March 29, 2015 – 12:46AM
Senior sports reporter with The Age
Merrick named coach of the decade: Archie Thompson and Kevin Muscat are two of the legends of the club who were aslo recognised on Saturday night. Photo: Vince Caligiuri
Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick will be doing everything in his power to beat Melbourne Victory on Easter Sunday and ensure that his current club makes history by winning its first everA-League Premiers Plate. But on Saturday night Merrick made a little more history of his own, this time of the Victory variety, when he was named as the coach of the decade for the A-League’s biggest club.
The Scotsman was Victory’s inaugural coach for the first A-League season in 2005-06 and put together its first playing squad, headed up by two other team-of-the-decade members, skipper and now current coach Kevin Muscat and the A-League’s record goalscorer, Archie Thompson.
That first year was a failure, Victory finished seventh in the eight-team league and was the worst-placed Australian club, with only the now defunct New Zealand Knights beneath them.
But that preceded five years of almost unbroken success, when Merrick led the team to two premiership/championship doubles (2006-07 and 2008-09) and a third grand final in 2010, when they were beaten on penalties by Sydney.
He was dumped by the club in March 2011 after taking itthe club to the finals that season. In his six seasons with the club he only missed the play-offs twice, when they were trying to defend their title for the first time in season 2007-08.
For a club synonymous with success – certainly in the early years of the competition – there are few surprises in the team-of-the-decade line-up.
The most contentious decision was to make the cut-off point of consideration for selection 20 games, which meant that Fred could not be considered as he had not played enough games for the club. The brilliant Brazilian midfielder was only in navy blue for one year, but what a year.
After a slow start the hard-running Fred became Victory’s key man and anyone who saw the 6-0 destruction of Adelaide in the 2007 grand final will not forget two things: ArchieThompson’s individual five-goal haul, nor the way that Fred created all of them. Such was his influence that night that after one of his goals Thompson ran to Fred, knelt at his feet and began to mimic polishing his boots.
In goal in the team of the decade is current Brisbane custodian Michael Theo (known as Theoklitos in his Victory days).
One of two high-quality shot-stoppers brought to the club by Merrick – the other was current Adelaide captain and Socceroos goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic – Theo had to share the goalkeeping job on rotation with his teammate before Merrick eventually opted to make him No. 1number one.
Theo was between the posts for Victory for four years, 2005 to 2009, and in that period won two premiership/championship doubles and was three times voted A-League goalkeeper of the year.
After a disappointing season in England, Theo returned to join Brisbane Roar, where he remains now, having won another three championships.
The back four is anchored at right back by Muscat, a man who is synonymous with the club. Its inaugural captain and now its coach, Muscat, along with Thompson, is one of two players to still be with Victory after having been part of its initial intake. He is at right back, even though he also operated with great success as a holding midfielder during the first championship season.
Alongside Muscat in the middle of the back four are two stalwarts of the early years, Rody Vargas and Adrian Leijer.
The latter was in the first batch of under-20 players signed by Merrick for the 2005-06 season and, aside from a couple of years in England after signing with Premier League club Fulham, he was with Victory until earlier this month, when he agreed on a move to China.
Vargas was signed by Merrick in the second season from the Victorian Premier League powerhouse Melbourne Knights, and quickly made the transition to the elite domestic level. A dependable, disciplined stopper, Vargas was a late bloomer and eventually was capped by his country as a result of his A-League performances.
The left back slot is occupied by the dynamic Ivorian Adama Traore. Quick, aggressive and hugely popular with the fans, Traore added an extra attacking dimension with his overlapping runs from defence. He won the Victory medal in 2014 and then left, first for Portuguese club Guimaraes before moving on to FC Basel in Switzerland.
The midfield features a tremendous blend in the consistency and passing ability of Scotsman Grant Brebner, the aggression and hard running of current Socceroo Mark Milligan and the mercurial skills of Carlos Hernandez, the Costa Rican playmaker who became such a fan favourite.
Brebner arrived for Victory’s second season and formed part of the midfield with Muscat and Fred, arguably the best triumvirate the A-League has had.
The Edinburgh native spent several years as a youngster with Manchester United before making his mark in the English championship with Reading and then returning to Scotland, where he captained his home-town club Hibs. Good on the ball, professional and consistent, Brebner ensured things kept ticking over in the centre of the park in two championship-winning sides.
Milligan, an Asian Cup winner and sometime Australia captain, needs little introduction to the current Victory audience. The box-to-box midfielder is Victory’s club captain and is a leader both on and off the field. He has been part of the Socceroos squad for the past three World Cups, and played in Australia’s opener against Chile in Brazil last year.
Hernandez was a cult figure at Victory, and with good reason. The ever-smiling Costa Rican always looked as though he was carrying an extra kilo or two but it didn’t prevent him stamping his authority on numerous games. Hernandez won the Johnny Warren Medal for the best player in the A-League in the 2009-10 season and was always a threat from distance with his prodigious shooting, which netted him several goals, often at critical times.
Up front Victory can boast a glittering array of talent, spearheaded by Thompson. There is little to be said about the veteran striker who, at 36, is still performing at the highest level for his club, notching Victory’s late equaliser in Adelaide a week ago.
For 10ten years now he has terrorised defences, setting goalscoring records as he goes. His five in a grand final may never be matched. He is, simply, the best-known player in the league.
Alongside Thompson in this team, as he was in Victory’s most glorious days, is Danny Allsopp.
Allsopp’s return to Australia was not easy. His first season with Victory was difficult and he struggled to score. But Merrick kept the faith, and Allsopp rewarded him in spades. Tall, powerful and quick, Allsopp ran the channels, worked hard and drew defenders, creating space for Thompson. He also finished well, taking out the Golden Boot as the league’s leading scorer in 2006-07, as well as winning the Victory Medal that year. He was as big a part of Victory’s championship years as anyone else.
The third striker is a player who wasn’t at Victory very long – just two years – but he made a huge impression and rescued his career during his time with the navy blues.
Robbie Kruse had made a big impression early with his local club Brisbane Roar but after that bright beginning had rather fallen off the rails. ErnieMerrick saw his potential, signed him, and the rest is history. Kruse immediately made an impact, scoring a hat-trick against Perth Glory early in his Victory career, and he never looked back.
Holger Osieck picked him for the Asian Cup squad in 2011 on the back of his Victory performances, and he eventually moved to Germany, first to Fortuna Duesseldorf and now Bayer Leverkusen. SadlyOften plagued by injury, Kruse remains a huge talent who, at 26, can still hit the heights predicted for him. He is still a crucial part of the Socceroos mix when fit.
On the bench are five players who have been big performers for the club. Nathan Coe is yet to win anything with Victory but has established himself as the club’s current No. 1number one.
Leigh Broxham is a stalwart of the team, having started with the club as a teenage gear steward before being offered a professional contract in the second season. The diminutive utility has filled in in numerous positions in midfield or defencefor this team and remains a very important figure for Victory. Along with Coe, he started in the 2-1 victory over Central Coast on Friday night.
Marco Rojas’ time in Melbourne was short, but very sweet. The Kiwi youngster made an enormous impression in the two yearshe was at Victory, scoring 15 goals in 50 appearances. A quick, skilful winger, Rojas linked up superbly with ArchieThompson and was good enough to win the Johnny Warren Medalas A-League player in the 2012-13 season, beating off the challenge of no less a man than Italian superstar Alessandro del Piero.
Rojas moved to German Bundesliga club Stuttgart in 2013, but has failed to make an impression so far on the tougher European stage.
Also on the bench are two of the often unsung heroes, midfielder Tommy Pondeljak and defender Matthew Kemp. Both made the jump from the NSL to the A-League in its early days, and both came to Victory from other clubs – Pondeljak from Central Coast Mariners, Kemp from Adelaide United.
The latter was a speedy, consistent full-back who could play on the right or the left and always added an attacking threat. Pondeljak was a skilful attacking player whose greatest moment in a navy blue shirt came in the 2009 grand final, when he scored the only goal of the game as Victory defeated Adelaide to win its second championship in three years.
*The team of the decade was selected by a panel made up Socceroos coach and former Melbourne Victory boss Ange Postecoglou, ex-Victory football operations manager (and former Socceroo) Gary Cole, Fox Sports pundit and ex-Socceroo and Premier League winger Robbie Slater and Fairfax Media writer Michael Lynch, who has covered Victory since its inception.
MELBOURNE VICTORY TEAM OF THE DECADE
Goalkeeper: Michael Theo
Defenders: Kevin Muscat, Adrian Leijer, Rodrigo Vargas, Adama Traore;
Midfielders: Grant Brebner, Mark Milligan, Carlos Hernandez;
Forwards: Robbie Kruse, Danny Allsopp, Archie Thompson.
Subs: Nathan Coe, Leigh Broxham, Marco Rojas, Matthew Kemp, Tommy Pondeljak.
The Canberra Times