Would Canada have won Olympic bronze in women's soccer without coach Jon Herdman? Could Carolina Morace, the high-profile Italian who oversaw last summer's World Cup calamity, have put our women on the podium? Or did Herdman's magic touch and deft handling of a deflated, if not devastated, team ensure the dream of winning a medal, of seeing the flag rise, was still achieved?
The impact and influence of any coach or manager, in any sport, can be a bit debatable once the whistle is blown, the game begins and it's up to the players to decide who's best. Far more often than not, talent on the field trumps any advantage on the sidelines.
And Canada's women, whose performance is sure to be one of our most enduring of these games for years to come, certainly proved their talent in London. No matter what you think of the controversial decisions made by Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen in Monday's infamous semifinal loss to the USA, Canada did what few others have done against the Americans in meaningful match: they took the fight to them with goals, then kept on trading blows till the bitter end. That took guts. More importantly, it took skill.
But give Herdman an assist for the way Canada rebounded from that soul-destroying semifinal defeat, so soured by suspect officiating, to bag bronze with an inspired defensive performance against France.
Soccer fans have seen no end of diabolical decisions at Old Trafford over the years, a stadium where resident Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is often accused of receiving favourable treatment from the referees. But no call at soccer's so-called Theatre of Dreams ever caused the clamour as Pedersen's delay of game foul against Canadian keeper Erin McLeod in the semifinal. It practically turned into an international incident, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked to comment, a nation of fans left furious and Canada's team slapped with a FIFA investigation for some inflammatory, heat-of-the-moment comments in post-match interviews.
That they survived both the resulting onslaught of media attention and an onslaught of French attacks in Thursday's bronze medal match, snatching victory through Diana Matheson's last-second score to write a final, joyous chapter in their historic storybook run, is due in no small part to Herdman.
Things sure didn't happen this way under Morace at the World Cup in Germany, when a much-touted Canadian side lost to the hosts in the opener, fell hard against France to finish their chances, then slinked home after a dispiriting defeat to Nigeria. With a goal difference poorer even than Equatorial Guinea's, they left as the worst of the lot in the 16-team tournament. Ground down by Morace's stentorian style, they were crushed into dust.
Enter Herdman, perhaps no less demanding but vastly different in approach, affability and demeanour. The veteran of New Zealand's women's program called Canada a "dream" posting when he took the job, recognizing his chance to take over a team with "major assets and a major opportunity." Just two months into his tenure, Canada struck gold at the Pan Am Games.
When their resolve was tested again at these Olympics, Herdman's team didn't snap, they stiffened. Melissa Tancredi's two goals sparked a second-half comeback against Sweden in the final group stage game to make sure the knockout round would not be missed, before a pair of early strikes took care of Team GB in the quarters. Facing their toughest test yet in the semis, star striker Christine Sinclair gave her team the lead three times, only to have a chance at gold slip away in agonizing fashion.
Last summer, Sinclair was left shattered and angry after battling through a broken nose only to come up empty at the World Cup. Herdman found a photo of her in those painful moments after the final game, and kept it around as motivation both for him and the team. Like most things he's done since taking over, it worked. Three days after their dispiriting semifinal defeat to the U.S., Sinclair was all smiles, basking in the joy of bronze and praising her coach for engineering an amazing turnaround from World Cup flop to Olympic success story.
"I don't think any of usâ€¦would have thought this is possible," she said. "John came on board and he changed it. He's completely changed the attitude of this team. We believe we can beat anyone in the world and we've done it."
It was Sinclair and her teammates who made it happen. They're the ones who scored the goals, made the tackles and blocked the shots. But chances are, it wouldn't have happened without Herdman.