jazic was a special player from the region and made the sacrifice to make football his profession. The region also produced several female players that made their mark on the National Team even at a WC level, those players were also on scholarships in the NCAA. Atlantic Canada needs to look within itself to raise the quality. In my time Provincial players were trained on a weekly basis, now its once a month. The Senior League hartwas very competitive and we had a Select U21 that played in that League. Several players, both male and female were as I mentioned on scholarship in the US. Overall I do believe other factors exist that hinder development, the cost factor is one, it is a burden on parents, the better you are the more expensive it is for you to access training & games. Facility cost is pure madness and now most of the facilities built by the province, are user pay, children do not have free access. Another cost that now falls on parents. Last summer in Halifax I noticed facilities locked up and empty on a weekend!!! Makes no sense to me!
SSPC: Prior to coming to Canada for education, you were a Trinidad and Tobago international player. Why did leave that? Was it just for education?
SH: I had a tough decision to make, I was selected by coach Alvin Corneal for preparation for the 1982 WCQ, at 20 yrs old its was a dream. However, I had a good job, but I also wanted to experience life outside of T&T. University offered me that opportunity and I jumped at it. Though I was having a good run in the top league at the time and scoring regularly, I have to be honest, I am not sure if I would have made the squad at that time.
SSPC: Over the 30 years you were involved with the game in Canada, what were the greatest developments you saw and what were the biggest set backs?
SH: The popularity of the game accelerated at an amazing pace, it was no longer a game played by “foreigners” Canadian children male & female were all participating, the base became enormous. The game grew bigger than the infrastructure to support it and the expertise needed to guide it properly. The NASL & then CSL were fantastic for the game. It allowed young players to dream, many cut their teeth and learned the fundamentals of professionalism and moved on to bigger more established leagues. It remains a key factor in the rapid decline of the elite game and the missing element in player development. Quite frankly the programs being sold as elite player development were far from it (as I mentioned earlier very expensive on parents) and Canada continued to lose many talented players after the age of 18. As a result the elite pool of quality players was way too small. Having said that the lucky ones who went away to European clubs etc. did very well and gave a good account of themselves. Canada should of also embraced at the younger ages, more games in the winter periods as a player development model, example futsal and six/seven a-side with lines (no boards).
SSPC: Do you feel the current system of 3 MLS teams and 2 NASL teams is the best fit for Canada’s soccer future?
SH: Well it’s better than nothing and at least players have an opportunity, also I do believe the development model in these clubs are a bonus to Canada’s National Youth teams’. I always felt Canada could of attempted to establish more regional leagues in the more populated parts of the country. It would have been great to see a league established from Quebec City to Windsor, Ontario similar to junior hockey. (Just an example)
SSPC: What do you think of Canada’s current coach Benito Floro and the squad he’s put together.
SH: His resume speaks for itself. I met him in Philadelphia, I think the job was a major learning curve for him in the first year and a half;, even with his experience. Like many of us before, organizing the team was never a problem, getting the most out of the attack remained problematic. Regardless of the coach you need quality in key positions. In my time once Canada lost Radzinski, Ali Gerba, Josh Simpson just before WCQ and then Dwayne DeRosario after the Panama game, attack could not help but suffer. However, the squad looks to have balance now, with the quality of Atiba, Larin and Hoilett, so I wish him and the team all the best.
SSPC: How does the game in the Caribbean compare to games in North and Central America?
SH: North America & CA should really hope that the Caribbean does not get organized in all aspects of its football. The talent base in Haiti, Jamaica, Suriname and T&T is amazing, with the other Islands catching up quickly, but a lack of funding stagnates the TRUE growth of the game, that is, the development models. The game is played, loved & enjoyed everywhere, there are established leagues to accommodate everyone. The quality of its footballers are very good, plus the athleticism is amazing. The top leagues are very physical, with decent technique, sadly they have lost the fan support and for me this takes away from the competitive demands necessary for players to develop. Lack of exposure to higher levels of play at a young age limits experience. Team and individual discipline, are at times, questionable and it leads to naive tactical decisions (or lack of it). However, the region continues to crank out players, T&T with 1.3 million people continues to be competitive in CONCACAF.
SSPC: This year Trinidad and Tobago will not only play World Cup qualifiers but also Caribbean and Gold Cup qualifiers. There’s been some talk lately as to whether Canada should play such qualifiers. What do you think?
SH: Tricky question. It’s very expensive to play these games & preparation is always limited. However, the tournament is a very useful and competitive one and as the Gold Cup evolves all teams should go through a qualification process. On the flip side if things go wrong and that is always a possibility, due to the host country and the quality of the playing fields etc. you can easily be out of the GC. The last CFU tournament was a very good standard and the games served us well.
SSPC: Looking back on the 8-1 loss to Honduras, what do you feel lead to such a result and is there anything that you feel you as the coach could of done differently?
SH: We lost De Rosario in Panama and Ocean got himself ejected in the Cuba game and on top of it all Jazic fell ill. Then the game was moved to 2pm, a perfect storm was developing. Having said all that, we had 10 points and still needed a result. In the opening 10 minutes we had two glorious chances and failed to convert. Honduras scored what looked like such simple goals and then we were 2-0 down. It all came crashing down. To be honest I could never put a finger on what exactly went wrong. In the dressing room 4-0 down I had two choices, concede defeat and go for damage control, or, go for it and see if we could at least get a goal or two. It was not to be. Looking back, I really don’t know what I would have done differently. I thought I got the player selection right. In both rounds of games total, we only gave up 3 goals. Then we gave up 8 in one game, its unexplainable and unforgivable. Losing a game is always a possibility, sometimes the opposition is simply better on the day, or have better overall quality, but you should always give everything you have and be willing to suffer for the result.
SSPC: You’ve got an extensive resume when it comes to CONCACAF experience but a lot of when it comes to club soccer. When your tenure with Trinidad and Tobago comes to an end would you like to move into a club position or would continue with international management?
SH: I would love to get involved in club football. Working day to day with players appeals to me and I will also be in a position to test my vision on football completely. Presently, at an international level this is very difficult and limited. In International football achieving consistency is complex and hindered by many factors not in your control.
SSPC: Earlier you mentioned a hope to see more regional leagues start up similar to the junior hockey model, lately there’s actually been some talk of a national league similar to the CFL starting up. What do you think of that approach?
SH: You have to start somewhere and be brave. The idea is appealing and I do believe with the right planning & support structure it will greatly enhance football development in Canada. Players, coaches, referees, administrators, trainers etc. all will benefit greatly.
SSPC: What do you think could be done to improve the game on the east coast?
SH: Complex question with many avenues, First off you need funding and move towards a model that allows for a competitive league. Also players may need to be imported to mix with locals, so the product on view is a decent one.
Atlantic Canada benefited in the past from many immigrants, imported players & foreign students involved in its football. However, once the rules were passed that limited their participation on a National & Provincial level, it discouraged growth and diminished the quality.
I must admit I don’t have all the answers & have not given the program in its entity a lot of thought. If you are going to tackle player development seriously, you must have a vision for what are the gains for all the sacrifice. What do you want your end product to look like? What will be the benefits for individuals? Etc
All the leagues should be extended over many more months. Atlantic Canada needs more proper facilities and they should be subsidized & be made available,. Training is very limited in winter, there is no reason the 11 v 11 game could not be played in the Winter (similar to Norway & Iceland). Right now the facilities are money making ventures, 7v7 games take over and the indoor league is longer than the Summer league. Can’t say I agree with this, unless your vision is football for all and recreation.
SSPC: Recently your Trinidad and Tobago assistant coach Dwight Yorke has been throwing his name into the race for various Premier League team’s (Aston Villa and Sunderland for example) coaching positions. What kind of head coach do you think he’ll make?
SH: Dwight I have known since he was 12 and even back than you could see he was single minded. He came from a very small island & difficult childhood to achieve great things. So he knows what it takes to achieve. He has played under great coaches and has had unique and varied football experiences. These factors I what I believe will serve him well, how he manages today’s players will prove a bigger challenge than the football itself. Having said that, I think he will do very well once given the opportunity.
SSPC: A lot of Canadian fans have mixed emotions about your time as manager, some feel you were to not right for the role while others feel you were simply the victim of a generational shift with the players. How do you feeling back at your tenure?
SH: One thing I have learned in football & life is that you cannot please everyone. Personally I had some good runs with Canada, three GC’s, two of which we played some good football and on both occasions we were out under very controversial footballing circumstances. Mr. Fonseca and myself looked at the squad and we knew that my WCQ a generational shift was on the horizon and in order to compete we had to remain healthy (physically & mentally). Look back at the squad objectively you would see its peak around 2006-10. However. by the time my third GC & the WCQ rolled around, we simply did not have enough depth and the young players coming through were not ready. No excuses, but we lost Radzinski, Gerba, Simpson. Stalteri retired, Friend had injury issues and was not playing at his club, unfortunately, & Atiba had knee surgery (slowly returning) and then we lost DeRo after Panama. We lost not only a lot of potential attacking players, but also leadership and experience. Yet we were in with a chance for the Hex, for me the telling game was Honduras at home, we should have won that game comfortably. It all came apart in one game & regardless of what I say, my time in charge of Canada will always be judged on one game, nothing will erase that & I accepted the responsibility for that.