HFX Cookbook: Searching for a Hart of Gold

When HFX Wanderers FC founder Derek Martin was looking to create a soccer team, everyone he talked to told him two things: That he was lucky to be able to ask Stephen Hart to coach it — and that the team would never succeed if Stephen Hart wasn’t involved.

Stephen Hart has been a prominent figure in the history of Canadian Soccer, and he’s been a provincial institution as well. His friendship and expertise are highly valued among anyone in Nova Scotia who’s ever kicked a ball, and his signing as head coach of HFX Wanderers FC was the least surprising, most welcome news of the team’s entire launch. Hart’s impact on the Wanderers has been immeasurable. He’s drawn in fans, he’s provided an excellent media presence, he’s attracted players who want to learn from him, he’s been able to use his relationships with coaches to get valuable scouting information, and he’s found incredible success in his USports draft selections. His skills were justly rewarded in 2020, when he won Coach Of The Year for taking a last-place team to the Finals, having rebuilt it almost entirely from just seven remaining core players.

The business moves quickly, however. The Wanderers have had some good games since then, but they’ve also had games where they looked exhausted, or unmotivated, or unconfident, or out of place. His comment that the Island Games were “an extended preseason” is still remembered by some fans, who felt that it projected a careless approach.

There’s a lot for fans and players to love about Stephen Hart, but the fact remains that his detractors see him as overly cautious, experimental, too slow to anger. From those conversations, one starts to hear other criticisms, like reminders that he has no professional coaching license, and questions about the value of tactics learned in the 1980s. These are criticisms which Hart has undoubtedly heard before and could readily counter, but they still lead to an uncomfortable framing of the current situation: He’s 61 years old, at least 15 years older than any other coach in the league. The team has a below average standing. Given this situation, what does the club do with Stephen Hart? They sign him to a three-year contract and promote him to Technical Director.

From one point of view, it looks like the Wanderers are unwilling to even acknowledge possible weaknesses in our coaching. From another point of view, the signing shows that the Wanderers are focused on building a successful club with a strong foundation and ecosystem, one that can survive the occasional staff upheaval. This is where Alex Dorado enters the picture. Dorado’s credentials might provide some valuable insights, but his real value comes from his connections… or rather, his lack of connections.

To explain this puzzling description, let us consider some of the other assistant coaches in the league.

David Edgar

Forge

Former Forge player

Ajay Khabra

Ottawa

Former Ottawa player

Brendan Shaw

Edmonton

Colleague of coach (Simon Fraser)

Damian Rocke

Valour

Local talent (Manitoba Soccer)

Jay Bhindi

Valour

Colleague of coach (Ottawa Fury)

Paul Stalteri

York

Teammate of coach

James Merriman

Pacific

Local talent (BC Soccer)

Colleague of coach (Whitecaps)

Martin Nash

Cavalry

Hired by coach a few years ago without known prior connections (Foothills)

Mesut Mert

HFX

Local talent (Soccer Nova Scotia)
Colleague of coach (Saint Mary’s)

Derek King

HFX

Colleague of coach (Trinidad and Tobago)

Jan-Michael Williams

HFX

Former HFX player
Colleague of coach (Trinidad and Tobago)

The assistant coach with the fewest connections to the head coach and/or environment was Martin Nash, and he’s the first assistant coach to have earned a head coach role. For almost every other name on this list, the relationship is clear: The Assistant Coach is the trusted advisor, the battle companion, the King’s Hand. HFX Wanderers FC are in a unique position compared to other CPL teams, though: the other coaches are all either planning to remain for the next ten years, or they’ll leave their team abruptly and the search for a new coach will begin. (An example is James Merriman, who is a perfect example of the “local coach works hard and gets the big job” story, but it’s still not quite the type of coaching transition any team really wants.) Stephen Hart might not want to be a coach for the next ten years, but he’s got the job until he decides to step down.

In short, Stephen Hart doesn’t need a King’s Hand; he needs a Prince.

Alex Dorado is young, he has impeccable credentials, and he comes from a modern coaching academy. In many ways, he’s a perfect foil for Stephen Hart, and the two will have plenty to learn from each other. When Hart’s current contract expires in 2023, Alex Dorado might easily become the new Head Coach while still working with Technical Director Stephen Hart.

What do we know of Dorado so far? Growing up in Galicia with a father who managed several clubs, he’s been immersed in the game his whole life. He speaks Spanish, English, and Portuguese (which should be useful for at least one or two Wanderers).

He’s a career coach — he’s never played professionally on a team. He coaches using the philosophy of “Tactical Periodicity”, which aims to create healthier players who can switch strategies quickly, by carefully structuring practice schedules. He’s incredibly ambitious — his goal is to coach a team in the English Premier League. His ambition, though, is tempered with patience. He was offered a position with an English Championship team, but he turned it down for Halifax. Why? Because a role at that level in a high-pressure, volatile environment might not allow him to stay that job long enough to develop his skills, or establish his own personal project within the club.

Does that mean that he’s only here long enough to jump to another level? Perhaps (and hopefully) not. For one thing, the head coach position at HFX Wanderers FC might be exactly the résumé builder he wants. For another thing, he’s not treating the CPL like he’s a temporary visitor. Months before Dorado ever had an interview, he was studying the league games to the point where he knew the players of every team as though he’d always been a coach here.

There’s no guarantee that Stephen Hart will withdraw to the Technical Director position in the next few years… but it’s safe to say that firing Stephen Hart and shopping around on short-notice for a replacement is essentially unthinkable. Likewise, there’s no guarantee that Alex Dorado will be offered (or accept) the position in the future, but at the very least, he’ll have some input on how the Wanderers establish their long-term coaching timeline. It’s still to be seen whether this HR strategy pays off, but if this is the road they’re testing out for Stephen Hart’s semi-retirement, it’ll make for a fascinating year ahead.

Feature Photo Credit: Canadian Premier League