Get ruthless, Phoenix coach urges his players

SAM WORTHINGTON
Last updated 05:01 01/12/2013
Ernie Merrick
ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax Media
ONE-TEAM MAN: Ernie Merrick says he is not interested in coaching the All Whites.

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No more Mr Nice Guys. Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick is urging his players to be more ruthless as they hunt for their first win, and to be street-smart in their dealings with referees.

Merrick, a two-time A-League winner with Melbourne Victory, has embraced Wellington and the attitude of his new set of players.

But despite playing a far more attractive brand of football, and controlling possession for large stretches, they are yet to win.

Six goals in six games isn't good enough and last round against Sydney FC they had the better of the match yet suffered heartbreak in a last-minute 2-1 loss.

They wasted several gilt-edged chances before being caught on the break, while referee Jarred Gillett failed to award a clear-cut penalty.

He has since apologised.

"You can't generalise too much but the personality of New Zealand people is terrific," Merrick said ahead of today's clash with Western Sydney in Wellington.

"They're very open, warm and friendly and they're tough, resilient people, which reflects in their football as well. But to have a player like young Jason Hicks, both legs taken out from under him by Pedj Bojic, and for him and the other players to not even claim a penalty, that would never happen at Manchester United.

"There would be 10 players surrounding the referee demanding a penalty. I don't want them to be as aggressive as that towards the referee, but we've got to be a bit more proactive there. If we're deliberately fouled, and it's in the box, I think [Alessandro] Del Piero would have made the most of it and we've got to learn from a professional like him."

Merrick has tweaked his line-up.

Manny Muscat replaces Reece Caira at left back to give the Phoenix rearguard more steel and experience.

Albert Riera is expected to start as the holding midfielder, with Hicks and Vince Lia buzzing about in front of him.

Kenny Cunningham or Paul Ifill will replace injured striker Jeremy Brockie.

"Our last two games against Perth and Sydney we played well and we should have put the foot on the throat and gone on and won," Merrick said.

"We're just not finishing off the opportunities we're creating."

Hicks has been a real surprise packet. The diminutive 23-year-old had been one of the national league's top players but even he thought his professional ambitions might have passed him by.

But he shone in the pre-season playing against the Phoenix for New Zealand A and hasn't looked back, signing a two-year deal and securing a spot in the starting XI.

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"He's got a very educated left foot, he's very clever, very good technique and he's got surprisingly good endurance," Merrick said.

"He's still going hard at the end of a game. He's a box-to-box midfielder. Rather than just being a middle player he's learning to come further back on defence when needed and getting all the way forward into goal-scoring positions."

England-born Hicks had been working as a plumber before Merrick came calling.

"It was a good steady job but I'd much rather be a footballer," Hicks said.

The big question in the Wanderers camp is whether Youssouf Hersi will play.

The star winger has been out with a foot injury and was not named in the Wanderers squad on Thursday.

But coach Tony Popovic has since said he is a chance to play.

- Sunday Star Times

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