So far, so good, but hard work awaits

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


A campaign to win the hearts and minds of the stakeholders in Hong Kong football - the players, the clubs, the owners and the fans - by new national coach Ernie Merrick couldn't have got off to a better start.

On Wednesday, the senior team defeated Taiwan 5-1 in the first international since the government's Project Phoenix to revitalise the game began.

Merrick is well aware that the road ahead is fraught with obstacles, as Hong Kong tries to emerge from the pits of world football and into a new era, but he remains positive.

'Coaching is always about negotiating challenges and it is not a smooth journey,' said Merrick, sipping a latte at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Central, just a stone's throw away from where he has been living since arriving six weeks ago.

Tough times might be ahead, but for now, the Scot is all smiles as he highlights the help he's received from the most important people - the club owners - as Hong Kong try to move up from their humiliating 163rd place in the Fifa world rankings.

The former Melbourne Victory coach has set a goal of reaching the world's top 100 in the next three to four years. And he insists it won't be simply about winning, but playing attractive football at the same time.

'We have Project Phoenix with all its recommendations, but all this will be no good if our top team fail to produce results. This is what matters. We need success at the highest level,' Merrick said.

'The two most pressing concerns are to improve our standards and develop the national team, and then we have to put in place an elite pathway for the younger generation.'

The new era began on a promising note against Taiwan - but it was only Taiwan, ranked even lower than Hong Kong at 166.

'In international football, there is never an easy game. We have had many instances where the so-called minnows have pulled off wins against the more-fancied sides,' the 59-year-old said. 'This being my first game in charge, it was very important, not just about the result - don't get me wrong, it is always about winning and the result counts - but what was also important was to play attractive football, see how the players cope under stress, both mental and physical, and to find out how coachable they are.

'We took a step that night in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. It was not a massive game, a friendly, and I'm not getting carried away.'

What was also encouraging for Merrick was the support he received from the clubs in the short build-up to his first international.

'Preparation is all-important and I had the players for five training sessions, once a week. I was mindful that all these guys were playing in the First Division and my training sessions were more about strategy than physical.

'I had access to the players with the help of the team owners. It is all about communication. I wrote to all the clubs and gave them prior notice and they responded positively. I know there have been problems in the past, but I didn't encounter any.'

Merrick will continue his campaign to convince all the clubs that everyone needs to be on the same page for Hong Kong football to flourish.

'Common sense has to prevail. If the clubs are playing in an Asian competition, then obviously the players will be unavailable.

'In the end this is all about Hong Kong football and it is a shared goal for everyone to see that we do well as a national team.'

When he was 22, and playing in Scotland, Merrick realised that he would never cut it at the top and went to Australia for a short stay. He ended up living there for the next 36 years.

He arrived for his initial interview here with his wife so that she could see if she could adapt to living in Hong Kong. They both love it.

'This is a great city. We have settled down well. What I like about Hong Kong is that no one feels out of place. It is very cosmopolitan, very much like Melbourne,' says Merrick.

In-between Skype-ing his two daughters, 23 and 21, and his son, 19 - 'they are looking after our dog and I believe there are parties every Friday night at our home' - Merrick is in the process of drawing up a two-year plan for the senior squad. It will mostly revolve around playing as many international games as time and schedules permit.

'I'm looking at five or six internationals mainly during a Fifa window for the national team. We have to get results now. But my focus will also be on the younger age groups, under-22, under-20 and under-17. We need to develop the younger players too.

'It is important that players be identified at a young age and this is where the importance of a grass-roots programme that can feed into the elite pathway comes into play. Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka were both identified at the under-17 level. Australia went from 60 in the world to 22, and second in Asia, mainly because of guys like this.'

Merrick's philosophy is simple - attacking football built on a rock-solid defence. One cannot exist without the other.

'I'm a believer in having a go. I want Hong Kong to play entertaining football. We need to be successful and play with a lot of style.

'I don't want us to just sit back and defend. Our mindset must not be to go out looking for an honourable loss or a draw.

'We must go out seeking a win, and the key to that is having a good midfield. We need our midfielders to be workhorses but at the same time also be thoroughbreds and have the composure to play a short passing game. They have to win the ball and then be clever with the ball.'

So will he try and impose his philosophy on the rest of the First Division coaches?

'No. I look at coaching as a position of privilege, not power. While I'm happy to share my ideas with others, I will never impose it on others, or interfere with how they want to play. It would be pretty boring if everyone played the same style of football.'