HFX Wanderers take ‘culture and character’ positives from loss in CPL Final

It’s never easy to lose a final.

HFX Wanderers FC, who nearly went from worst to first before losing the 2020 CPL Final 2-0 to Forge FC on Saturday, is the latest club to find that out.

But, it’s hard not to see the bigger picture for the Wanderers, who went from “wooden spoon” winners in 2019 to CPL finalists in the span of 11 months.

HFX coach Stephen Hart, the club’s fearless leader from Day 1, sees that better than anyone, what with four nominees for the CPL Awards on his squad, a Golden Boot winner in Akeem Garcia, and a renewed team culture to take forward into 2021.

“It takes a while to build a team with a certain character and culture,” Hart told reporters after Saturday’s loss. “I think we’re well on our way to do that.

“We showed throughout (The Island Games) the ability to play and when we were faced with difficult adversity, we showed our mental character which will serve this team, very very well.”

RELATED READING: Forge’s championship culture shines through at Island Games: ‘When it really matters, we’re there’

A cagey first half brought few shots on target and no real clear scoring opportunity for either side. The Wanderers held more of the ball (55 per cent) and, perhaps uncharacteristically, hemmed Forge in their half of the field.

“We felt Forge we’re very cautious,” Hart stated. “They gave us space in midfield and I asked the midfielders to drive into that space and see what happens.”

Switching ends at halftime, the Wanderers began to attack into straight into a forceful wind – something Forge exploited with 21 kilometre-an-hour gusts running towards the Wanderers’ goal. Forge broke the deadlock on the ninth of their 11 corners when a second-phase cross from Mo Babouli found Alex Achinioti-Jönsson at the back post.

“It’s the only goal we gave up on a corner, or a secondary phase, in this entire tournament,” Hart pointed out.

As for goalkeeper Christian Oxner, whose heroics in a one-v-one with Forge’s David Choinière caught the eye, Hart dismissed the mistake he made on Maxim Tissot’s last goal for Forge in an otherwise standout performance.

“He has been tremendous. Throughout this tournament he was tremendous last year, he has some very very good qualities and can go very far,” Hart offered.

RELATED READING: WATCH: Forge FC lifts North Star Shield in Island Games final victory

Positives, as mentioned, are abundant for the Wanderers. Trinidad striker Akeem Garcia was awarded the 2020 CPL Golden Boot at the end of the match, scoring six goals in PEI. Attacking teammate João Morelli finished third in the scoring race with four goals.

Captain Andre Rampersad emerged as one of the CPL’s best midfielders at The Island Games. One of seven returnees from HFX’s 2019 squad, Rampersad saw a Wanderers side that never wavered in Charlottetown.

“We can run with the big boys in this league,” Rampersad said. “I can’t be more proud of these guys, and we keep working and we come back stronger next year.

“The emotions are there today, we left it on the pitch.”

Supporters packed Wanderers Grounds in Halifax, and those fans were on the minds of the Wanderers.

“It’s fantastic. I mentioned it before we went out on the field that they have our support,” Hart said. “They’ve been supportive with us right through the COVID lockdown; they’ve been supportive of us every single step of the way. You know, it’s really a love affair. And we’re thankful for it.”

With a long off-season approaching, Hart is ready to embrace a change in narrative that now sees his team as one of the best in the CPL.

“People at the club now know the expectations and anybody that has the ambition to come to the club knows exactly where they are coming to,” Hart said.

“You could see they were not just satisfied with being in the final, which is, again, credit to them and the attitude.”

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