7 Dec 2016

Where it all went wrong for Ernie and the Phoenix

10:02 am on 7 December 2016

Sports Call - Ernie Merrick quit graciously this week.

There was no fuss, no recriminations, just a plain-spoken media release in which he took full responsibility for the Wellington Phoenix's dire form.

It is rare for a professional coach to be separated so quickly and tidily from his club and this reflects well on the man.

The rupture, however, was a long time coming.

Ernie Merrick was still able to raise a smile as he left the club.

Ernie Merrick was still able to raise a smile as he left the club. Photo: Photosport

The Phoenix have been underwhelming under Merrick, finishing ninth, fourth and ninth in his three full seasons in charge.

After Sunday's loss to Adelaide United, they sit 10th and bottom of the league (with a game in hand).

They have scored only six goals in eight games this season, the fewest in the league.

It is a damning indictment, not just of Merrick's coaching but of the entire club.

The coach brought a fine pedigree to Wellington and he has no doubt struggled with the Phoenix's bargain-basement approach to building a team and the lack of football nous among the owners.

Supporting the Phoenix is like waiting for summer to arrive in Wellington. You'll occasionally get a balmy day but the next northerly gale is never far away. Yet still we live in hope.

I am sure Merrick did some things well, though I am scratching my head to come up with much of a list.

Nathan Burns

Nathan Burns Photo: Photosport

Signing Nathan Burns was a masterstroke as was selling Jeremy Brockie.

Some of the team's passing and pressing looked nice. This season's squad looks good on paper, but unfortunately they have to play on grass.

Perhaps Merrick's key achievement was not being Ricki Herbert. Merrick was a brighter, more humorous face for the club and seemed to get on better with most of the players than his predecessor.

Yes, the players. They are below-par compared with most of the other A-League squads. The ageing Andrew Durante is the only consistently high-class performer.

The team often look disinterested.

You notice when they play with fire, discipline and composure because usually they don't.

The A-League has markedly improved every year Merrick has been with the Phoenix. So every step forward for the club turned out to be half a step backwards. Relentless trans-Tasman travel and losing players to the All Whites also took a toll.

Merrick's was a tough job given the Phoenix's constraints, but he still should have done better.

No one forced him to deploy predictable tactics, or to rely on nippy midfielders to score goals when clearly the team is hanging out for a powerful, goal-scoring striker. Or to keep trying to turn Vince Lia into a midfield lynch-pin or Michael McGlinchey into a plausible play-maker.

Merrick leaves behind a team that has the potential to perform at least a little better under a different coach with new ideas.

The real question is whether the club has the resolve to invest in a full overhaul. Because that is what it will take to put the Phoenix on a more successful path.

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