The Phoenix coach on the joys of positive football, Melbourne Victory and the untapped potential in New Zealand football
If they’re wondering why they practise penalties so often at Wellington Phoenix, they can blame Kevin Muscat. His uncharacteristic miss in the penalty shoot-out at the 2010 grand final helped seal Melbourne Victory’s fate, and it’s a loss that still haunts Ernie Merrick.
“But I don’t want to sound like the dour Scot,” he chuckles, as he catches himself going over what went against them that day. “Speak to one of our players one day and you’ll find out about the real Ernie Merrick.”
Of course, Merrick is drilling them on more than spot kicks at Wellington, and his methods – leaving the weekend’s bizarre capitulation to Melbourne Heart aside – are starting to pay off. In the first 12 games of the season, they scored just 11 times. In the six that followed, the figure was 15. Their Belgian striker, Stein Huysegems, has shot to the top of the A-League’s scorers list, and he’s brought the team with him. Though back outside the top six this week, Wellington had the best record of 2014 until Sunday, when Heart snatched that honour from them.
He’s the most successful coach in the A-League’s short history, yet Merrick’s record somehow lives in the shadow of his eventual successor at Victory, Ange Postecoglou. Their career paths weave an interesting narrative on a coach’s role in a winning team. Postecoglou took barely a season to transform Brisbane into a side that drew comparisons, in style at least, to Barcelona. Under Mike Mulvey, they’ve pretty much kept that form. Yet Postecoglou was not able to transform Victory to anywhere near the same degree in just over a year at Victory, despite their status as a big-money club.
Meanwhile in Wellington, Merrick has taken the Phoenix from wooden spooners to form team in little more than six months. He says it all points to the coach being just one cog in the machine. “You’ve got no chance without the support from above. Then you’ve got to have the players, and if they don’t buy into it [the team philosophy], then I’ve got no chance of success.”
It’s been a while since he’s found himself in such an environment. He has it at Wellington though, and it’s why his fresh philosophy has shown such promise this year – once again, the Heart aberration aside. Merrick has given them a glimpse of what they can do when they believe they can win anywhere, anytime, anyhow.
“It all comes down to mentality and standards,” he says. “The senior core players have bought into the style of play and the commitment to winning games rather than being happy with a draw away from home.” The notoriously poor travellers have won three times on the road since Christmas, despite conceding goals that would have killed them off in the past.
A keen student, and teacher, of sports psychology, Merrick says it’s been about more than instilling a winning mentality. “It’s about an agreement, individually and collectively. There’s no point in me setting the targets and the goals. They have to set them themselves. They have to take responsibility and ownership for what they want to achieve. It’s a huge commitment to get there.”
Merrick spends time in Europe working on his professional development each year, and while he is up with the latest innovations in the game, he says his method hasn’t changed that much since his days at Victory. What he wants is “good attacking football from the first minute to the last”. Football like they put on at Newcastle the previous weekend, when they had three shots on goal within the first couple of minutes.
“I’m very big on playing what I call front-half football,” he says. “In fact, in my first six years [at Victory], we scored far more goals than any other team if you add them all up.
“It’s not always about scoring the goals. It’s about having a goal scoring opportunity. If the goalkeeper pulls of a tremendous save, that’s just a great save, well done. It’s about us making sure it’s always on target and he always has to make a save.”
His work has been helped by the signings of Costa Rican World Cup hopefuls Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham. Hernandez was actually signed before Merrick, though the coach is naturally happy at being reunited with one his main weapons at Victory.
This is Carlos 2.0 though. To rework a line from Kate Moss, you might say nothing tastes as good as a World Cup feels for Hernandez, and he’s lost 5kg since returning to the A-League from his season in India. He’s training the house down, putting in extra sessions, and just loving his football.
“Carlos has matured as a person,” says Merrick. “[But] he’ll always be Carlos, so he’s got that little petulant part when I take him off during a game, even though his injured. He just loves to stay on the pitch, but afterwards he’s all fun and games.
“He’s so likeable, and so is Kenny, and they are just very popular here. They have been two tremendous signings for this club. Their attitude is spectacular.”
Another interesting signing is Roy Krishna, though so far the impact has been off-field. He’s the first Fijian to play in the A-League and Merrick’s phone has running hot since bringing him on-board.
Being in New Zealand has opened Merrick’s eyes to just how big the potential talent pool of the Pacific is. “Oceania is full of very talented players, and there’s really nowhere for them to go. If they go to Australia and A-League clubs other than the Phoenix, they’ve got no chance because they are visa players and no one will really take a risk on them.” It’s actually a problem for New Zealand players too. It’s why Wellington can barely field a team when the All-Whites are in action.
Just look at the dominance of the All Blacks, Merrick says, with their islander influence, to see what the game is missing out on. “So can you imagine those athletes playing football and how this whole region and the A-League would benefit if they weren’t visa players? It would just be tremendous for us, and for them as well.”
Phoenix’s passports will get a work-out over the next month, with four out of their next five games away from home. How they react to such a grueling schedule on the back of such a humiliating loss will show just how deeply the Merrick philosophy has taken root.