An inevitable end, but Ernie deserves applause

The hardest thing for a manager to do is to fall on his sword, particularly in the A-League.

Ernie Merrick

Former Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick has got a new job with Newcastle Jets Source: Getty Images

Since the A-League began, you could probably count on one hand the number of managers who have walked away from a club (without having something better waiting in the wings) completely of their choosing.

That's amazing compared to what happens elsewhere.

The paucity of jobs means managers will hang on for grim death until the axe is swung. Unlike Europe, there just isn’t enough to go around, and so a lengthy spell without a job looms for all but a few.

It is an honourable thing Ernie Merrick has done this past weekend, handing in his resignation at Wellington Phoenix.

Sometimes, you have to walk away from a project so that it can ultimately flourish in someone else’s hands.

At 63, Merrick will know that his A-League managerial career is almost certainly done. Not because he can’t keep coaching - he still has the utmost belief in his ability - but because the new trend in appointments is surging toward younger managers.

Should he go without a job for two or more years, boards will have a hard time hiring a 65-year old. You’ve got to be a freak - like Marcello Lippi - to remain employable in a new position at the elite level thereafter.

Ever the pragmatist, Merrick will know this better than anyone.

His contemporaries, like John Kosmina, Branko Culina and Miron Bleiberg, accept they don’t even get linked with jobs any more.

As an industry,  we don't seem to know what to do with our sacked managers in Australia (which is surely a missed opportunity).

A keen developer of young talent, Merrick might plunge into a development role, like he did before the A-League began. He’s also shown a willingness to go to south-east Asia, spending one year in charge of Hong Kong between the Victory and Phoenix jobs.

So what cost Merrick this time around?

Three years at the helm and in only one of them could he get the Phoenix to sing, when Nathan Burns caught fire and played the season of his career.

But the two seasons either side of that year were ordinary, finishing second-last in 2013-14 and again two years later.

This year, his fourth at the helm, looked like ending in another disaster. On paper, the squad looked solid in attack but among the league’s weakest both defensively and in midfield. It’s a combination that was never going to end well.

In Merrick’s defence, he was working on a budget that was among the league’s smallest, with owners keen to keep costs down.

Whereas at Victory he could aim to recruit the league’s best talent, it was shopping in the bargain bin at the Phoenix that made his job tougher.

There was always a sense that the Phoenix squad had a few too many journeyman and a few too many substandard locals filling out the numbers.

Merrick would openly admit he found it incredibly hard to attract a top quality players across the Tasman. A fruitless quest to win over Bernie Ibini springs to mind.

However, it should be noted that Merrick did make some inroads, especially in terms of cultural change.

"Even though the results haven't shown and we haven't won anything, he's changed this whole club in terms of the professionalism, the way we should play football and the structure of the club,” former defender Ben Sigmund told Fairfax New Zealand on Monday. "What he's done at the club is unbelievable."

In terms of who the Phoenix may look to next, it would seem that Ramon Tribulietx is the obvious choice. An established pedigree in New Zealand football, his deeds with Auckland City at the Club World Cup are the stuff of legend.

Their annual journey to the tournament - they face Japanese champions Kashima Antlers in the play-off round in Yokohama on Thursday - has shown what Tribulietx can do when he’s up against clubs with a vastly superior budget.

Other names? Mark Rudan, Mike Mulvey and Ross Aloisi would seem contenders, although Rudan is likely to prefer a job closer to his Sydney home and Aloisi may not be willing to depart from his brother’s side at Brisbane Roar.

Tribulietx's assistant Ivan Vicelich would also seem a candidate given his iconic status but is well known for his desire to stay in Auckland.

Before then, however, we should pay tribute to Merrick’s fine contribution to the game on either side of the Tasman.

If indeed this is the last we see of him, he departs with his reputation, and good name, firmly intact.

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5 min read
Published 6 December 2016 at 8:41am
By Sebastian Hassett