Ernie Merrick will be coaching his 200th Hyundai A League game when the Wellington Phoenix take on the Brisbane Roar at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday which is quite an achievement for someone who had no ambitions to be a coach.
Asked to look back over a career that includes 151 games with Melbourne Victory and 49 with the Phoenix, Merrick sits back in his chair and smiles.
“It is quite amazing when I didn’t think I would be a coach in the first place,” he says.
“I had no desire to coach and when Dufton Football Club, whose coach had just resigned, first asked me to take on the job I said no.
“They kept on at me though and I finished up as player-coach which I didn’t enjoy initially because it was impossible to do both jobs properly and I was always struggling for players.
“Despite my initial feelings I ended up enjoying my time at the club.”
Next port of call for the fledgling coach was NSL club Preston as an assistant but within six weeks he found himself head coach when the incumbent was sacked.
“It was difficult because in the old NSL there was no stability or finance but I lasted 18 months and we finished second in the league,” he said.
Eighteen months at Sunshine George Cross came next for Merrick and once more he felt the frustration a lack of finance brings.
“We were always struggling financially and every decent player we signed ended up getting transferred because we needed the money,” he said.
“What was satisfying is that six players from that squad ended up representing Australia.”
Where Merrick felt most at home during those formative coaching years was working with young players preparing for the under-17 and under-20 World Cups and the Olympic Games.
“I had tremendous support at the Victoria Institute of Sport where we had a proper programme with conditioning, sports science and medical back up.” he says.
“It was a really professional set up and I was working with world class coaches in other codes such as hockey, track and field, rugby and AFL and learnt so much during my time there.”
His coaching career moved into the limelight when he was invited to join Melbourne Victory on a three-year contract.
One thing Merrick enjoys is building something and that is what he did at Victory.
His first year brought a disappointing second bottom placing but the club showed faith and were rewarded when he took them to two A-League titles and a third Grand Final that was lost in a penalty shoot -out.
“When you are building it involves recruiting good quality players with a mix of experience and youth,” he said.
“It is also vital that the club gets good staff who are full of expertise and enthusiasm and has a stable board that is willing to give you time to build.
“In the old NSL if you finished second bottom you would be sacked.
“I finished second bottom in my first year at both Victory and the Phoenix and the respective boards gave me time to build.”
The obvious highlight in Merrick’s career was Victory’s 6-0 Grand Final win over Adelaide United and thinking back to that day again brings a smile.
“That is never going to happen again. Winning a Grand Final 6-0 and one player, Archie Thompson, scoring five in front of a record 56,000 fans at Etihad Stadium.
“If ever everything went right on the night that was it for us.
“It was a tremendous experience but I didn’t make the most of it.
“I only spent two hours at the after party. I think 500 people were expected at the hotel where it was held and around 2000 turned up.
“It was claustrophobic and I was glad to get my family out, though I don’t think the kids were happy!”
Amazingly Merrick didn’t watch a replay of the sensational victory till he went on holiday to Thailand six weeks later.
“I sat down with (wife) Kerry and a bottle of white wine and watched the whole replay and it was good to know the outcome.”
Asked to join the Wellington Phoenix at the start of last season Merrick didn’t hesitate.
“I thought the Phoenix would be a good club to be involved with,” he said.
“I could see tremendous potential in New Zealand as there was an opportunity to have not only Wellington behind us but the whole of New Zealand.
“I also think we are everyone’s second team in Australia because they want us to knock off their rivals.”
With that it was time for training and Merrick got back to what he has come to love – working with players.
Watch Wellington Phoenix v Brisbane Roar, Sunday 22 March at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane. In NZ, watch live from 7.00pm on Sky Sport 5.