Ernie Merrick takes blame for Phoenix season
Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick is blaming himself for the club's poor season, pointing to discipline, defence and recruitment as key areas for improvement.
In reality Merrick has done most things right in his first season in Wellington, with a crippling injury toll the major reason they are in danger of retaining the wooden spoon if they fail to beat Melbourne Victory in their final game on Saturday.
Merrick's job was also made harder by the messy start to the season, with the All Whites away on World Cup qualifying duty and the Phoenix only playing once at Westpac Stadium in the opening seven rounds.
The Phoenix were winless in their first 10 games, and despite a mid-season revival, are ninth of 10 teams, with Melbourne Heart two points behind and boasting a far superior goal differential.
It is not a scenario Merrick, a two-time A-League champion with Melbourne Victory, is used to.
"We should have been playing in the finals and we're not going to and that's my fault. I take the blame for that," Merrick said.
"I expect standards and I expect to get in finals and I've got a record of getting in finals. And if I didn't get it right, I take responsibility for that because I think the players are still giving 100 per cent but they have to improve in a range of areas. Discipline, the way we play, having a good squad that's got a balance of experience and inexperience. I need to get all that right for next year but I feel as though we've taken a big step towards it."
Sunday's 4-1 loss to Sydney FC was indicative of some of the Phoenix's problems this season.
Despite talking about it at length before the game, the Phoenix allowed themselves to be sucked in by superstar Alessandro Del Piero.
It was soft, but Jeremy Brockie did make contact with Del Piero before he took his tumble to win a penalty and then Ben Sigmund gave away an unnecessary free kick on the edge of the box.
Del Piero converted with a brilliant strike and it was virtually game over.
"We're very good at shooting ourselves in the foot," Merrick said.
"You're saying to Del Piero - OK, you can have another chance to score. And we've got Manny Muscat and Ben Sigmund and Michael Boxall who continually get yellow cards and they don't really worry too much about it. Of course you pay a price for that at the end of the year when you're desperate. And that's going to change, next year, I can guarantee."
Discipline is not the Phoenix's only problem.
While they have played some of the best attacking football in the club's history under Merrick, the defence has been poor without the injured Albert Riera to screen the back four.
With 47 goals against in 26 games, they have by far the worst defensive record in the competition.
"I think it's a convenient excuse to say that playing attacking football, it's OK to concede goals. We have no excuse for conceding goals like that."