Honeymoon over for Merrick
Ernie Merrick barely had time to heave a sigh of relief after Hong Kong defeated Taiwan handsomely in his first game in charge of the national soccer team, than the cracks started to appear. It came, predictably enough, from South China when Steven Lo Kit-sing fired a barb at Merrick for not substituting Caroliners skipper Chan Wai-ho when the result was not in doubt.
Old Hong Kong hands would not have been surprised to see the first signs of dissension since Merrick took charge of the team. The internecine battles between clubs and previous coaches of the Hong Kong team have been well-documented. But even they would have been shocked at the alacrity with which Lo seemed to grab the perceived chance to attack the new man at the tiller.
Merrick, a Scot who has lived most of his 59 years in Australia before arriving in January as part of the new-broom recommendations made by Project Phoenix - 33 steps in the government's multimillion-dollar plan to revive the fortunes of the beautiful game in Hong Kong - was full of hope after his first night of being in charge.
A few days later he elaborated on the importance of the role of the national team in the renaissance of the local game, believing that if the team performed well it would help build a wave of public support. This would ensure further government backing, especially financial support. Without funds, the game will suffer.
Only the government can provide the infrastructure, like grounds and facilities for all First Division clubs, and a national training academy, to name a few, plus the multimillion-dollar salaries to pay people like Merrick and new chief executive Gordon McKie to jump-start the plan to return local football to a golden era. But while the money side is important, what is more crucial is for all stakeholders to be on the same page. And the most important stakeholders are the clubs, who can make or break any national team.
Merrick said he had been heartened by the support he had received from all the clubs in the short build-up to the Taiwan game. They had released their players and offered him all the assistance and help needed. And Merrick promised that in return, he would try to lighten the demands on the clubs with a 'common sense' approach.
If the clubs couldn't release their players because of a key match like an AFC Cup game, or even a crucial local encounter on which the fate of the First Division league depended, Merrick intimated he would try to work around that.
There was an air of understanding, but the balloon was pricked when South China boss Lo dropped the bombshell just a few days after the Taiwan game, with his thinly veiled threat regarding co-operation between his club and the national team.
Lo was unhappy because Chan picked up an injury during the game and hadn't been taken off despite signalling his desire to leave the field, twice, with Hong Kong leading 4-1 (the final score was 5-1).
Chan, a central defender, is a vital cog in Merrick's game plan of having a rock-solid defence which, playing behind a creative midfield, lays the foundation for attacking football. Whether Merrick felt Chan needed to be taken off or not is moot, but it's that decision (or non-decision) which resulted in the threat from Lo.
'I am not blaming anyone but hope this will not happen again. Otherwise the club will feel uncomfortable working with the Hong Kong team,' said Lo, soon after South China struggled to a miserable 1-1 draw against BMA First Division cellar-dwellers Sham Shui Po.
Perhaps Lo was frustrated the Sham Shui Po team, who had been languishing in the lower divisions a few seasons ago, had proved a match for his multimillion-dollar collection of players. And maybe he needed to vent those frustrations with the easiest target being the new national coach.
Let's hope this was a knee-jerk reaction from an angry boss and nothing more. Let's hope it is not the first salvo in a campaign to destabilise the new men in charge of the game. For if the latter is the case then it is a worrying sign of corrosive local politics rearing their ugly head. And more troubling is the fact that it comes from one of the most powerful personalities on the local scene. Merrick has chosen to ignore the scare stories of how his predecessors struggled to field their best 11 due to clubs being uncooperative. He has asked for, and received, support so far. And everything was looking rosy. Until now.
Merrick, whose task is to rebuild Hong Kong's battered reputation on the international scene, has diplomatically chosen to remain silent. He had already stated that tough times were ahead. Sadly, they have already arrived. His honeymoon didn't last long.