Ernie Merrick has Wellington Phoenix looking like the real deal

January 2, 2015 – 10:15PM

Michael Cockerill

Football Writer

Point to make: Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick has impressed with Wellington.

Point to make: Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick has impressed with Wellington. Photo: Getty Images

Josep Gombau didn’t show a great deal of respect towards Ernie Merrick as his Adelaide United side starting sliding towards defeat on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t the first time Gombau has strayed into the opposition zone and it probably won’t be the last. The A-League’s youngest coach is clearly a man in a hurry but he’d be best advised to show a few more manners along the way.

The Spaniard will claim otherwise, and Merrick is too canny to be drawn into a slanging match, but let’s just say the A-League’s elder statesman would have enjoyed putting the young upstart in his place.

Gombau’s victory jig right in front of the bench when the Reds won with the last kick of the game earlier in the season hasn’t been forgotten by the Wellington Phoenix camp. Which is why – and after so many previous travails in Adelaide – this was a win worth savouring.

Don’t say it too loud but as the season heads into the Asian Cup break, the Phoenix are looking like the real deal. For the past 15 years various New Zealand teams have been playing in Australian competitions – both the NSL and A-League – and it’s the first time the Kiwis have looked like genuine contenders. Sooner or later, the respect will have to come.

The second coming of Merrick is what’s changed everything. On so many levels, this is a marriage made in heaven. The only coach to have won two championships has often felt underappreciated, even underrated. Those sentiments are shared by the Phoenix. Every time they jump on a plane they have a point to prove and Merrick identifies with the siege mentality.

Working away from the sort of scrutiny he faced at Melbourne Victory, Merrick gets the time and space to foster the spirit inside the dressing room. The Phoenix aren’t just a good team, they’re a tight one. It’s easy to get the Kiwis fired up about playing against Australians but it takes a bit more intuition to motivate an eclectic bunch of foreigners to rise to each and every occasion.

There is no better example of Merrick’s man-management skills than Kenny Cunningham, who scored his first goal of the season in Adelaide after getting his first start of the season.

It would have been easy for the Costa Rican international to have left the club when countryman Carlos Hernandez departed at the end of last season. It would have been even easier for Cunningham to become a malign influence this season when he found himself so far down the pecking order, often reduced to a handful of minutes off the bench.

Yet Cunningham has been thoroughly professional, and proved more than useful even in his fleeting appearances. Those are the signs that tell you a team can go a long way.

Merrick feels it but is unlikely to shout it from the rooftops. He’s enjoying making the most of the element of surprise.

Truth is, it’s doubtful whether he has ever felt more comfortable in his long coaching career. The 61-year-old Scot sees a lot of himself in the Kiwi mentality. He loves the country as much as the people. Amazingly, he doesn’t even mind the Wellington weather.

There’s still a part of Merrick that’s hurt by the manner of his departure from the Victory. When he left to take over the Hong Kong national team, the feeling was that would be the last the A-League would see of him. But he has returned with a level of experience, knowledge and wisdom unmatched by any other coach in the competition. And it shows.

Wellington may or may not sustain a title challenge. My feeling is they will. But either way Merrick has shown that an old dog can learn new tricks, proving why ageism in coaching in this country is such a folly. There’s a lot to gain from breaking down those barriers and getting due respect from your colleagues is a good place to start.

 

Source : The Canberra Times

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