A relationship "that clearly wasn't working" ended yesterday when the Hong Kong Football Association announced head coach Ernie Merrick was leaving.
Merrick, a former Australian A-League coach, threw in the towel less than nine months into the job after apparently falling foul of internal HKFA politics. The tipping point came last week after Hong Kong lost 3-0 to Malaysia and senior HKFA board member Ken Ng Kin criticised Merrick's playing formation.
In a terse statement issued yesterday, the HKFA said: "The HKFA and Ernie Merrick had mutually agreed and decided that it is in the best interest of the future of football in Hong Kong for Ernie to leave his position as head coach with immediate effect.
"Both parties wish each other well in the future and no further statement will be issued by either party. The Hong Kong Football Association is still committed to Project Phoenix and to driving forward the plans to advance the sport of football."
Merrick, who was on a contract worth more than HK$2 million a year, was unavailable for comment.
It is understood the former Melbourne Victory coach will leave with two months' compensation amounting to more than HK$400,000.
HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe, however, hinted at a major breakdown when he said: "The outcome is the best possible way forward. It was clear to both parties that the relationship wasn't working. But we have to put this behind us and move forward."
Merrick had been critical of certain HKFA officials, in particular Ng, whom he said should also be held accountable for perceived failures within the association. "As the HKFA head coach, I accept responsibility for the success or failure of the senior team. I would like to ask Mr Ken Ng what he considers he should be accountable for," Merrick said in an e-mail sent to the South China Morning Post last week.
Merrick's departure is the latest blow to the HKFA's battered image. In May, Scot Gordon McKie resigned as the first chief executive of the HKFA after just six months. It was widely understood McKie had walked out due to differences with some board members over several issues.
Five months later, the man McKie employed as national coach - Merrick - has followed suit, possibly underlining the fact that the fault-lines run deep within the governing body. Suggestions the departure of two high-profile employees in quick succession would harm the image of the HKFA were downplayed by McKie's successor Sutcliffe.
"Yes, this is not an ideal situation, but these things happen in football. I will leave it to others to speculate what it does to our reputation," Sutcliffe said. The government, which has financially backed Project Phoenix - a comprehensive plan to revive the moribund state of the local game - did not comment on the latest episode of musical chairs.
Merrick's position is likely to be filled by South Korean Kim Pan-gon. The former Hong Kong and South China coach is at present academy coach. He is likely to come in as caretaker coach for next month's return leg against Malaysia as well as the East Asia Cup qualifiers in December at home when Hong Kong will play against the likes of Australia and North Korea for one berth in the finals next year.
"We will have to pick a coach for the interim. But it is still our policy [under Project Phoenix] to employ the right people and we will be looking at picking someone soon," Sutcliffe added.