4 Nov 2016

Phoenix: Time to unleash pain for long-term gain?

4:10 pm on 4 November 2016

Opinion - Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick is already under pressure after the likeable Scot's team started this season's A-League in a very unlikeable manner.

Their none-from-three start was poor and a little unexpected, but their Halloween fright night 6-1 loss to Melbourne Victory was nothing short of embarrassing leaving 'Nix fans nervous for what's to come.

The Phoenix will play in front of fans in Auckland, Hamilton, New Plymouth and Wellington next season.

Phoenix fans have had little to cheer about recently. Photo: Photosport

Talk of changing coaches and or players within the side is nothing new and hasn't made much difference in the past, yet it's easy fodder for media and the "experts" and former players they quiz.

A different defender here, a better attacker there or a change in the backroom staff hasn't worked through the three New Zealand franchises' lives and the early evidence points to this season being no different to any other.

The Phoenix, as always, appear a side capable of great moments and a handful of great games, but they are one which lacks the fortitude and consistency to be a season-long threat like they were two years ago.

Basically, they're the Warriors of football.

Ernie Merrick has plenty to ponder with the Phoenix still winless.

Ernie Merrick has plenty to ponder with the Phoenix still winless. Photo: Photosport

They can carry on how they are and every now and then and, when injuries don't scuttle their chances, they might push for a playoff spot; they might even nab one again, but with the current cattle it's hard to see them threatening the title.

Like the Warriors, the Phoenix have plenty against them. They have to pay over and above an Aussie player's worth to get them to head to Wellington, they have more travel issues to battle than the rest of the league (that never seems to bother the Breakers) and they are one of the worst affected sides during an international window through which the A-League stupidly continues to play.

None of those things, however, are likely to change in the near future so the Phoenix should.

This year should be a trial year of sorts. They can continue as they are and if they do manage to U-turn their Wallabies-esque form slump and force themselves up the ladder, then good on them and we'll all support them.

But if they don't, it's time for some big philosophical changes.

If this season continues to be as limp as Michael Cheika's post-match whinge, then why not play the long game and develop young New Zealand talent?

Signing domestic Australian players, which the other A-League clubs don't want, makes no sense at all.

Sure, if there are very good Aussies available, snap them up, but if not, don't scrape the barrel, use Kiwis.

The extra spots should now go to younger New Zealanders with a view to the future.

Scout them properly, sign them up to longer contracts to get the best out of them, let Merrick - a good coach with a strong record - develop them further and build a core of young Kiwis, supported by a few experienced players like Michael McGlinchey, Kosta Barbarouses, Glen Moss and Andrew Durante.

Phoenix midfielder Michael McGlinchey in action against Perth Glory.

Phoenix midfielder Michael McGlinchey Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Of their 18-man squad to take on the Newcastle Jets this weekend, only nine are Kiwis.

And there are talented young New Zealanders around. Maybe they're not all available this year, but if the club makes a point of being more local-lad focussed, more will become available and there will be more incentive for the likes of Shane Smeltz and Marco Rojas etc to stay here or come back later.

There are a number of high quality academies around the country to cherry-pick from and while the Phoenix do have a development side, you can't help but wonder whether or not some of the younger players would develop faster and further in the A-League than the New Zealand domestic competition.

Sure they might get beaten while they get up to speed, but the current crop are all up to speed already and they're getting beaten too.

As a coach, Merrick has to balance putting the best he can out on the park now - to keep the wolves at bay - but also do what's best for the future of the club and that's not easy.

But the short to medium term plan the club is using isn't working so maybe it's time to think outside the box a little.

Matt Richens has been a sports journalist for 10 years.