Whatever you were expecting from the final game of the second group stage at The Island Games, it probably wasn’t that.
HFX Wanderers FC, with the ink still wet on their ticket to the CPL Finals — printed earlier the same day thanks to Forge’s win over Cavalry — fell 5-0 to the already-eliminated Pacific FCon Tuesday night, putting a damper on the celebrations in Halifax.
Understandably, the Wanderers rolled out a heavily-rotated squad for this game, knowing their fate was sealed regardless. Coach Stephen Hart made nine changes to the starting lineup that beat Cavalry on the weekend, handing much-needed rest to key players such as Aboubacar Sissoko, Akeem Garcia, and Christian Oxner.
Still, he certainly didn’t want to see his team thumped so comprehensively, especially not in the first half (where Pacific scored four of their five goals). He was asked post-game if his side might’ve struggled out of the gate to focus on the match at hand, perhaps thinking a little too far ahead to Saturday’s final.
“I didn’t think so, but after the first half you’d probably have to say, well, yeah,” Hart admitted.
“It’s kind of one of those situations where you don’t know till after the game. Everybody warmed up well, everybody seemed to be ready for it, but we were second best to nearly everything in the first half. We were too far away from players in our columns, couldn’t get a foot in, and then when we got the ball we made too many mistakes in and around the defending third of the field.”
The Wanderers are now in a fascinating situation, perhaps feeling both pride and shame simultaneously having qualified for a championship final and lost 5-0 on the same day.
What do they take away from this, then? Do they burn the tapes, and try to forget about it? Or does getting beaten that badly add fuel to the fire, helping them come out angry and motivated in the final against Forge?
Hart told reporters that he’d thought about that with his staff, including at halftime while the score was 4-0. Ultimately, he said, the message for the second 45 was to try and revert to their normal mindset and reclaim whatever momentum they could.
“The first half we made a lot of fundamental errors, and that is unacceptable at this level. Even with the changes in the lineup it’s unacceptable,” Hart said. “But if you look at the second-half performance, we basically were back to some of the things that we have done well that have made us reach the final.
“I told the players that in the dressing room, it’s one of those things where you owe it to yourselves, and of course you owe it to the fans, to make a real go of the second half, and get back to the things that we stand for.”
The Wanderers were much better in the second half, making a few substitutions and trying to shake off the early catastrophe. They clawed back to 50 per cent possession, created a few chances, and spent more time in the Pacific end. They still weren’t rewarded, but the coach was heartened to see that they were capable of turning it back on.
At the end of the day, HFX is now heading into a final having rested their best players for a full week (with Forge forced to play most of their regulars on Tuesday). They’ve earned their way there, and Hart is fully confident they have as good a chance as Forge at winning the North Star Shield.
“We are a team that nobody expected to be here, and from what I understand, some of the pundits have already written us off,” Hart quipped.