COVENTRY — Rowan Atkinson is hands-down the most famous product of Consett, just outside Newcastle, John Herdman’s hometown.
But Mr. Bean isn’t the only native son who can milk a laugh.
“Yeah,’’ began Herdman, clearing his throat a half-hour after Canada’s 2-1 loss to Japan in his team’s opening game of the women’s Olympic soccer tournament. “I thought Canada dominated the game from start to finish .”
He waited that comedian’s pause for the frozen looks of utter befuddlement around the interview room to crack, and be replaced by a small, appreciative ripple of titters.
Japan’s gluttony on the ball, their slick interplay, the burgeoning self-belief generated off last year’s World Cup win, proved too much.
“If you want to progress in this tournament,’’ cautioned midfielder Diana Matheson, “moral victories aren’t going to get us in the next round. We need points.’’
Nothing is yet lost. The top two teams in each group plus the best two third-place finishers go through to the knockout phase. And Canada now, at least, has the world champs out of the way.
“Look,’’ continued Herdman, “we knew it was going to be a tough game tonight. They’re world champions for a reason. They can handle the ball better than any team in the world. But I give our girls credit. They dug in. When we tired, we looked vulnerable. But for long periods we can be happy with what we put out there. We learned things tonight. When you’re 2-nil down against the world champions, you don’t roll over. Even with 10 men, we were digging in to try and get a win.’’
The script bore an eerie similarity to last summer’s 2-1 loss to powerhouse Germany in the World Cup opener at Berlin: Outplayed, fall behind two, scrape back, not enough to even.
“I guess,’’ shrugged midfield dynamo Diana Matheson. “I don’t know if it looked the same, watching it. It had a different feel to us. In the second half we were a lot stronger. And it was unfortunate to get the injury at the end where I think we really could’ve pushed for the tying goal.’’
As always, the Canadians weren’t short of try.
That effort was typified by midfielder Lauren Sesselman, desperately sliding across the face of the goal to clip the ball off the line and out of danger with her side already down a deuce and in grave danger of absorbing a right hiding.
“It was kind of instinctual,’’ she admitted later. “In case Erin couldn’t get it. I did it in the USA game, too. It was a last-minute thing, like ‘Oh, crap!’ I think definitely the mood lifted after that. Then we got a goal. I think that stop can come in handy if it comes down to goal differential.’’
Down 2-0 at the break, seeing less and less of the ball, and with the prospect of being overrun by a surging Japanese side a very real possibility, right back Rhian Wilkinson used space down the flank and slid a searching ball into the box for striker Melisa Tancredi to side-foot past Japanese ’keeper Miho Kukumoto in the 55th minute.
Out of nothing, nowhere, Canada found fresh oxygen pumping into withering lungs.
A few high, searching balls into the area through the remaining 35 minutes and three tacked on, but Canada, in truth — down to 10 players after centreback Candace Chapman (later seen leaving City of Coventry Stadium on crutches) was assisted off the pitch — failed to create that one authentic clear-cut chance to equalize.
“When you play against Japan, you know there’s going to be some real scary moments,’’ said Herdman. “They can do things to you other teams can’t. Their dynamic movement is scary for defenders. But when you see your players pulling their mitts out of the mire, last-ditch tackles ... that’s what the team’s got to be about in them games.
“So the first line’s beaten. The second line’s beaten. But someone’s going to put their body on the line and make sure the third line’s not. That’s what I loved about this team tonight. You’ve got to keep expectations real. This team will grow through the tournament. We’ll build momentum off little performances like this.’’
After a scrappy beginning, Japan’s ever-increasing dominance on the ball paid off in a wonderful move on the opening strike, midfielder Nahomi Kawasumi dropping a weighted chip into the box, then sprinting outside and around Wilkinson to latch on to a cheeky backheel from Shinobu Ohno and bury an angled shot past goalkeeper Erin McLeod in the 33rd minute.
Warning signals were everywhere.
More possession. More danger. And it paid dividends again just before the halftime whistle when three Canadians, including McLeod, were unable to deal with a cross and the flighted ball landed right on the head of Japanese skipper Aya Miyama for the softest of touches into an empty net.
“On the goals, one was a great finish,’’ said McLeod. “One was a mistake on my part. My defenders have it covered and I came too far out.’’
In the lead up to the match, Herdman, had mused: “It’s massive to be playing them in our first game. You either come through feeling great or (you’re) scratching your head.’’
“Well, I’m scratching one side of me head and I feel okay on the other,’’ he replied Wednesday. “I think at the end of the day, when you’ve worked hard for a result, the only thing I can ask for from the players is they put PBs in. They matched the world champions for periods, defensively and causing problem in attack. So you give credit where credit is due. You looked at every player and not one ounce of Canadian was left out there.’’
© copyright (c) Postmedia News