Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Interview: Melbourne Victory Manager Ernie Merrick

Ernie Merrick.

Melbourne Victory take their first ever steps on the Asian stage on March 12 when they host South Korean team Chunnam Dragons.

It is over a year since the team won the A-League but because of timing and deadlines, Melbourne have had to wait until now to make their debut.

Coach Ernie Merrick had time for a quick chat before the Chunnam match.

Melbourne were comfortable champions in 2007 but struggled a little in 2008. Why was that?

The main reason was the number of injuries we had. In Australia you can only have just over 20 players in your squad, a maximum of 23. Our midfield was very strong in season two (2006-07. Season three, one of those midfielders Fred, transferred to DC United, Grant Brebner, who was a youth player at Manchester United and was very successful with us, he sustained a pelvic injury and a groin injury and he was virtually out for the season and our third midfielder, Kevin Muscat had to move into defence as we had four centre-backs get injured in a row.

Everytime we brought in a new centre-back they got injured and Muscat had to go there so we were without the same midfield. Towards the end of the season we had a new midfield, they were all Olympic-level players, playing for the Olympic team. One player was also Carlos from the Costa Rican national team and all of a sudden we started to play really well again and won three out of the last four and drew one.

It is a while since the season finished. How do you maintain the sharpness of your team?

We finished in January so we gave the players ten days off and then from the middle of February we have been training really hard, almost like a mini pre-season. We started arranging games. We played against the Socceroos team, a local state team and twice against the other team in the Asian Champions League, Adelaide United. So we have had four practice games and a very intensive training period.

How do you feel about waiting a year to participate in the ACL?

The ideal scenario would be to play in the A-League and then progress directly into the Champions League. We’ve had to wait a year. The advantage of waiting a year is that we have been able to prepare better. We have looked at how our opponents play. We hae sent someone over to Thailand, I went over to Hawaii to the Pan-Pacific games to watch Gamba Osaka play. We will send someone to Korea.

We also have an acclimatization program ready for the boys for when we go to Thailand. In some ways it has been good and in some ways not so good but we really appreciate the opportunity to play in Asia.

Melbourne is well-supported in the A-League. Will it be the same in the ACL?

We are all hopeful that it will and the early indications are promising. We have a massive stadium that holds 56,000 people. We normally don’t have any pre-sales but two weeks out we'd already sold 10,000 tickets. We’re expecting a very large crowd for our first game against Chunnam Dragons at the Telstra Dome.

What did you learn from Sydney and Adelaide’s games in the ACL last season?

Both those teams had new coaches and unsettled teams because they were in the process of changing over the players at the end of the season. We signed our players early, we obviously haven’t changed coach and we planned well ahead to make sure that our training program and practice matches were all in play. We finished the season strongly, got players early, trained early and did our homework on the opposition teams early.

What do you know about Chunnam Dragons?

We’ve looked at the video tapes from last year and Chunnam Dragons are a very good side. They are well-organised but they have changed coaches and have changed formation so we’ll have a look at how they play this year. There is no doubt that Asian clubs have an advantage over Australian clubs in that there is no restriction on player numbers in the squad plus they have no financial restrictions. We are restricted by a salary cap. I think Bare who plays for Gamba Osaka earns more than our salary cap!

So we are up against it but our players are very fit and very strong and we have a couple of international players and we have four-Olympic level players. We have a Costa Rican national player so I think we’ve still got a strong team.

Perhaps it makes things more difficult for you when Japan and Korea are in their close season?

I was over in Hawaii to watch Gamba Osaka. I saw their new players and the second top goalscorer in the league. They were very impressive. We have watched Chonburi and they look good. Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Thai players that I have seen have all been very technical and quick. It will be a tough competition.

Chunnam finished tenth last season, does that make it easier for you?

I don’t think so. They have a new coach and I believe he has a very good record. Pim Verbeek has given us some information about them. He said that they are a good team with a good coach. The new players will be looking to impress the new coach. I think they’ll give us a very tough game.

What did Pim Verbeek tell you about Chunnam and Korean teams?

He just spoke highly of the technical ability, the physical ability and the speed. He also mentioned that the teams are well-organised and that the Chunnam coach, who I think worked with him before, is very good. He was full of praise. He couldn’t tell me much about how the team will play. He said that you have to be aware that Korea is a good standard and technically good and that strategically, he is very good. He didn’t want to make me afraid but he painted a tough picture for us. He speaks highly of Korean football.

What is your impression of Korean football?

I think Hiddink put Korea on the map with the tremendous performance at the 2002 World Cup. That was carried on by Dick Advocaat. The number of Koreans now playing in Europe seems to be impressive. I think Korean football is on the rise.

How about Japanese football?

The J-League has been going for 15 years, we have been going for three years in Australia. I believe that the turnover of Gamba Osaka is about $80-90 million. Our turnover is about $8-9 million. It’s big business for them and they can bring in top level players from Brazil or wherever. The J-League is one of the top competitions and is growing in strength.

You saw Gamba Osaka last week? They won the Pan-Pacific tournament without a number of their best players away on international duty.

That’s why I am worried!(laughs) They thrashed Houston Dynamo 6-1. They are well-organised and have got good strikers. They are strong in defence and have a good goalkeeper. I think they are the favourites in the group.

For Australian teams to compete, is it time to abolish or raise the salary cap?

It’s something we have to look at in future but the salary cap is in place to make sure that the A-League is viable so I understand why it’s there. It just compromises us when we face clubs from countries that do not have salary caps.

The Thai team Chonburi. Is that two must-win games for you?

I’d say so. Since only one team qualifies from the group, it’s going to be the kind of competition in which you can’t afford to lose many games. You need to be looking to win around four of the six games. I don’t know if it’s fair or not but the Thai team is probably looked upon as a team that has had less time to develop professionally. But I suspect that every team will be tough to beat.

I imagine that after the Asian Cup, Australian players and fans have more realistic expectations of Asia…

I think you’re spot on there. When Australia plays in Asia, you can’t take anything for granted. Every team is tough and you have to get used to the environment whether it is at altitude or in hot and humid whether. You have to prepare well to get the results.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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