OPINION: When Ernie Merrick speaks, his players listen.
The evolution the Phoenix are undergoing with the Scotsman at the helm is quite phenomenal. But, it's only happening because players are buying into Merrick's philosophy.
There appears to be a level of respect and trust, quite unique in the professional game.
Merrick's comments in a Fairfax Media article midweek summed up how a team previously berated for a distinct lack of finesse, has, in half a season, been thoroughly transformed.
Merrick asked his side: "are you happy with it or can we play better football?"
How refreshing. The man in charge, the sole individual all the players look to for leadership, demanded more - rather than take the easy option of dining out on plaudits.
It becomes more apparent every week just how Merrick won championships with Melbourne Victory. It's clear he doesn't demand respect from his players, he earns it.
Merrick's ability to stay calm under pressure and reiterate the positive, particularly during the early season struggles and horrific injuries to key personnel, would have won over any doubters.
The glowing quotes we read from players about his influence and approach confirms as much.
It may be too simplistic a comparison, but Merrick strikes me as the A-League's equivalent to Super Rugby's Dave Rennie. Unassuming characters who appear to have a knack of creating an environment players desperately want to be a part of.
Perhaps it's the way they focus the limelight on anybody but themselves, and prefer to personally take the brunt of any criticism should any come in the direction of their team.
Maybe it's because they're not ranters.
Some will think it bizarre I'm singing the praises of a man whose team sit eighth in a 10-team league. After a bad start to the season, the Phoenix now have momentum and are playing good quality, attacking football.
At the start of this round they were only four points off Melbourne Victory in fourth, and have mustered a goal differential only beaten by the league's two top teams.
That record can only afford to improve in this evening's away game against the stuttering Newcastle Jets. Gone are the days of dreading away fixtures, the 2013-14 version of the Nix appear to love the challenge of trying to rectify their poor history on the road.
An astounding change in mental approach to away fixtures has occurred this season. Rather than a "backs to wall and hold out for a draw" approach, the Nix will take the fight to the Jets and ask: "what are you made of?"
I read an article out of Australia this week suggesting the A-League is a "soft option" for top young players and they lack mental toughness because they don't have to fight for their place in a team nor have to deal with the cut and thrust of promotion and relegation.
It got me considering a major factor in the Nix's recent rise to prominence. They have individuals in their set-up that lead the way in mental toughness in the A-League.
Regardless of whether other teams are "soft" in that department, Andrew Durante, Manny Muscat and Ben Sigmund certainly do not stand for anyone within their ranks who is.
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