Ernie Merrick attacks 'very poor' Hong Kong training pitches
National team's head coach says leisure department is letting the city down with his side forced to train on same pitches as public
An increasingly frustrated Ernie Merrick, the Hong Kong soccer coach, criticised the authorities yesterday over the state of training pitches before his team's international friendly against Malaysia on Tuesday.
"The training facilities are of very poor standard," said Merrick, who led his 23-member squad in a 1½ -hour practice at So Kon Po Recreation Ground.
"Preparation on this [type of surface] is another frustration of the job. This is not a sudden problem and not the fault of the ground staff. It is overuse of the facility," Merrick said.
Merrick blamed the hard surface of the So Kon Po Ground for causing players' injuries.
"Training on a surface like this is like training on a car park and that gives the players knee injuries and joint injuries," he said. "We have been in discussion with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department for a number of months about good quality grass training facilities, but I am afraid to say there is very little progress.
"They are not letting me down. Their inability to provide training facilities is letting Hong Kong down."
Merrick, the former coach of Australian League side Melbourne Victory, is on a contract worth more than HK$2 million a year under Phoenix Project, the government initiative to revive Hong Kong soccer in all aspects.
It is the first time he has made such strong remarks about the facilities, a long-existing problem that blights Hong Kong professional soccer, since his arrival in January.
Merrick also expressed great concern that priority for the use of pitches is not given to the Hong Kong team, leaving his side to compete with the public.
"Tomorrow we have to train close to the middle of the day on a synthetic ground which is going to be 442 degrees celsius," he joked. "This is because it is a Saturday and there is nowhere we can train in the evening as there are no grass pitches available. So, we are going to dehydrate the players if we over-train them. Unfortunately the Hong Kong senior representative team has no priority. We just have to take what's available to us and that's all."
The LCSD said the So Kon Po Recreation Ground is a supporting venue and used mainly by the rugby union as its designated training ground. It is only used "occasionally by the HFKA for junior teams training".
And they have not heard any adverse comments from the two sports association on the pitch quality of the ground. "We have been endeavouring to maintain the quality of the pitch to suit users' needs," a department spokesman said. "Regular maintenance works including irrigation, mowing, rolling, silting, fertilising, etc are carried out by experienced ground staff. We will continue to monitor the performance standard of the pitch and communicate with the sports association on any necessary improvement."
Despite the conditions, the coach praised his charges for their professional attitude. "The training performance of the players has been fantastic and their attitude is first-class," Merrick said. "I have coached in a couple of different countries and the attitude of Hong Kong players is truly excellent. They really want to win and win for Hong Kong."
He admitted he was struggling in central defence, especially after the withdrawal by Sun Pegasus defender Deng Jinhuang yesterday because of injury.
"I am now looking at other combinations and forced to try different people," Merrick said. "I have three more training sessions to get the back line right before the match against Malaysia."
Captain Chan Wai-ho of South China is injured, leaving his teammate Bai He the best choice in central defence. Rangers fullback Chak Ting-fung or Kitchee youngster Tsang Chi-hau may also get a chance.