Hong Kong soccer's multimillion-dollar blueprint to rise from the ashes has been damaged by the departure of national coach Ernie Merrick, a top government official admitted yesterday.
Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs Jonathan McKinley has broken the official silence over the resignation of Merrick last week, saying the government-backed Project Phoenix implemented last year to revive the local game would not be helped by the departure of a national coach just nine months into his job.
"It appears Ernie Merrick has tendered his resignation. Whilst this is obviously an internal matter for the HKFA to handle, to lose a coach of the proven calibre of Ernie Merrick at such an early stage clearly impacts on the implementation of Project Phoenix," McKinley said.
Merrick is the latest casualty in holding down what seems to be a tough job - he is the 10th national coach since 2000.
The Scot, a successful former Australian A-League coach with Melbourne Victory, took over as national coach in January and was in charge for six international games ending with a 3-3 record. But significantly all three defeats came in the last three matches. It seemed the last straw was the 3-0 loss to an under-strength Malaysia at Mongkok Stadium a fortnight ago with Merrick, who had fielded a young side, coming under fire.
But yesterday the government came out in support of Merrick's policy to groom a young team and said patience was needed to reap the rewards of Project Phoenix - a comprehensive plan ranging from steps to improve the game from grassroots level right up to club and national level.
"We do not expect overnight success - it takes time to build up momentum before you can move forward," said McKinley, who next to his boss, Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing, is the highest-ranked government official in charge of sports.
McKinley also said: "Project Phoenix is a long-term plan for HK football. It is still 'early in the game'. Ernie Merrick had a strong track record in Australian football, and he had a clear commitment to giving a greater number of young Hong Kong players more international exposure.
"If the HKFA can build on his efforts, our players will surely become more competitive internationally."
Hong Kong is listed at 160 in the Fifa world rankings. Believing the fastest way to generate interest in the local game - one of the main goals of Project Phoenix is to get fans back in the stands - is to focus on success at the national level, and there had apparently been pressure from the HKFA hierarchy for Merrick to deliver results.
The HKFA has played down Merrick's departure and has refused to comment other than state in a brief communiqué last Friday that it was "mutually agreed and decided that it is in the best interest of the future of football in Hong Kong" he left.
A bitter Merrick had earlier taken a swipe at remarks from senior HKFA board members, including Ken Ng Kin, the boss of Hong Kong First Division champions Kitchee, who in his personal blog had been critical of the player formation used by Merrick in the Malaysia game.