Coach Ernie Merrick: Now for my next trick

ERNIE MERRICK: ‘‘There’s always perception and reality ... I know when I lose a game it’s all my fault and when we win a game the players are fantastic.’’
KENT BLECHYNDEN/FAIRFAX NZ
ERNIE MERRICK: ‘‘There’s always perception and reality ... I know when I lose a game it’s all my fault and when we win a game the players are fantastic.’’

Trim, with pearly white teeth and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, Ernie Merrick looks younger than 60.

Particularly for an inhabitant of the stressful world of football coaches, where you're constantly one mis-kick away from acquiring another wrinkle.

Fresh from a holiday in remote Western Australia, Merrick accepts the compliment, but points out he's still partial to a post-match beer.

He attributes his good health to his initial choice of occupation. Of four children (brother Peter and sisters Nancy and Anne), Merrick was one of three who became PE teachers.

"I always wondered why we gravitated towards that until my mother told us a story about my family," the newly appointed Phoenix coach says.

"My family are circus people. We had a small family circus that toured Scotland, but that's for another time . . ."

Merrick's parents traded in that transient lifestyle when he was 6.

The family settled in a housing commission home in Glasgow so the kids could get an education.

There was sporting ability in the family; Nancy represented Scotland in volleyball and Peter was a gun badminton player.

But Ernie? "I was reliable, hard-working, coachable; all the adjectives, where if you really looked at them, meant that you weren't much of a player."

He roars with laughter and is being a little modest.

A defender, Merrick was good enough to play semi-professionally in Scotland before moving to Australia aged 22.

Two Scottish college mates convinced him that beaches beat bagpipes and Merrick has remained Down Under ever since.

He combined teaching work with state league football but accidentally fell into coaching.

"I started coaching in 1979, at Doveton [in Melbourne], and it took me 10 years to realise I was doing all the wrong things. I was coaching skills and I discovered after about 10 years, of making every mistake you can make, it's about coaching people."

The passion, and ability, grew and Merrick had stints guiding national league teams Preston Makedonia and Sunshine George Cross before landing a gig at the Victoria Institute of Sport.

He lasted 13 years where his colleagues included now Black Sticks hockey coach Colin Batch and Rowing New Zealand guru Noel Donaldson.

Merrick revelled in the environment and sharing of information, with visitors and guest speakers including Robbie Deans and several All Blacks players.

But that youth background meant there were doubters when he was appointed inaugural Melbourne Victory coach in 2005, and the pressure grew when the team finished seventh in the debut A-League season, ahead of only the woeful New Zealand Knights.

The next season Merrick won the grand final, with Archie Thompson scoring five goals in a 6-0 demolition of Adelaide United.

That turnaround is one of the reasons Merrick believes he can engineer a similar revival at the Phoenix.

"I genuinely think the core of the team is rock solid. And I don't believe in complete rebuilds, I think that's sometimes used as an excuse to buy time as a coach, or to say you're developing youngsters.

"And who's got patience for that? The supporters don't, the board don't, they want to see a good performance week in and week out."

Merrick is a pragmatist and fans shouldn't have grand visions of Tiki-taka at Westpac Stadium.

But he does think they can play some good stuff, particularly if playmakers Carlos Hernandez and Paul Ifill start the season in shape.

"Carlos' fitness is something he has to work on. As you get older it's common with ball players.

"It's about making sure they both graft on and off the ball and they've got the fitness to do that. They've certainly got the skills. Between the two of them there's a lot of excitement there for the spectators."

Despite winning two titles in six seasons with the Victory, there have been suggestions that the league has passed Merrick by since his departure in 2011.

He finds that absurd and plans to prove it. "I coached 152 games in the A-League, I'm out for two seasons, one season I'm coaching at international level [with Hong Kong] and all of a sudden you're out of touch?

"Ninety-five per cent or more of the players are the same. Sure, it's got more consistent and a better standard, but there's no drastic change."

It's hard to marry the Merrick chuckling and sipping a latte at his Wellington hotel with the stony-faced silent type stalking the sidelines.

Dour Scot? Absolutely not.

"I have got to get rid of that [reputation] because the last thing you want is a dour Scot - I can't stand them either.

"Scottish people are full of life and fun. Imagine being coached by someone that had no enthusiasm, sense of humour, that doesn't stimulate?

"If I'm not the most motivated person at training I shouldn't be there. There's always perception and reality . . . I know when I lose a game it's all my fault and when we win a game the players are fantastic. That's just the way coaching is, I've been in it long enough."

AT A GLANCE

Name: Ernie Merrick

Born: Edinburgh, Scotland

Family: Wife Kerry and three children

Coaching career:

1987-1988: Preston Makedonia

1989-1991: Sunshine George Cross

1992-2004: Victoria Institute of Sport

2005-2011: Melbourne Victory

2011-2012: Hong Kong national team

Highlights:

A-League premierships in 2006-07 and 2008-09

A-League coach of the year in 2006-07 and 2009-10

The Dominion Post