Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick has welcomed talk of strengthening ties with English Premier League club West Ham.
The two teams meet at Eden Park tomorrow night in the opening match of the Football United tournament that also features fellow English Premier League outfit Newcastle United and Sydney FC.
West Ham coach Sam Allardyce surprised many when he spoke encouragingly about the positives of forging a long-term relationship with New Zealand's A-League franchise.
Merrick said he was in the dark about any specifics "but I think any relationships we have with clubs at the top level are very worthwhile".
"I spent three days over at West Ham [in May] and I really appreciated Sam Allardyce letting me into the workings of the club, the inner sanctum.
"I was at a team meeting and watched videos and watched the final preparations for their second to last game against Spurs, which was crucial and I learned a lot.
"So any opportunity for professional development for our club, our players, any opportunity for insights into European football or personnel transfers would be terrific." Merrick was keen to rekindle those links during West Ham's time here though "I don't want to impose on their time too much". "But anything extra we can glean would be good".
Merrick said many of his young players were unashamedly ambitious and had eyes on Europe.
"I think that's a very good thing. Stage one is playing well for the Phoenix and then hopefully the All Whites. But I have no problem with players being very ambitious and wanting to play in Europe. To have that motivation is very important."
Merrick said his players were "jumping out of their skin" for the opportunity to line out against West Ham and Newcastle.
The matches are crucial for his thinking, and he's eyeing performance rather than results.
"First and foremost it's an integral part of our pre-season for the A-League proper. We have to benefit from it.
"Secondly, it's an exciting thing having the spectacle of EPL sides playing football out here and we want to put on a very good performance.
"The result is very important but it's not as important as playing exciting, attacking football.
"So the result will work itself out. It's a training session for us to get much better and it's a privilege to play against these sides."
Entering his second season in charge, Merrick is comfortable that his preparations are "miles ahead of last year".
"This time last year we were struggling to play regional side and put a full team out. I started with eight players, first day of training in June. Here we are in July with almost a full squad and everyone very fit.
"I think we have a long way to go regarding strategic play and getting super fit but where we are at jut now is way ahead of next year."
He still wants to sign a top-class defender and is desperate to get the Michael McClinchey deal across the line. The Phoenix and Central Coast Mariners are in a transfer dispute over McClinchey and Merrick wouldn't comment on speculation of an injunction being sought to get the player freed up for these crucial pre-season matches.
"I've read all those reports as well. I don't know what will happen. It's a pre-season game. I don't know the West Ham or our starting XI, hopefully we can get some good teams out and some good backup players against some class opposition," he said.
Merrick was encouraged to see striker Rot Krishna and Spanish midfielder Alejandro Gorrin, signed from Sunderland, front strongly in training yesterday after being under injury clouds.
The two teams train at Eden Park today.
- The Dominion Post
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