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Phoenix coach Ernie is a Merrick sort of a chap

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 09/02/2014
Ernie Merrick
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
THINGS LOOKING UP: Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick.

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It could be one of football analyst Simon Hill's most astute calls, even if Ernie Merrick initially appeared to be a victim of a classic case of the "commentator's curse".

Hill, a Manchester City fan who has positioned himself as one of Australia's leading football experts, is the behind-the-scenes player who first suggested Merrick contact the Wellington Phoenix once Ricki Herbert stepped down 12 months ago.

The most successful coach in the history of the A-League - despite being sacked by the Melbourne Victory in March, 2011 - Merrick was considering his options in a typically relaxed manner when the possibility of returning to the competition eventuated.

The 61-year-old had recently finished a 10-month stint with the Hong Kong national side, the Scotsman's patience finally wearing thin despite his amiable persona.

"It was a difficult situation," he said, reflecting on his four-game tenure.

"Hong Kong, for a range of reasons, didn't work out. Nearly every appointment the government made to assist Hong Kong football resigned."

Merrick continued to monitor the A-League from Asia and Adelaide was a possibility before a phone call from Hill convinced him Wellington was a viable option.

"It was Simon Hill that said ‘why don't you think about the Phoenix?'

"He did me a huge favour," Merrick told Sunday News when recalling his conversation with Hill who works for Australian broadcaster Fox Sports.

He urged Merrick to apply with a positivity that suggested the Phoenix had the capability of challenging for the title - a rarely held view in Australia football.

"A lot of Australian teams don't think the Phoenix is the sort of side that's going to be one or two each year, but I've got a feeling they're going to be that sort of side," Merrick said, after the concession of a late winner to the Brisbane Roar on January 24 left them in a holding pattern in second-last.

Since then the Phoenix have figuratively risen from the ashes again thanks to a 2-1 victory over Adelaide at Eden Park. A sixth win - from eight games - at Newcastle today and the Phoenix are closing in on validating one of Merrick's predictions: the finals series.

Heading into tomorrow's round-18 clash with the Jets at Hunter Stadium, the Phoenix have 10 games remaining in the regular season and are just a win outside the top-six, in eighth.

In terms of positioning on the table, that is not a significant improvement on their opening 10 games - a frustrating sequence of six losses and four draws.

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Yet the same squad are now in contention for the post-season and are playing with a confidence and panache that really has no correlation to their rung on the ladder.

Merrick, of course, was upbeat throughout a lean beginning to his reign, even after the Phoenix somehow conspired to lose 1-0 to defending champions Central Coast on December 19.

A little over a month later Queensland's humidity and two wonder strikes combined to see them pipped 2-1 by leaders Brisbane.

That outcome - a third 2-1 loss to the Roar in 2013-14 - was devastating for the players, though for Merrick it was proof that a side missing Costa Ricans Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham could still worry the title favourites at Suncorp Stadium.

"They've gone bottom of the league [in 2012-13] to all of a sudden they're really disappointed away from home not to beat the top team in the competition," he said.

"I couldn't work with a better bunch, who really want to improve. It's been a really pleasant surprise working with the players, the board, the technical committee, all the staff."

Merrick draws some parallels with his role in establishing the Melbourne Victory with football manager Gary Cole and assistant Aaron Healey when the A-League was launched in 2005-06 - and predicts similar success.

"It was a similar situation [to Phoenix] in the pre-season, we were chasing players like I did here," he explained.

"At Victory, two months out from the start of the season we had seven players training."

The Phoenix roster he inherited from Herbert was far more extensive, though a disrupted pre-season still contributed to the team's winless streak.

New Zealand's unsuccessful bid to qualify for the World Cup was a distraction, and the draw had the Phoenix playing in Wellington only once in the first seven rounds.

"We were playing all those games away from Westpac [including Napier and Christchurch], it really affected our training programme."

The Victory only finished ahead of the woeful New Zealand Knights in the inaugural A-League but at the end of that campaign Merrick was equipped with a settled squad who delivered the 2006-07 championship.

"We had a full pre-season and then we never looked back," he said, believing the Phoenix are tracking in the same direction.

"Now we're getting close to a settled squad. We might make two or three more signings, finish strongly and get in the finals and see what we can do."

Regardless of whether they challenge for the title, Merrick is already anticipating a much-improved 2014-15 season.

"It sets us up for a great pre-season. The pre-season is not about fitness, it's about how you're going to play, getting people comfortable with the backline, being in midfield, up front, service to the strikers, how we get behind the ball, how we zone off, how we press . . "

Merrick signed a two-year deal, with an option for a third so he does not adhere to the five-year plan mentality.

"I don't believe in signing a contract that says five years down the track we'll win something," he said, adding: "My assessment is we're way ahead of schedule."

Merrick's first Victory squad had only two household names - Socceroos Archie Thompson and Kevin Muscat - and he has embraced the same new-age thinking in Wellington.

"In many ways it's been a bargain-basement type team in many ways. We've had Albert Riera coming in, Jason Hicks, Reece Caira, who struggled at the [Western Sydney] Wanderers . . .

"Michael Boxall got four games last year. He was immense [against Brisbane], he just seems to be getting better."

Boxall replaced original right back Louis Fenton when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury; 17-year-old midfielder Matthew Ridenton has also made the step up under pressure.

"It just seems whoever I throw in does a job for us. How many names did you know before?" Merrick asked.

After the loss to Brisbane, he made a point of defending his predecessor Herbert, saying he did not condone criticism aimed at the longest-serving coach in the league.

"I'm building on what he set," Merrick said, before emphasising that the rebuild is a genuine team effort.

"We've got a good team around the team, it's not just me.

"Chris Greenacre [assistant coach] has done a fantastic job. The extra shooting practice is really paying off. He's doing good game analysis, good coaching sessions."

Merrick also praised the input of goalkeeping coach Jonathan Gould, head strength and conditioning coach Lee Spence and physio Rob Lee, who joined the club from Glasgow Celtic.

Appropriately, the aftermath of what the players considered a harrowing loss to the Roar, summed up Merrick's approach to football after 30 years as a coach.

"I don't see many downsides. I'm not a worrier, I enjoy life.

"To me the big picture is a bit special in Wellington."

And it's not Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit.

- Sunday News

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