If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you might assume this was a week of celebration, of vindication, of general good-will towards the city and people of Winnipeg.
Rob Gale was fired last Thursday, you may have heard.
But I find myself feeling more than a bit bittersweet. Not merely because Gale lost his job, and that’s not really something to celebrate in any case, but also because Gale was a young Canadian coach who came up through the Canadian system, and for all its flaws, we don’t have anything else yet.
He’s the third coach to be fired in the Canadian Premier League, and the second young Canadian coach to go. I’m fairly certain both Gale and Jeff Paulus will be back (and equally certain Michael Silberbauer won’t), maybe even better for it, but I’m not sure I like what such early departures say about coach development in this country and this league. It’s been so unforgiving so far.
Rob Gale could be a bit of a circus-master, and I’m less than convinced he could really control a room with players who had as much or more professional playing experience than he had experience coaching men, but behind some of his jovial and candid bluster was, to my eye anyway, an increasing idea what he wanted his Valour team to do, and I’ve always thought some of the circus was intentional misdirection, for better or worse. Coaches will often focus attention on themselves to shield their players.
Valour have never finished on the bottom of CanPL. They’ve spent precious little time in last position, and were terrific on home turf in the bubble. A lot of that, as well as the improvement in 2020, was obviously driven by Andrew Jean-Baptiste. His ensuing injury pretty well revealed that. But Jean-Baptiste was exactly the kind of veteran journeyman Rob Gale needed to help direct the team and the Haitian had clearly bought into Gale’s plan.
Gale started in private academies and then moved into the Manitoba provincial program and, eventually, the Canadian U18s and U20s. I’m no fan of the pay-to-put-a-crest-on-your-shirt academy model, and the provincial programs are what they are, but a coach can only take the opportunities that are there for them. When Valour hired Gale, it signaled that they believed, to some extent anyway, in that local pipeline.
It made sense. Winnipeg, along with Halifax, were the places in CanPL where a team had to be built almost from scratch. It’s not an easy job, or a job anyone should have expected to be complete in three years, pandemic or not. Valour president Wade Miller called the decision to fire Gale a “results-driven business” which is a trite cliché of the sort Gale himself trotted out a bit too often, and if Gale really failed to live up to expectations, those expectations were ludicrous.
Wanderers, like Valour, have shown flashes of real potential, likewise mostly in a bubble tournament held on essentially home turf. Most of the time, it’s been wildly inconsistent, as you could only expect. In hiring Stephen Hart, who has obviously brought a huge amount of credibility and respect to the league as a whole, Wanderers got both a local hire and someone who can guide a team through its nascent phase without too much question–the only time Hart’s future has been raised is when it’s the subject of his own sense of humour.
That was the crux of it for Gale, then. Where Hart has been able to use that experience and all the contacts that come with it to bring in players like Akeem Garcia and Jems Geffrard, Gale–and the same is true of Jeff Paulus, though he had an academy to work with–has had to wing it. It’s shown in a lot of signings that have felt like a swing for the fence, been talked up like home runs, and then ignominiously jettisoned from the stadium by other means shortly thereafter.
I will freely admit that I mocked Gale’s roster-building quite a bit, and may continue to do so, even. I gave him hell at a press conference once, too, and he had the decency to have a laugh with me about it after. He was–and will remain–one of the best guys in Canadian soccer, always 100% ready to believe in a player and a project.
While his replacement does have more professional coaching experience and probably some connections beyond New Zealand, it’s not clear to me that an assistant coach coming from the Whitecaps is likely to turn Valour into a team that can win key games against top CanPL teams. The timing of the decision is odd, especially when Philip’s brother Marc is off dropping fully-loaded quotes about his Whitecaps being “in a very good place” and how the locker room wasn’t broken at all, while the Whitecaps called the dos Santos’ brothers limited success “a little bit fake“. Both moves feel like they have more than a bit to do with Pa-Modou Kah, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Valour are trying to copy Pacific’s quick turn into a top team.
Whether or not it works, Valour have decided to depart from local Winnipeg soccer and the old model of Canadian coach development in provincial programs and national youth teams. I’m not sure what the new one is–private academies in Toronto? American leagues? Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and Bobby Smyrniotis, not to mention the dos Santos brothers, have all developed, to a lesser or greater extent, somewhere else.1 Jim Brennan is maybe the only one left, and if York don’t make the playoffs, I would think he’ll be in jeopardy, too.
We don’t have enough local clubs producing professionally certified and experienced coaches, and if the clubs we do have won’t give guys from the Canadian youth system a chance to fail, then we’re never going to solve the problem of how to develop Canadian coaches.
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