Laying the Foundation for an Impactful Club Culture
April 21, 2021
Many hands make light work.
Although some days may feel heavier than others, VP of Football Operations Matt Fegan is always looking multiple steps ahead to ensure the club’s culture at HFX Wanderers FC is steering in the right direction.
Culture by definition is the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. With the club’s slogan, ‘Together From Aways’, the Wanderers are pursuing a culture that embodies and represents the larger Nova Scotian community and the unique individuals that call this place home.
Since the introduction of the Wanderers back in 2018, the club has taken steps to include the ideals of community members, soccer fans and beyond to build a local professional soccer club that is an authentic reflection of the culture in our community. From Kitchen parties to the willingness to engage socially with strangers on the street, Haligonians and Nova Scotians have embraced a friendly, community-focused culture that speaks volume to the quality of the individuals in this province.
It’s important for the club to have a collective understanding that every piece of the organization plays an important role in the success of the whole. On the pitch and off the pitch, sport has always reminded us that greatness cannot be achieved alone.
Fegan jumped on a call with Marty Thompson from CanPL.ca to share some insight on the individuals behind the scenes, some projects he has been driving, as well as the impact our supporters have had on the club’s culture in these early years.
Marty Thompson: Matt, let’s start from the top. How do you build a community around a football club like this?
MF: It goes back to equipping and surrounding yourselves with the right kind of people who have the correct mindset that aligns with what you’re trying to achieve.
From the top down within our club – from Derek’s level and with Stephen on the pitch – they have zero compromise on certain ideals in terms of passion and commitment and finding a certain joy for what we’re trying to achieve. It’s important to find staff that are willing to roll up their sleeves and understand that they’re coming into a startup environment, and are willing to contribute in not just their role, but in other roles within the club.
Danielle McNally is our physio, but she also handles a lot of the liaison from a medical standpoint, overseeing the anti-doping protocols… even the small details of creating an emergency response plan at the training ground. Those are things that a physio, by their job description, doesn’t always have to take care of, but she understands. She’s also a part of the club Diversity Committee, led by Marvin Okello, because that’s a passion of hers, too.
When you have people invested in the greater good, you can make ground up on more established organizations.
Do you feel that geography plays into this? Halifax, for example, is such a community-driven city.
MF: Halifax plays a factor for sure – If you’re attracted to living in this region, then you hold the same kind of ideals that everybody else does in terms of a community.
We have a couple staff members that have moved here from away. Dan Clark, our high-performance manager, moved here from New Zealand. He moved here for a personal reason and has gotten a chance with us, just by virtue of wanting to contribute. The fact that we have this culture, almost naturally and organically that’s grown around the club, has attracted people who want to be involved in the club and who have that same mindset.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic strengthened this club culture for the players? Or hindered it?
MF: The 2020 season forced people to come together and, admittedly, Nova Scotia handled its response well and we’ve been able to enjoy some relative freedoms because of it.
For the players, I think about the hotel at The Island Games… we had a lot of guys who came out of university environments and maybe were used to playing in short spurts or multiple times in a weekend.
One of the main strategic objectives of the club has been, by virtue of us having to attract more players from outside the region, is creating a first-in-class playing experience. I think the players feel really looked after and that, in turn, makes them want to turn around and contribute something different on the pitch that maybe in other markets they didn’t feel as much of a connection. That goes right down to helping negotiate their accommodations when they move here, to making sure that they have everything they need, connecting them with local partners.
We just find that when the odds are stacked against you, people just kind of rally and they come together. Stephen has done the same thing on the pitch.
How does this make you feel when players cite Halifax’s culture as a reason to return?
MF: It means we’re achieving what we’re trying to set out to do.
I always describe my role as supporting Stephen, his staff, and team with everything that they need off the pitch so that they can succeed on the pitch. But I don’t exactly rest on my laurels – I’ve tried to stay five steps ahead of the team so when they’re out there I’m focused on getting our stadium ready to host fans or I’m on a call with international clubs about some potential partnerships for our group.
Our team always gives me assurances – like things are handled properly – so now I can move on and I can start looking at the next thing that needs to be done to try to build the culture up and the football sense of this region.
We’ve gone a long way into talking about the Wanderers’ culture without talking about the supporters. What role do this collective play in building a strong club culture?
MF: The response from the fans spurs you on in many ways. Ultimately, we see something in them that represents something for us and vice-versa.
We need the fans and we want the fans to be in the stadium with us – that’s been our primary objective in our offseason: How do we create as many situations as possible for supporters… even if they are these small events like we did last year. Anything we can do to continue that connection.
We’re doing it because we’re recognizing the value that they present to us and we want to maintain that natural connection between us and the fan base so we can continue to grow it.
A lot of people within Canada have recognized that the Wanderers seem to have something different as a relationship with their fans – but I’ve seen it go one step further. One of my jobs at the moment is fostering international relationships with clubs and a few of them have come with their own research and seen our fan engagement.
Some of these clubs, that are 100 years old and older, are looking at us and saying, ‘What are you guys doing that’s selling out your stadium’ or ‘how are you doing March to the Matches in your first season?’
What do you tell those clubs?
MF: Try to foster that opportunity with supporters – but don’t get in the way of it.
I think we’ve just tried to be transparent as a club – we’re not trying to pretend that we’re any bigger than we are.
Halifax has a very maritime pride in it – people like to feel like they are part of something and if we had these big brick walls around then nobody could get around to get to see us. It’s just trying to be good people, trying to have a bit of transparency about what we do.
Sometimes we’re going to make decisions about players or sometimes we’re going to make decisions on the pitch that maybe fans will question but if they know that we’re doing it for the right reasons, I think that ultimately they’ll see what we’re doing is for the bigger picture.
How do you maintain the momentum?
MF: We have to help grow the community of soccer in Atlantic Canada, not just Nova Scotia.
We have a goal of six first-team squad members from this region in a single season – and the work has already started on that.
We want to work with local universities to help them recruit talent, who then have a reason to stick around to the summer because the local leagues have been improved so that ultimately we can identify some players who could be considered first team like Cory Bent and Peter Schaale, who both came through Cape Breton University.
But then also by having that local league better, you have more Scott Firth’s, Christian Oxner’s, Luke Green’s, Kieran Baskett’s who can aspire to something bigger.
We’ve made a point of saying we’re not going to start an academy. We want to work with local clubs. I believe that if we can create an environment that supports and helps build these clubs up that ultimately the game develops, and hopefully then we develop, and then we win championships because we get better players in the region. That’s staying five steps ahead of the long-term ambitions of the club.
We also still need to build a permanent stadium here, which we’re adamant is going to be a reflection of Halifax in terms of having an eco-friendly approach. I was on a call last week with the chairman of Forest Green Rovers, who are considered the greenest club in the world.
What we’re trying to do there is glean from people who’ve been down that route, the expertise that we want to bring to Halifax, so that we don’t just build this concrete structure in the middle of the city – we build something that people can be proud of that can be part of the greenbelt.
Okay, one more thing: Which international clubs are you in talks with other than Forest Green? Any hints?
MF: Internationally, we need something – at the most basic level – to connect us and to build a partnership like that.
The best conversations I’ve had are with the clubs that we just have a natural, organic connection with; maritime city, Scottish heritage, or shared climates where maybe you can’t play outside for five months out of the year. Or clubs that are just nicknamed Wanderers! Those are building blocks onto which you tack talent ID, player development, stadium innovations and community engagement initiatives.