Halifax Wanderers are currently on pace for 31 points in the 2022 season, their fourth in existence. They’re also on pace for a record low in goals scored.
After the weekend’s 1 – 1 home draw against last-place FC Edmonton, a team without an owner made up almost entirely of loanees, it’s fair that fans are beginning to get a little frustrated.
I don’t blame fans for this at all. Six thousand plus have shown up more or less weekly at Wanderers’ Grounds since 2019, an almost miraculous feat considering Halifax remains one of the smallest markets in the Canadian Premier League and while Nova Scotia has a thriving soccer community, it isn’t huge.
This is a massive success for the project that is Halifax Wanderers, and for the league as a whole. I’d call it unexpected except I think that would do a disservice to the work put in by people like Matt Fegan, Danae Iatrou, Dave Finlayson, and many others working with team president Derek Martin.
That includes head coach Stephen Hart, who was hired to oversee the project in building a competitive squad. Hart, the theory went, knows both the Halifax soccer landscape (he’s been here since the ’80s when he came to play at Saint Mary’s) and the Canadian soccer reality. He was very much the wise old mentor figure of the league’s inaugural season.
Four years in, with thousands in the stands, people want to see wins. They especially want to see goals.
It feels like Wanderers are due some success just because Halifax is out-performing the rest of the league in the far more important off-field metrics. That’s not how footballs works, of course. We all know this. But it feels unfair.
When the league launched in 2018, the concern was more that the Grounds was too small, that it wouldn’t fit enough fans to be sustainable, and Halifax would rely on revenue sharing to survive. It’s a measure of just how significant a project this has been that this question is now moot. Meanwhile, the club is slowly doing the long-term, difficult work to make the stadium permanent and eventually expand it. Step one of any project begets step two.
So why should the on-field project be any different?
The challenge is and was always obvious: Halifax has a very small soccer talent pool. It does have a talent pool, make no mistake, but it’s got nothing on the GTA, BC’s Lower Mainland, or even the Quebec corridor, where Wanderers have intelligently taken advantage of the lack of a team to pluck some talent.
That’s the sort of savvy move you get by having a known quantity as head coach (though Fegan deserves credit for the PLSQ work as well). It’s why Wanderers went with Hart in the first place.
It is not realistic to expect this work to pay off in three years or even five. Wanderers have to almost completely rebuild the local pipeline (with help from Soccer NS and other local leagues)1The local pathway had almost completely broken down before Wanderers came along. As is traditional in Nova Scotia, the only way up was out, usually to NCAA or at least Ontario. Jacob Shaffelburg, the most talent player Nova Scotia has produced in at least 20 years, hasn’t played here in any meaningful way since he was a pre-teen. That’s not an atypical path., which means capable local depth of the kind enjoyed by, say, Pacific, is unlikely. That makes building a squad where players are competing for places difficult. Wanderers have to recruit under a tight budget, too — one of the biggest challenges for Wanderers is that the majority of the Canadian talent pool lives in the Toronto horseshoe and can live at home while playing for Forge or York; Wanderers have to pay for some accommodations, and a portion of this hits the cap each year. That in turn makes it harder to establish on-field culture and identity in a league with constant player churn — Wanderers 2019 were a lot of fun to watch but that squad was a mess behind the scenes, and the pandemic hasn’t helped with continuity of regimen and standards. Which in turn brings us back to recruitment and… you get the picture.
Those are just some of the obvious obstacles.
The initial rebuild in 2020 clearly hasn’t worked, despite some early illusions and a spot in the final on Prince Edward Island.
Disappointing as that is, I think it’s more a case of building tactical identity and cohesion. A lot of that 2020 team was about Joao Morelli hitting Akeem Garcia in transition. Garcia has since hit a major rut in his career and Morelli is injured. A rethink, in terms of personnel, is definitely needed this winter.
The team clearly relied far too much on Morelli being healthy. A lot of the tactics, which have been a sharp break from anything Stephen Hart has used, feel like they were built around Morelli as the sole creator. Most concerning, though, has been the utter lack of a backup plan once Morelli got hurt in week two.
The temptation after any poor run of form is to blame the manager. The problems are, to be clear, on Hart. So are the results, ultimately. He would never shirk that responsibility — one of his more memorable press conferences with Wanderers was back in 2019, when he praised his team after a win and said he hoped he was still around when they did it consistently. A classic Stephen Hart-ism. He knows how the business works.
That’s precisely why Wanderers need to stick with him. The club has done an admirable job slowly promoting local staff like Fegan and U23 coach Mesut Mert while bringing in ambitious come-from-aways like Alex Dorado. None of those names, however, will be able to navigate the difficult waters of Nova Scotia soccer as elegantly and credibly as Stephen Hart can, because Hart has been around and, in Nova Scotia, being around for a while carries credibility with other people who have been around for a while and those people make decisions in this province, whether we like it or not. Always have. Fighting that tide, trying to re-invent the system with a different approach? That won’t work, and might even upset the delicately balanced keel.
Off-field success brings with it pressure. Staying the course through that pressure is what established, successful clubs do. That itself is a test for Wanderers in this grand project to build a soccer team before they build a spaceport in Guysborough Co. I believe it can be done!
But nobody said it was going to be easy.