Stephen Hart knows he'll be remembered for 'last game'
No matter what Stephen Hart has contributed to the game in Canada, he says it's up to fans to decide how they'll remember him.
"But it's always going to be about that last game," Hart said.
A day after Hart resigned as Canada's men's soccer coach, he told the media that the humiliating 8-1 loss to Honduras that knocked the team out of World Cup qualifying left him with no choice but to leave.
"This is not like a league where you can redeem yourself the following Saturday or whatever," Hart said on a conference call Friday. "Before we enter the field before every game, I always remind the players that regardless of the outcome, I want them to walk off the field with their dignity intact.
"And this freakish result was impossible for me to accept."
The 52-year-old Hart coached Canada to a 20-15-10 record in various stints from 2006 to 2012, ranking him second in wins and first in win percentage among Canadian coaches.
Former longtime national team coach Tony Waiters told Hart when he was hired that he was "going to need a lot a lot of luck.
"On the day it was not to be, and I'm sorry for that," the coach said.
So less than two days later, Hart called Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani on Thursday morning to deliver the news. He said he didn't believe the CSA had any immediate plans to demand his resignation.
"Really and truly, I just felt that it was best that I step down," Hart said, his sadness clear in his voice.
Hart said several of the players apologized to him after the game, while the rest were rendered speechless by the shocking result.
A coach who's known for his laidback demeanour — and who is regarded by players with respect and affection — thanked the Canadian soccer community for its outpouring of support.
"Within one hour of the announcement, I was overwhelmed with texts, and phone calls and emails," he said. "One game in international soccer is probably not going to erase everything that you've tried to do, but at the end of the day it's a very bitter pill for me to swallow, as you can well imagine."
Having had a couple of days to reflect on the debacle at San Pedro Sula, Hart still has no real answers for why his team failed to show up for its biggest game in 15 years.
"I've watched the game again, and there was a series of things that came together, but that's as far as I can tell you," Hart said.
Would he have done anything differently?
"No, preparation-wise, outside of having 10 days to acclimatize, there's not much else I think we could have done," said Hart. "And selection-wise I don't think there's anything really. You might say, well, another player here, but one player would not have made a difference."
Hart said the lopsided loss — Canada's worst result since an 8-0 shellacking in Mexico in 1993 — was especially tough to swallow after the Canadians thoroughly outplayed the same opponent last summer at Toronto's BMO Field.
"We could easily have walked away 4-nil at that time," Hart said.
Instead, the Canadians had to settle with a 0-0 draw in that game, a result that would come back to bite them.
A victory in Toronto would have made Tuesday's result meaningless. Instead, Canada needed a tie or win in Honduras to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region for the first time since 1997.
Hart was asked whether the result was a failure by the players or the system.
"I'm not going to sit here and blame players," he said. "The best programs in the world have sort of a common thread, there's always a working relationship for the common good of players and the game between the federations and the associations and the professional clubs. So collectively we must ensure that this happens in an effort to improve the entire system."
Hart said he hasn't been offered another position with the CSA, but would accept one if offered.
"In all reality, I've always worked with the best interests of the game in Canada, understanding the soccer reality here, my approach has always been to do my little part," he said. "Rather than simply talk or moan about it, it is to do your best and your little part and if asked I will continue to do so."
Hart worked his way through the CSA coaching ranks and had several stints as interim coach of the men's team before getting the job for good in December 2009.
He said a significant problem with the national program is its lack of depth. A squad considered one of Canada's most promising in a long while was missing Dwayne De Rosario and Josh Simpson to injury, plus Olivier Occean (suspension) and Ante Jazic (illness) on Tuesday.
Hart said he's not sure how many players from the team will retire from international soccer. He said it's also difficult to gauge from young players in Canada what the future of the national program looks like.
"Sometimes you look at those [youth national] teams and you're trying to judge the players on international tournament which is less than six games, which is virtually impossible to do that," Hart said.
"What I will say is that the more talented players need to establish themselves in clubs, and that's clubs fighting to win promotion, fighting to win the league etc., not in a comfort zone in the middle of the table. Once that happens then you have players that have that emotional balance and the ability to play at an international level and it's just a matter of them getting international experience, especially in CONCACAF environments."