HFX Wanderers FC coach Stephen Hart held court with the media on Friday morning, before departing for his side’s final training session ahead of a pivotal group stage tie against Cavalry FC on Saturday.
He cast a confident demeanor, speaking as though he’s manager of a team that’s already exceeded expectations. Although the Wanderers drew the first of their second-round matches on Wednesday in controversial and heartbreaking fashion against Forge FC, they’re far from out of it.
“Let’s be honest, this group has been tremendous from the opening game,” Hart told reporters. “They’ve grown with confidence, they know they have the ability to play with anybody in the tournament. They’ve faced every sort of adversity within the context of a game, throughout the tournament. Really, there’s nothing they really haven’t seen.”
Hart mentioned before The Island Games kicked off that 2020 might be more of a building year for the club, keeping an eye toward the 2021 season after they finished bottom of the CPL table in 2019. The rebuilt squad seems to have come along faster than even he expected, though, with the Wanderers showing well in every game so far in PEI.
With the CPL Finals on Sept. 19 now drawing nearer, HFX feel they have as good a chance as anybody of lifting that North Star Shield. After all, in such a crazy year, in such a crazy CPL season, why shouldn’t it be them?
Now, the focus is fully on Cavalry FC. Last time they played, HFX surprised their opponents with a very strong high press, suffocating them for long stretches until they ran out of steam. Hart feels he has a pretty good grasp of how Cavalry wants to play against his side now.
“They’re a little more direct at times than other teams that we’ve played, and they’re a team that thrives on getting crosses in,” Hart indicated. “I think one of the keys is to try and prevent them from getting to their favourite crossing spots, so to speak, and defend as best as we can in the wide positions.”
Hart added that he foresees some major battles occurring in the midfield, with both HFX and Cavalry being teams that love to take away space and pick off errors centrally to create chances for through balls.
The HFX coach identified that one of Cavalry’s midfielders in particular, Elijah Adekugbe, could pose a threat.
“(Adekugbe) is the one that really probes the most,” Hart explained. “He’s the one that’s very good at pushing that ball forward, and then he also has the capacity to join. That’s something we looked at from the last game when we played them. It’s obviously one of their key components in trying to play out of the back, and we’ve addressed that, we know what we would like to do.”
Although the Cavs have been hit hard by injuries to attackers, prompting Tommy Wheeldon Jr. to stray from his usual setup by playing two strikers on Wednesday against Pacific, Hart is still confident he knows what to expect.
“I think that was a forced change when he switched to the two strikers, but it’s not his preferred way of playing,” Hart shrugged. “I don’t know how he will come out against us with, but I think I can predict the lineup even with the injured players.”
He’ll see if he’s right when the team sheets come out on Saturday. Until then, Hart is focusing on his own side, and trying to keep them as fit as possible. He said he kept Cory Bent out of the squad on Wednesday to try and manage his fatigue and get him some rest, which may mean he gets an extended shift against Cavalry.
The Wanderers have one point so far from the group stage; another three on Saturday, and they might have one foot in the final.
“I don’t see any sort of nervous tension among the players actually,” Hart said. “I think now that they’ve gotten over that game where they had to get into this final four, it’s just a matter of now, let’s put our best foot forward and see where the chips fall.”