A ‘worldwide’ search for a new coach has ended with Wellington Phoenix resurrecting one of the Hyundai A-League’s most recognisable figures.
Ernie Merrick has jumped back on the merry-go-round, and there’s some irony in his chosen destination.
About this time last year, Merrick was appointed as the national coach of Hong Kong in the midst of a top-to-bottom overhaul of the local game, funded by the government, and called – you guessed it – ‘Project Phoenix’.
Sadly, the brave new world in the former Crown Colony all ended in tears just nine months later. By contrast, there were only smiles when Merrick was unveiled by the real Phoenix on a typically wintry Wellington morning.
For a man not renowned for his jocularity, Merrick’s unabashed delight suggests he might have mellowed somewhat since his time at Melbourne Victory. Good news.
Famous for his Easter Island statue impersonation on the bench, Merrick never seemed to enjoy himself enough despite the run of two championships and three grand finals in six seasons in his adopted hometown.
While he ticked most of the other boxes, the siege mentality Merrick developed at the Victory ultimately did himself, and the club, a disservice.
Relations with the media, and the local clubs, were rarely what they should have been. Winning with humility is just as important as losing with dignity.
I haven’t asked him, but my sense is Merrick might have done things differently if he had his time again. Either way, building closer, stronger, richer, ties with the local football community is a cornerstone of the new Wellington Phoenix philosophy, and Merrrick will be at the fulcrum of that.
There will be plenty of raised eyebrows at the Phoenix decision, and I’ve made my own views quite clear. The new Wellington owners could have made the leap of faith and replaced Ricki Herbert with another Kiwi.
Wynton Rufer, Chris Zoricich, Paul Posa, Chris Milicich, Duncan Oughton, Sean Douglas, Danny Halligan, Gavin Wilkinson and Paul Marshall are among those who have claims.
How many of them were among the 200-odd applications is unknown. If any made the shortlist is even less known. What I do know is that sooner rather than later the New Zealand coaching system has to start promoting its own, and at the top of that pyramid are the Phoenix.
Herbert, surely, has proven that the issue is more about opportunity than quality. On that score, it seems, once again, we’ll have to wait and see.
None of this diminishes Merrick’s own claims for the job. In the circumstances, there’s a lot to like about the appointment. His age, for starters. Thank heaven there’s a club smart enough to ignore a birth certificate and value experience.
At 60, Merrick will be comfortably the oldest coach in the competition next season. That doesn’t mean he’s out-of-date.
Some may argue the Victory played their football off-the-cuff during his reign. Sometimes, that was true. But they were always exciting, always courageous, always adventurous. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for me Merrick’s instinct has always been an attacking one.
Whether he uses the whiteboard to create an attacking gameplan, or simply recruits the players to do it for him, or both, the result is the same. The ‘Cake Tin’ will be rocking next season, I’d imagine.
What the Phoenix are getting, without a doubt, is a man with conviction, with principle, with determination, with experience, with maturity, with confidence, and with a hunger to succeed.
If he was unhappy with the manner of his exit from the Victory, what happened in Hong Kong will have only strengthened his resolve to prove he still has what it takes at this level. ‘Project Phoenix’ has taken on a whole new meaning – for Wellington, and for Merrick himself.