Bren O'Brien ponders Ernie Merrick's A-League return with the Wellington Phoenix and if we will see a change in the man to the one that led Melbourne Victory to two championships
|By BREN O'BRIEN
There are many in the football world who think that the A-League has passed Ernie Merrick by, but with his appointment as Wellington head coach, the determined two-time championship winning coach has one last chance to prove he still understands the developing modern game.
A victim of changing fashions at Victory, he now finds himself at a club with plenty of passion, a rich resource of local talent to tap into and something to prove in the post-Ricki Herbert era.
Herbert, who stepped down as coach late in the season, has hitherto defined the Phoenix. He has been the most powerful voice in New Zealand football, but the competing roles of national and club coach saw his energy sapped and his ability to influence a developing Phoenix playing list diminished.
The club were intent on developing in a new direction, but have instead plucked the dominant man from a previous era to re-invigorate New Zealand's A-League side.
There are obvious benefits to Merrick's presence and one of his first tasks will be to run the rule over the football department structure to ensure it will support him in his clear vision.
It is highly likely that he will bring some of his former Victory staffers to the club, including assistant coach Aaron Healey.
Youth development will be a key area of focus as will physical fitness, and the Phoenix players can expect a torrid pre-season, with focus on all the KPIs which define conditioning programs at professional sporting clubs.
In securing Merrick, Phoenix have secured a path to professionalism, especially in terms of preparation and planning.
The two big questions which the 60-year-old will need to answer will be a) whether his previous methodology will still be effective in the A-League and b) whether he is capable of changing his approach should he find out that approach is no longer effective.
At Victory, Merrick was a victim of Ange Postecoglou's success in Brisbane and Kevin Muscat's decline at his own club.
His failure to evolve his own style looked even worse in the light of what Postecoglou had done with the Roar. Muscat had been the model lieutenant for Merrick, ensuring his discipline message carried out onto the field.
But when he began to fade and fray, the influence of the coach waned.
Muscat's horror tackle on Adrian Zahra in the Melbourne Derby was the day the Victory era ended. When the Melbourne board met soon after, they determined that incident was everything they did not want to be. Instead, they wanted to be Brisbane Roar, and nobody was surprised when the landed Postecoglou, albeit 12 months after they intended.
The tide had changed dramatically and Merrick was swept off to a footballing backwater in Hong Kong in order to re-invent his coaching credentials.
As he waited for his chance to get back on the A-League coaching merry-go-round, it became apparent that despite his success, he remained out of fashion.
There was a perception, perhaps unfair, that Muscat was the driving force behind Victory's success and that Merrick was not tactically adept enough to prosper once again.
He has the chance to answer those questions now.
With Phoenix currently lacking depth, he will need to be tactically astute and while he will rely on Andrew Durante, Paul Ifill and Carlos Hernandez to lead his team forward, they do not have the dominant presence of the former Victory captain.
Merrick is a stickler for detail and would have pored over every reason for his dismissal at Victory in a bid to improve himself. Whether that will yield dividends at Phoenix, only time will tell.