Merrick, reluctant coach to Jets' saviour

Emma Kemp
Ernie Merrick has transformed the Newcastle Jets from wooden spooners to grand finalists

There was a time when Ernie Merrick had nightmares about penalty shootouts.

He could never quite swallow Melbourne Victory's 2010 A-League grand-final loss when Kevin Muscat - the penalty master - crashed his spot kick flush into the post to allow Sydney FC an all-important advantage they would never cede.

Eight years later that moment still haunts the 65-year-old, who remains alarmed at the prospect of Saturday's decider coming down to the dreaded 'lottery'.

"I still get counselling for that," Merrick joked to AAP.

"The boys practise penalties a lot, you'll have noticed. Everywhere I've gone we practise penalties.

"When Pato (Rodriguez) arrived in January he asks, 'why are we doing penalties again?' The others said, 'He has a lot of problems with penalty kicks'."

That the Jets will face Merrick's former club, now under the tutelage of one-time protege Muscat, is one of several intriguing subplots to this impending duel for the championship.

But the central motif - the Jets' startling single-season ascent from wooden spooners to grand finalists - is a story best viewed through the prism of the warm-hearted Scotsman.

A lot has informed Merrick's marvellous medicine, the affably delivered attack-driven coaching formula that's tapped, almost uncannily so, into what the Hunter's struggling football side so sorely needed after the turbulent Tinkler years and rookie managerial merry-go-round that followed.

Much of it, he admits, was not planned.

With the blood of an Italian lion tamer and a family of circus performers, Merrick was arguably born to walk the all-consuming football tightrope.

He grew up kicking a ball around Scotland's fairgrounds while his mother performed as an acrobat and father ran side-stalls, and continued in the Stewarton cul-de-sac, southwest of Glasgow, where his parents and three siblings later settled.

A physical education teacher by profession, a young Merrick played to semi-professional level but soon realised his dream of going pro would not eventuate due to three key shortfalls.

"I was a bit slow, I lacked skill, and I was soft," he said.

"They held me back a little bit."

The reluctant coaching caper began when Merrick arrived in Australia in 1975 on overtures from his mate and Men at Work lead vocalist Colin Hay.

He got his formal Australian badges mainly to add to his PE credentials, and by 25 was qualified but had not intention of using them - until he was talked into taking over Melbourne side Doveton SC as a player-coach.

It was there, and during subsequent stints at former NSL teams Preston Lions and Sunshine George Cross, that he realised there was much more to coaching than "knowing some technical stuff about football".

"It was more luck," he said. "I wasn't so much coaching as coping."

The initial hesitation dissipated when Merrick finally found stability at the Victorian Institute of Sport, what he calls "the real place I learnt to coach" over 13 years developing talent for the under-17, under-20 and under-23 national teams.

"Dealing with other coaches I discovered it's not the technical side, that's the easy part," he said.

"It's dealing with people, how you manage them and get the best out of them.

"I learnt a lot from people like Peter Fortune who coached Cathy Freeman, Oarsome Foursome coach Noel Donaldson and (Kookaburras coach) Colin Batch."

Of course, the technical side still counted and there was no greater influence on that front than when Merrick returned to Scotland to complete his UEFA Pro Licence.

He knew then Scotland manager Craig Brown through his father Hugh, and Craig squeezed him into the course alongside some of the country's highest-profile names.

Suddenly Merrick was sharing a room with David Moyes and talking tactics in the pub every night with Sandy Clark, Willie and Paul McStay, the late Tommy Burns and Jimmy Nicholl ("the funniest guy in the world").

"We learnt more in the pub than the course," Merrick said.

"It was all salt shakers, your right-backs here and the pepper over there. I got beer stains on my final licence.

"The guys were great because they were all high-level players, most of them, and I was just a semi-pro coming from Australia.

"They really embraced me, allowed me to come into the group and would say things like 'Aussie now, can you just hop up to the bar skippy and grab us all a drink'."

Even if Merrick didn't know he was ready for his first big gig, Gary Cole did, and Victory's football operations manager convinced him to become the club's inaugural A-League coach.

Over six seasons the two-time coach of the year led Victory to two premiership-championship doubles and a third grand-final appearance - that harrowing loss on penalties - before his controversial exit in 2011.

After a year in charge of Hong Kong's national team and another four with Wellington, many doubted the A-League's most experienced mentor could turn around a Jets team devoid of finals football for seven seasons.

The ensuing transformation, aided by indefatigable chief executive Lawrie McKinna, is the fruits of Merrick's own personal evolution.

For the players it had the vital effect of removing pressure at the top.

"He definitely smiles a lot more than back in the day," goalkeeper Glen Moss, who played under Merrick at Victory and followed him to the Phoenix and then Newcastle,l said.

"He's probably found the boys react a bit differently with a smile on his face and learnt over time how to handle the media and the pressures."

Only one week ago Merrick was most definitely the only person at McDonald Jones Stadium not smiling when Riley McGree set the world alight with his scorpion-esque equaliser against Melbourne City.

Yet, two days out from his latest big-stage moment, the journey from meticulous obsessor to accomplished man manager is recalled with easy laughter.

"I used to try to be super conscientious, do everything and watch everything," Merrick said.

"You don't trust the players or delegate to captains or assistants. You tell them a whole lot of information they don't need to know. You tell the full-backs how to be strikers.

"Then you realise you're not actually coaching football skills, you're coaching people.

"That was the biggest change in me. I learnt that at the VIS."