The A-League's most successful coach has defended his predecessor at the Wellington Phoenix, arguing Ricki Herbert should be lauded for his contribution to the New Zealand club and international football.
Ernie Merrick is concerned Herbert - the longest-serving coach at a club in the competition's history - has been unfairly maligned as the Phoenix undergo a transformation in playing style under the Scotsman.
Since the two-time championship winner at the Melbourne Victory assumed control of the Phoenix at the start of the 2013-14 season, Merrick has gradually incorporated a more expansive playing style - a direct contrast to the attritional tactics favoured by Herbert, a former All Whites defender.
Herbert resigned from the head coach role 11 months ago, ending a 154-game reign that commenced when the Phoenix were established in 2007. He subsequently stepped aside from coaching the national team when the All Whites failed to qualify for this year's World Cup in Brazil.
The 52-year-old was named a Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to football in 2011 - recognition for New Zealand returning home unbeaten from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. However, since then Herbert's legacy has been tarnished by his exit from the Phoenix in February last year and the unsuccessful World Cup qualifying play-off with Mexico.
Merrick condemned Herbert's detractors after the Phoenix were pipped 2-1 by league leaders Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night - a deflating defeat after they were on track to collect a point with three minutes of regulation to play.
After praising the efforts of his personnel despite the concession of a late winner to the Roar for the second time this season, Merrick, unprompted, sympathised with Herbert's plight.
"Ricki Herbert's copping a bit of stick. He shouldn't be getting that," Merrick told Fairfax Media.
"Ricki Herbert did a great job. He was regularly in the finals, he went through a difficult phase with financial problems at the club."
Herbert resigned after the Phoenix recorded just five wins from 22 games last season - a significant deterioration after three previous campaigns culminated in the finals.
Merrick, meanwhile, has been immune to criticism despite the Phoenix sitting in ninth spot, albeit just a win outside play-off contention with 11 games remaining.
"I just feel it's like I'm the good guy and he's the bad guy and it shouldn't be like that.
"You've got to respect him. He's coached more games in the A-League than anyone else," said Merrick, who held the previous record after co-ordinating 151 games for the Victory.
"There were a lot of things he did well and you don't know how tough it was to sign players and all the rest of it."
Merrick might have inherited the core of a squad that finished last in 2012-13 but a total rebuild was not necessary once he settled into the capital.
"Ricki left me with a rock solid leadership group and I'm building on what he set up.
"I'm amazed that Ricki Herbert hasn't been picked up by another A-League team because he's a very good coach.
"It's not that Ricki's (strategy) was bad it's just different and they've just taken to that style of play," he said of the players' acceptance of a more offensive outlook - a demand from the club owner when Merrick was appointed.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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