Merrick left to rue injuries, lack of experience
Barely 24 hours after Matthew Elliott exited a New Zealand Warriors' dressing room for the last time in Cronulla, across Sydney at Allianz Stadium Ernie Merrick portrayed the same sense of glum resignation as the Wellington Phoenix's A-League title hopes were finally dashed.
Merrick delivered his assessment of a 4-1 loss to Sydney FC while club owner Gareth Morgan sat at the back of the auditorium - a Phoenix scarf draped over his shoulders - though unlike the similarly amiable Elliott, the Scotsman still has a future with another of New Zealand's underachieving sporting franchises.
That job security did not make an Alessandro Del Piero-inspired defeat easier to take, but Merrick can at least plan for 2014-15 with a degree of surety despite the Phoenix's gradual slide from championship contenders to potentially retaining the wooden spoon.
Two months ago the Phoenix were tracking for the six-team finals series but a six-match winless streak means they will finish bottom if they lose to Melbourne Victory in Wellington on Saturday and the Melbourne Heart upset Western Sydney Wanderers.
Although aware of that scenario Merrick preferred to dwell on the longer term goals of strengthening his midfield, defensive line and the acquisition of a proven striker - regardless of whether Stein Huysegems agrees to a new deal.
Those shortcomings were ruthlessly exposed by Sydney FC as injuries and Manny Muscat's suspension again forced Merrick to field an inexperienced midfield around Vince Lia and two raw fullbacks either side of Ben Sigmund and Andrew Durante in the back four.
Merrick lamented that Lia was the only reliable defensive midfielder available for Sydney FC due to Albert Riera's injury-enforced absence.
Rookie Matthew Ridenton might yet grow into the role but with Carlos Hernandez focused on attack and fellow Costa Rican Kenny Cunningham ineffectual, Sydney FC dominated the middle of the park before tormenting Michael Boxall and Shaun Timmins on the flanks.
"We need one or two midfielders that are composed, don't give the ball away cheaply and who know how to win a ball," he told Fairfax Media.
"The only midfielders I'm not coaching [positionally] is Vince and Albert because they do the job well."
Louis Fenton, another mid-season casualty, was an option as a wide midfielder but Merrick would still test the market.
A prolific striker is the other obvious priority with the Phoenix only managing six goals since a buoyant 4-1 win over Central Coast seven games ago.
"We need to make sure we score goals when we get opportunities, we need someone who can change a game off his own back like Del Piero did," Merrick said, after watching the Italian score twice and set up Sydney's third.
Merrick expected the impasse with Huysegems to be resolved this week - the Belgian wants a two-season extension but the Phoenix were only willing to offer the 31-year-old a deal for 2014-15.
Huysegems hasn't exactly justified his demands since the contractual dispute was revealed last month - the club's top scorer hasn't added to his 10-goal haul since the road win against the Mariners in February - and he squandered two opportunities on Sunday.
However, Merrick backed the former international despite his barren run.
"If I could get other players to score 10 goals a season we'd have a very good team. Whatever happens Stein has been one of the most professional players I've ever worked with," he said.
Meanwhile, Merrick was confident his roster would rally for the season sign-off against his former club.
"Motivation is never a problem," he said, before adding a sentiment that Elliott would no doubt empathise with.
"We just don't have that hardened mentality when things go against you and decisions go against you - and the bottom line is you can't ever compete if you're not turning possession into goals."