When Ernie Merrick turned up for his first training session as head coach of the Wellington Phoenix he must have wondered what he had taken on.
Merrick, who won the Hyundai A-League twice with Melbourne Victory and lost another final to Sydney FC on penalties, had only 10 players to work with on that morning back in June.
Five of the previous season-s first team squad had been released from their contracts; Carlos Herenandez, signed by former coach Ricki Herbert, had yet to arrive in Wellington after finishing a season in India; Jeremy Brockie was on loan in Toronto; Michael Boxall was on loan in Victoria and young tyros Louis Fenton and Tyler Boyd were away preparing to represent New Zealand at the under-20 World Cup.
Fast forward three months and Merrick is getting his message across to 26 players, 19 of whom are contracted for the coming season.
Among those hanging on Merrick-s every word are three or four young players who are still in the hunt for professional contracts.
Merrick has already practised what he has been preaching by signing young Australians Lewis Italiano, Reece Caira and Josh Brindell-South.
New Zealand under-20 captain Luke Adams has been signed, along with under-17 New Zealand player Alex Rufer, who has a three-year contract with the club.
Before heading into the session Merrick smiled as he was reminded of those early days at Newtown Park.
“Yes, it was a challenge but it was also exciting,” the Scottish born Merrick said.
“With five or six players out of contract I knew I could bring some young players in along with a couple of senior players.
“I had always felt that in the past the Phoenix had struggled a bit in midfield and up front, while they had always had a solid defence.
“There were some pluses early on. To have Carlos Hernandez coming in and having retained Vince Lia and Manny Muscat was important.
“I also had the chance to bring in a couple of attacking players and getting one with the quality of Kenny Cunningham was a massive boost.
“We had good quality and experience through the spine of the side and we had the previous season-s Golden Boot runner-up in Jeremy Brockie.
“Brockie had been terrific scoring goals the previous season but I felt that load had to be shared.
“With the experience we had it was important to bring in quality young players to get the right balance.”
Almost 30 young players have trialled with the Phoenix pre-season and there was a wealth of quality among them making it a certainty that some of those who don-t immediately snare a pro contract will slip easily into the Phoenix Football School of Excellence.
Despite his acceptance of the low numbers he was faced with in the early days at the Phoenix, Merrick is delighted with what he now has.
A big part of his coaching is breaking down a game into back third, middle third and attacking third.
“I enjoy working that way and then bringing it together and playing 11 v 11 regularly,” he said.
“That way everyone knows their individual job, their group job and their team job.”
To say the players have enjoyed pre-season training, including the hard yards fitness coach Lee Spence and sports scientist Ed Baranowski has put them through, is probably something of an understatement.
They are loving the attacking approach that Merrick has introduced and the mantra of “pass and move, pass and move, look forward” is now entrenched in their psyche.
When it comes to football Merrick is a workaholic and once training is over for the day it is time to analyse games on DVD, including last season-s Phoenix games as well as those played by some of the world-s top clubs.
Satisfaction comes in the form of good performances and results. The Phoenix have played seven pre-season games and lost only one, scoring plenty of goals in the process.
“I feel we are definitely on the right track,” Merrick says.
“We have a good level of fitness, a good complement of young players allied to a group of quality senior players and we are scoring goals.”