Left field: Project Phoenix becoming a white elephant

The multimillion-dollar plan aimed at reviving Hong Kong soccer is in disarray following another high-level departure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 3:39am

The high churn rate of national coaches is a damning statistic that the Hong Kong Football Association cannot afford to blithely ignore with the government's big investment in the sport. Ernie Merrick was the latest casualty, taking the number of coaches who have come and gone since 2000 to 10. It seems the hot seat is busier than the MTR at rush hour. In Merrick's case, he lasted nine months.

Merrick was a former Australian A-League coach. He joined Melbourne Victory in 2005 and led them to two championships and was named coach of the year twice. But the club let him go in March last year, apparently disappointed with a series of poor results.

With a strong background of working with young talent - he had been involved with the Victorian Institute of Sport developing its junior programmes - Merrick was the third choice on the HKFA radar after two unsuccessful applications from England Under-20 coach Brian Eastick and Darren Robinson, a former performance coach with Nottingham Forest.

Merrick arrived amid much fanfare as he was the first national coach to be installed since the HKFA adopted the government-backed Project Phoenix, a comprehensive plan to address all facets of the game, from grass roots to a professional league to the national team. His arrival in January was lauded by HKFA chief Brian Leung Hung-tak, who said the Scotsman would "bring a new dimension" to the local game. Sadly, it wasn't spectacular 3-D. Rather a 3-3 record in internationals was viewed in some quarters as a drab and grey opening set. The honeymoon didn't last long.

The HKFA became disillusioned with Merrick and started nit-picking his every move. It was clear the clubs, especially South China, were not supportive of Merrick, who according to Leung (at least at the outset) was a "major component of Project Phoenix".

The HKFA board of directors failed to see eye-to-eye with Merrick, who was tagged as an appointee of former chief executive Gordon McKie, who himself left under a cloud less than a year into his three-year contract. At the tail end of his tenure, Merrick pointed a finger at Kitchee boss Ken Ng Kin, the last straw being Ng's blog following a 3-0 loss to Malaysia, where he said Merrick had adopted the wrong playing formation.

Ng said he was just expressing his personal view, especially as the coach had used three Kitchee players in midfield rather ineffectively. But Merrick viewed this as a personal attack from an influential member of the HKFA board and hit back publicly in an e-mail to this newspaper. He asked pointedly if Ng too was willing to accept some responsibility for the team's failure. "When Ng criticises the performance of the HKFA staff, plans, structures, programmes and team results, does he accept any responsibility himself," asked an angry Merrick. A few days after this stinging public attack, the HKFA announced Merrick would step down.

With the HKFA choosing to remain tightlipped over Merrick's departure - only saying it wished him well and would make no further statement - it serves to highlight the perception that the game's ruling body here is still governed by vested interests. At the same time, it is unfortunate Merrick has chosen not to spill the beans. By saying nothing - like McKie before him - it goes to show he, too, is only keen on negotiating a fat severance package - believed to be HK$400,000.

It is Hong Kong football which continues to suffer. If Merrick had been brave enough to come out and state the exact reasons for his early exit, perhaps these same pitfalls could be avoided by his successor.

The government, fed up with all the shenanigans, has admitted the game has suffered a setback. Home Affairs Deputy Secretary Jonathan McKinley couched his words as diplomatically as possible when he said losing a coach "of Merrick's stature at such an early stage clearly impacts on the implementation of Project Phoenix". This is the latest blow to the scheme, already reeling under the departure of its first CEO McKie.

The game, if it is serious about a revival, cannot afford any more upheavals. A new overseas coach must be given time to make a difference, something Merrick didn't have, and a free hand. But most importantly, everyone must pull together, especially the clubs and the HKFA board.