Ernie Merrick plans to enjoy his honeymoon.
The new Wellington Phoenix coach started work with his first training session yesterday and a small group of players were on their best behaviour.
Partly because they need to make amends for last season's wooden spoon and partly because Merrick has a track record that demands respect.
The 60-year-old Scotsman won two A-League titles in his six year reign at Melbourne Victory and was happy with players' fitness and attitude yesterday.
"I think there's always that honeymoon period [with a new coach]. I'm hoping it lasts for a long time but there's a lot of smiles on their faces and that's the way we've got to keep it going, for 18 weeks [before the season opener on October 13]. By the last two or three weeks [of pre-season], I don't think they'll be smiling quite as much, but it will be intense football they'll be playing."
Merrick only had 10 players to put through their paces yesterday.
There are 15 players on the books but Carlos Hernandez is holidaying on a beach in Costa Rica after his season in India, Jeremy Brockie is on loan at Toronto FC, Louis Fenton and Tyler Boyd are preparing for the under-20 World Cup in Turkey and Michael Boxall is playing in the Victorian Premier League.
After releasing five players, including Tony Lochhead on Sunday, Merrick's priorities are signing a top quality striker and midfielder, while left backs Luke Rowe and Ian Hogg will both have opportunities to win contracts.
The Merrick mantra on day one was pass and move, but, with a veteran core in the team, the question is whether old dogs can be taught new tricks.
"He wants the ball forward and he wants the ball in good areas to score goals," said Phoenix captain Andrew Durante.
"He's already said that the wide guys aren't just wide guys, you're attackers too and I want you to score goals. It seems like the focus is all about scoring."
Merrick and Durante seem to have a good rapport already.
The experienced centre back will be entrusted with plenty of responsibility in organising the defence, just as Merrick asked of Kevin Muscat in Melbourne.
"And with the attacking players we're looking at giving them a lot more freedom in attack," Merrick said.
Hernandez is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday and, with such a long pre-season, Merrick was relaxed about the lack of personnel.
"They're a bunch of lads that want to achieve something. They're really keen to be coached, they've got an open mind and I think once we set targets and goals, they'll be the sort of team that will be an absolute pleasure to progress with."
Football pre-seasons and optimism go hand in hand, but Merrick knows recruitment will dictate how far the Phoenix can bounce back next season.
He will watch plenty of tape from the under-20 World Cup, while the former Hong Kong national coach suggested the fifth and final import could come from Asia, rather than more traditional football export markets.
"There's a lot of talent in Asia as well. I'm trying to set up a bit of a scouting network worldwide and I've got a range of people that have been helping me."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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