AUSTRALIA’S appeal is obvious for any Scot. Golden sands, searing sunshine and the only New Year’s Eve party that can top Edinburgh’s, the country is essentially a utopia for everything Scotland is not.
Given the numbers that emigrate there, it is little wonder that one man has made his way to the top of the country’s football scene. But for Edinburgh-born Ernie Merrick – the most successful coach in A-League history – the decision to move Down Under has become more than just a gap year. He has been there since 1975.
“A friend had gone out to Australia and kept writing me postcards with beaches and girls in bikinis and all that,” explains Merrick. “When you’re 22 that’s an attractive idea. There used to be a poster of Northern Queensland, with beaches and sunshine, at the bus stop I’d wait at in Easterhouse. So one day I just went into the travel agents and bought a return ticket to Australia, which I couldn’t really afford. I planned to go out for a year and I’ve never been back.”
Indeed, Merrick only ever returns to Scotland to visit family, and understandably so given the life and career he has built for himself in Australia. The 62-year-old is the elder statesman of the country’s football top flight, having won it twice – as well as the regular season title in 2007 and 2009.
That was with Melbourne Victory – the A-League’s predominant superpower – where Merrick enjoyed his most successful spell as a coach. He now finds himself the manager of New Zealand’s sole A-League representative Wellington Phoenix.
And in just two short seasons Merrick has taken Wellington from perennial wooden spooners to title challengers. The Kiwi side currently sit atop the A-League, four points ahead of Merrick’s former team Melbourne Victory with just five games of the regular season left to play. “Nobody expected us to do this well,” he chuckles with utmost humility.
Born into a fairground family – originally from Portobello – Merrick is accustomed to the nomadic nature of coaching a New Zealand team in an otherwise Australian league. “We have to travel internationally for every away game, which is tough,” says Merrick. “But personally I’ve still got the traveller in me, except instead of fairground to fairground in caravans it’s now stadium to stadium on a plane.”
To truly understand the stature and repute Merrick holds in the Australian game it’s important to appreciate the role he occupied in the development of young players at the Victoria Institute of Sport for over a decade.
“I was there for 13 years and mixed with some of the best world-class coaches across a whole range of sports,” recalls Merrick. “We were encouraged to share information, and for all the coaching courses I have done that was where I developed most. I learned so much there from some great people.”
It was at the VIS that Melbourne Victory recognised Merrick’s capacity for nurturing young talent, giving the Scot a reputation that continues to define him. It’s for this reason that he was approached by Wellington. “They wanted to use my background to build something of a pathway for New Zealand footballers,” he explains. “So in 18 months we have built an academy for school-age boys, as well as a school of excellence. This country is full of football talent, it’s just about getting the most of it.”
In terms of transfer market clout Wellington are A-League minnows, so Merrick’s focus on youth is well-reasoned. While rival teams such as Melbourne City can sign players like David Villa, Phoenix have made do with signings like Michael McGlinchey, the former Celtic youth player, and the journeyman Costa Rican international Kenny Cunningham.
“We’ve got an unusual band of supporters called the Yellow Fever,” explains the Edinburgh-born coach, expanding on the culture of the club. “They invite the visiting fans on a pub crawl before a game. I’ve never come across anything like that before. And with ten minutes to go in every game, whether we’re winning or not and no matter what the weather is like, they take their shirts off. There’s certainly a bit of character about this club.”
But despite his success in Australasia, having also coached the Hong Kong national team for a spell between Melbourne and Wellington, Merrick insists he has never been tempted by a move into Scottish, or even British, football – citing his experiences of the world renowned Uefa Pro licence coaching course at Largs.
“I mixed with a lot of coaches there,” he recalls. “I shared a room with David Moyes. I went to the Euros in Brussels with a group of 18 coaches as part of the course, and we spent time at Liverpool and Everton.
“But every time I went back for the next stage of the course they all had different jobs, apart from David Moyes who was at Preston then. I just thought it was a very tough job in Britain. I didn’t fancy it much.”
Merrick is the only active Scots-born player or coach in the A-League right now, although Nick Montgomery of Central Coast Mariners has a couple of Scotland under-21 caps to his name. Given the flow of emigration that runs between the two countries that deficiency of Scots in Australian football is something of a puzzle.
“I hope more and more Scots come out here because it’s a great place to live and work,” says Merrick, recalling some of his failed attempts to coax peers out to Australia.
“There’s a real opportunity out here for players and coaches. They would enjoy it, I know I have.”