Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick refused to be drawn into his opposite number Josep Gombau’s aggressive approach towards the Phoenix bench during the heated second-half sideline stoush in Wednesday’s emphatic 3-1 New Year’s Eve triumph over Adelaide United at Coopers Stadium.
But Merrick did defend Manny Muscat, whose forceful contact with Pablo Sanchez earned the experienced defender a yellow card and sparked the ugly but brief 75th-minute fracas.
While the Reds were frazzled, Wellington regrouped and refocused nicely after the incident, with substitute Tyler Boyd, a day after his 20th birthday, scoring twice to diffuse Gombau’s earlier fireworks.
“No comment to make on that,” Merrick said when asked about Gombau making a bee-line for the Wellington bench to remonstrate with the visitors.
“To me, it (Sanchez contact) looked like Manny was shielding the ball.
“I don’t think it was (deserving of) a yellow card.
“We just got on with the game after that. I think it (melee) worked in our favour.
“We’ve hardly got yellow cards this year. The discipline has been very good and it’s paying off for us.”
While Gombau complained post-match of a lack of an adequate bench and currently being too close to the on-field action, thus rationalising his own role in the dust-up, Merrick disagreed.
“I’ve got no problems with the barbecue chairs being that close to the white line – it doesn’t bother me at all,” he said.
“I’d rather be closer to the pitch than closer to the crowd.
“Didn’t one of our coaches have a glass of beer thrown over him once … you’ve got a strange tradition, in New Zealand and Scotland we actually drink the stuff.”
Merrick was also at odds with Gombau’s decision to drag young goal-keeper Paul Izzo out of his area and into attack for the Reds’ last corner, deep into second-half stoppage time, a ploy that backfired badly when Boyd slotted one past out-of-position Izzo in the dying seconds on the counter.
“I thought it was a bit premature to push the goal-keeper forward for set plays, but I was very happy that they did.”
While United were undermanned going in, so were the Phoenix, missing strike duo Nathan Burns (international duties – Asian Cup) and Roy Krishna (hamstring), who had combined for 15 of Wellington’s total 22 goals this season.
Stepping up admirably were goal-scoring forwards Boyd (two) and Kenny Cunningham (one), Merrick always confident his club possessed the forward depth to cover the key absences.
“With Roy Krishna and Nathan Burns out, we knew we had firepower and it was just a case of whether they (Boyd and Cunningham) could translate their training performance to match performance. Tyler took his chances really well, Kenny scored.
“When Adelaide scored to get back into the game it was good that we scored within four minutes. that’s something we’ve been working on.
“It was exciting right to the dying minutes.”