Welcome Home, Ernie

By Craig MacKenzie. ERNIE Merrick is going home on Monday...

Article by Craig MacKenzie.

ERNIE Merrick is going home on Monday, not just to the Melbourne suburb that has been his base for decades but to the stadium he helped transform into a fortress for Melbourne Victory.

But times have changed. And how.

Merrick conducted Victory-s emergence as the most successful and best supported club in the A-League but this time he-s spearheading a group of players from New Zealand on a hit-and-run mission.

The men of Wellington Phoenix will confront Melbourne Victory at Etihad Stadium at 7.30pm on Monday in a raid that could dampen the enthusiasm surrounding Kevin Muscat-s recent elevation to Victory-s head coaching role.

“It-s good that they-ve given Kevin the chance, a couple of years to be head coach. He deserves it and I think he will do a good job,” said Merrick.

He should know. He gave the then scrawny 16-year-old his senior debut in 1989 in the Sunshine George Cross team competing in the old national soccer league and that link has strengthened and remains strong to this day.

“He was one of the first signings that Gary Cole and I made (at Victory) along with Archie (Thompson) and Danny Allsopp and they were critical signings. They-d been overseas but they were all from Victoria.

“Kevin was the leader, the captain, and his record is quite outstanding whether it be winning championships, Grand Finals or best and fairests.

“He-s a legend at the club, no doubt about it and he was a crucial player in the squad.”

Merrick started his two-year deal with Phoenix on 5 June this year and from the get-go he had an important decision to make.

“We could have gone on a tour of South Africa or China and the previous year they went to India but I really wanted to use the training facilities here and put in 18 weeks of solid training and then try and bring clubs over for friendlies.

“I wanted games in Australia as well because I wanted players to get used to the way I wanted them to travel.”

“I want to fly in the day before then fly out as soon as we can after the game so irrespective of the result you are ready for the next game.

“I think it-s on record that Wellington to Perth is the longest league trip in the world and we have put in place travel protocols to deal with that.

“There-s other things we can do from a sports science perspective like fluids, compression wear, nasal sprays, exercise before and after, certain types of food.

“Basically we just want to get in and out.” While Merrick has addressed the challenge of travel he also has challenged his players to become much tougher mentally.

He has long opted for an interpassing possession game but he also has focused on the mental aspects of competing indeed it is an area he places great emphasis upon.

“It-s one thing to have high levels of fitness, technical competence and strategic play patterns which is the role of a coach but probably more important than any of these things is a player-s mental approach to a game, the ability to perform under psychological and physical duress.”

Merrick drummed this into his men during pre-season training and they have responded.

“We should put on ourselves high levels of expectation so the boys have decided they want to play in the finals so that-s our first expectation.

“What comes with that is an expectation to win home games, away games and play matches the way you train and not go into your shell.

“They-ve got to become more battle hardened and used to the toughness surrounding games both physically and mentally.

“That-s an area I did a lot of work on at Victory as well, in fact wherever I-ve coached.

“I just believe in this sort of self-esteem and confidence in your ability.”

Merrick also has transformed the Phoenix playing roster, introducing 10 new faces to the 22-man list.

Add to that the fact that Phoenix only played nine pre-season games whereas most A-League clubs played between 13 and 15 friendlies then it strikes a chord when he says the team cohesion he seeks will take a few more weeks to come to the fore.

He has pinpointed the midfield area as crucial to Phoenix-s fortunes.

“I like to play with three strikers high whenever possible and when I played with three strikers in the last two games in particular we never really got going in the first half an hour.

“I-ve had to rejig the midfield, take off a striker and put on an attacking midfielder and it-s worked for us in both those games.

“It-s important to have a good quality midfield that can keep possession particularly in the front third.

“If you can keep possession in the front third you can set up scoring opportunities.”

The stats from last round-s scoreless draw with visitor Newcastle Jets showed that Phoenix had the bulk of possession and more completed passes overall but in the front third of the field the Jets completed far more passes and were able to put Phoenix under the hammer.

“We-re still trying to get the midfield right because we haven-t played enough games to get the team cohesion we want.

“If we get the midfield right I know we will be a much stronger outfit.”

No doubt we-ll discover how strong in coming weeks, maybe even as early as Monday evening.

It should be a special occasion both on and off the pitch as the rival head coaches whose professional football lives are so intertwined indulge in a battle of wits.

And Muscat won-t be the only Victory legend on the sidelines.

Merrick too has earned legend status at Victory. It-s the club at which he established his reputation as the most successful coach in A-League history.

Despite that there-s still a question of how the head coach of Phoenix will be received by raucous Victory fans when he emerges from the dressing room and walks onto the pitch.

“I always had a good relationship with the Victory fans, with the staff, with the players and I have very fond memories of Victory over six years.

“I-d like to keep those memories that way because overall I had tremendous support from those fans.”