Herdman remembers Sinclair's 'very, very special' game at London Olympics
VANCOUVER — Christine Sinclair's resume features a record-long list of goals and plenty of highlights, but perhaps none more memorable than the 2012 London Olympics semifinal against the United States.
Sinclair was a force in Manchester that day, scoring a hat trick in what turned out to be a painful 4-3 loss after extra time.
"It's as in-flow as I've ever seen a human being," then-Canada coach John Herdman said of the performance. "Very very special."
"Even to this day I've never seen an athlete in that heightened state of performance as I had seen her in Old Trafford," he added. "The goal she scored (for the) hat trick, there was just something in her eyes. When she came running to the (Canadian) bench, I've never seen a look like it.
"A proud moment for a coach to see someone reach that full potential, but someone that had so much, so many levels. She was able to hit that top level in her career."
On the field, Sinclair was positioned just off striker Melissa Tancredi "which made it a lot harder for the U.S. to pinpoint Christine."
"Tank was right on that game too," said Herdman. "She was occupying two defenders for most of the game."
Add in the facts that the opposition was the rival Americans and the game was being played at Manchester United's historic home known as the Theatre of Dreams, and "it was a perfect storm to create a flow state," said Herdman.
Sinclair's first goal, in the 22nd minute, came off a deft layoff by Tancredi at the edge of the penalty box. Sinclair shifted the ball to the right, losing defender Kelley O'Hara, and beat goalkeeper Hope Solo with a low shot across the grain.
Her second goal came in the 67th minute. With Tancredi coming off the left flank, Sinclair cruised into the penalty box and raised her hand. Tancredi delivered a perfect cross that Sinclair, rising above O'Hara, headed home.
The third came in the 73rd minute off a corner with Sinclair, ignoring two U.S. defenders, heading the ball into the side of the goal.
"It was one of those days where everything just clicked," Sinclair wrote in her 2022 autobiography "Playing the Long Game: A Memoir."
Australian coach Tony Gustavsson, who was an assistant coach with the U.S. team that day, called Sinclair's game "one of the most unique performances an individual has done, for sure."
"She is and has always has been one of those players that can turn a game on a dime, by herself and by her individual performance," he added. "But I also know that one thing that stands out with her is that she doesn't want it to be about her, she wants it to be about the team."
With Canada leading 3-2 in the 76th minute, Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen controversially ruled that Canadian 'keeper Erin McLeod had broken the rarely enforced six-second handling rule.
The ensuing indirect free kick in the Canadian penalty box led to a penalty for handball. Abby Wambach tied the game from the penalty spot, setting the stage for Alex Morgan's 123-minute winner — a header just over McLeod's fingertips.
After the game, emotions ran high in the Canadian locker-room
"Everyone was throwing things, everyone was angry and just really disappointed," McLeod recalled. "We felt like we were so close (to winning)."
Then Sinclair spoke out.
"I don't know about you guys but I'm not leaving here without an effing medal," McLeod recalled her saying.
It was a powerful message, coming after Sinclair's stellar performance.
"She'd spoken after other games but it was the fact that she had played probably the game of her life. And we had not been able to support her well enough for it to matter. We didn't win," said fullback Rhian Wilkinson. "And we all walked into that locker room broken, but also upset for her. She couldn't have done anything more."
But Sinclair was thinking of the team not herself.
Wilkinson said Sinclair told her teammates she was proud of them and reminded them that "our goal for the tournament was to see our flag rise and you could still do that with another coloured medal."
Three days later the Canadians beat France 1-0 in the bronze-medal game.
FIFA subsequently handed Sinclair a four-game suspension and reported $3,500 fine for "displaying unsporting behaviour towards match officials."
In her autobiography, Sinclair said she ran into the referee on the way to the team bus after the game and told her " You were (effing) horrible." The Norwegian referee filed a complaint with FIFA. saying Sinclair called her an "effing whore."
"A word I would never use," Sinclair said in her book.
Sinclair spent hours with sports psychologist Ceri Evans before the U.S. game. Evans, who had worked with the New Zealand All Blacks and then-captain Richie McCaw, was brought into the Canadian camp by Herdman, who coached in New Zealand before coming in Canada.
"(Evans) spent a lot of time with Christine," Herdman said. "We sort of targeted a lot of his energy and time into the (team) leaders and particularly the captain."
Herdman said he worked with Sinclair on leadership during his time as coach.
"I could see that a lot of the players defaulted to Christine so she carried a lot on her shoulders. She carried the weight of the team and maybe players weren't playing to their full potential because they had a player like Christine and were potentially walking in her shadow. And probably waiting for her to always win the game.
"She was at that age where she understood that I wasn't going to improve her massively as a footballer," he added. "Because when you're 29, 30 years old, there's not much you haven't seen in the game. It's about maintenance now. But the opportunity to develop as a leader was the key now to her next stage with Canada."
Herdman, now coach of Major League Soccer's Toronto FC, said they worked with Sinclair to make her understand "one, that her voice had way more weight than she ever understood and, two, how to use it in an impactful way."
Herdman was unable to be in Vancouver for Sinclair's farewell game Tuesday. He had committed months ago to be in England with his family to receive an honorary doctorate from Northumbria University in Newcastle, where he was a lecturer as a young man.
He plans to return in time for Sinclair's gala celebration evening Wednesday at B.C. Place.
"We had a good relationship, a really good relationship," he said. "I think we helped each other. We probably needed each other at the right time in our careers. We were a good pair. Definitely a good fit."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2023.