Derek Martin has a tall order ahead of him. The HFX Wanderers FC founder and president is in the market for a new head coach after dismissing the only one his club has ever had in Stephen Hart—a coach who, over four seasons, became almost synonymous with the club he led and generated no shortage of goodwill in the city he’s called home for much of the last 40 years.
Thursday’s news of the club and coach parting ways wasn’t entirely surprising; the Wanderers have missed the Canadian Premier League playoffs two seasons running and finished second-last in the league in 2022. Only two CPL head coaches remain with their clubs from 2019. But the Wanderers’ ouster of Hart represents a departure from the club’s former bet on continuity.
And now, Martin has to figure out what he wants his club to be.
‘Everything’s on the table’
“It certainly wasn’t an easy decision,” Martin says, speaking by phone with The Coast.
Since joining the club from its founding in 2018, Hart became a mainstay across the CPL. He was named league Coach of the Year after leading the Wanderers to the finals of the pandemic-shortened Island Games in 2020.
Martin calls Hart a “great man, a terrific human being,” and says he was “absolutely the perfect choice” to lead the club through its earliest stages. But, after three losing seasons in four years, the Wanderers’ founder says it’s time for a change.
“We haven’t had the success we want to have on the pitch,” Martin says.
And as the club prepares for a significant overhaul of its roster this offseason—“everything’s on the table,” Martin tells The Coast—the Wanderers’ head honcho is ready for a fresh start.
A decorated career
For Hart, the dismissal marks what could be the end of a long and prolific playing and coaching career in Halifax. Born in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago, Hart arrived in Nova Scotia as a 21-year-old midfielder in 1981. While at Saint Mary’s University, he became an AUS all-star midfielder for the Huskies before joining Halifax semi-pro club King of Donair in 1983 as a player-coach. Hart was inducted into the SMU Sport Hall of Fame in 2016. He led King of Donair to four straight league titles and six cups.
“I fell in love with the city, the people… the rest is history, really,” Hart told The Coast in 2019.
An assistant with the Canada Soccer development program since 1997, Hart went on to coach the Canadian senior men’s national team in 2006-2007, and again from 2009-2012. Under Hart’s watch in 2007, Canada reached its first Gold Cup semifinal since 2002 and finished third in the tournament—a result that remains the club’s best since winning the Gold Cup in 2000.
“The young players who played under me and went on to represent their country and play professionally are way more important achievements,” he told the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian in 2014. “There were many and I was not the only influence, just happy to have contributed.”
Mixed results with Wanderers
Hart finishes his Wanderers coaching career with 26 wins, 30 draws, and 38 losses in all CPL matches. Only Forge FC’s Bobby Smyrniotis and Cavalry FC’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr. have coached more games for their CPL clubs than Hart. But while the coach’s longevity stands out among the league, the results weren’t always there to match. For two years running, the Wanderers have scored the fewest goals (28 and 24) of any CPL club.
Some of that, it could be argued, is a byproduct of the Wanderers’ youth.
“There’s a huge learning curve in training every day, having to come to work every day and be on top of your game. That’s not easy,” Hart told CanPL.ca’s Alex Gangué-Ruzic after the club’s end-of-season loss to Hamilton’s Forge FC on Oct. 9.
Some of the Wanderers’ misfortune is sheer bad luck: Two games into their 2022 campaign, star striker and reigning league Player of the Year João Morelli tore his ACL against Atlético Ottawa and missed the rest of the season. It’s not unreasonable to think a healthy Morelli—who scored 14 goals in 2021—would have helped the club’s win total. And even in his absence, the Wanderers nearly surprised in a hotly-contested 2-1 Canadian Championship quarterfinal loss to Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC.
But even still, the gap between the seventh-place Wanderers and fourth-place Pacific FC, which held the final playoff spot, was 17 points.
“This isn’t all on Stephen [Hart],” Martin tells The Coast. “But I think we owe it to our organization and to our fans to really cast a wide net [in search of a replacement].”
The Coast reached out to Hart for comment on his time with the Wanderers and what’s next, but he declined the invitation.
What comes next for Wanderers?
Hart was still under contract with the Wanderers for another season after signing a three-year extension in March 2021.
And while the club brought in former Real Madrid academy coach Alejandro Dorado in January 2022, Martin says there are no guarantees when it comes to the coaching staff next season. The same goes for much of the roster.
“The truth is that the group we've had has had, you know, two years now to perform on the pitch and for whatever reason, or reasons, we haven't been able to do it,” Martin says.
The Wanderers president says he expects “around 50%” of the Wanderers’ roster could turn over this offseason, with a number of expiring player contracts. (Determining who could be in or out is more difficult; unlike many other professional sports leagues, neither the league nor its clubs publicize a list of player contract lengths.)
As for finding Hart’s replacement, Martin hopes to hire a coach by November or December—and says he’s looking for someone who can “recruit and attract the highest quality players” and develop an “offensive, attacking style” that will excite fans.
“We want to be ready for the January window where a lot of players become available,” he says, adding he’s already fielded coaching inquiries from across Canada and overseas.
SOURCE: The Coast