Ernie Waves Goodbye to Wellington: Any Takers for the Hardest Job in The A-League?

Is the Wellington Phoenix the poisoned chalice of A-League football management?

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06 December 2016, 7:38pm

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It was a big day for resignations in Wellington on Monday. New Zealand prime minister John Key stood down just after midday, citing exhaustion from the job and family pressure to pull stumps.

Despite his critics, Key - who has been PM for eight years - leaves the Beehive as one of the most popular Kiwi prime ministers of all-time; a leader who has been credited as charting New Zealand's economy through the post-2008 Financial Crisis years with skill and confidence.

While National's inability to manage - or even diagnose - the Auckland property crisis looks likely to be the governing party's ultimate legacy, Key undoubtedly leaves on a high. He can now look forward to a life of big money speaking engagements at banks and corporates the world over. Viva la successful ex-PM.

Ernie Merrick won't get as much money on the speaking circuit. For a lot of Kiwis who don't care much about football - and that's a fair few - all he'd be is some Scottish dude looking for a new job.

Merrick had been the coach of the Wellington Phoenix since 2013, coming to New Zealand after a successful spell at Melbourne Victory, and then as the Hong Kong national team coach. Fair to say, his fortunes had been mixed in Wellington.

In 88 games in charge, Merrick won only 30, drew 15 and lost a whopping 43. He'd done definitely done some good with the Phoenix; taking them, in 2014/2015, to their best season ever with more goals, wins and points than the club had accumulated in A-League history.

In fact, for three weeks in March 2015, the 'Nix led the league and Merrick was re-signed to a three-year contract in Wellington. Was football about to finally crack it in NZ? Nah.

Though Merrick's reputation didn't go with it, the tide went out for the Phoenix - and a ninth place finish was rolled out last season.

Stumps were finally pulled this week with a 2-0 loss to Adelaide that saw the Kiwi side rooted to the bottom of the A-League ladder with a 2-6 start to this season. There was disappointment from the players, and shock from some in the New Zealand football media that saw him as doing a serviceable job.

"It's sad, he's been a great coach, a great role model for me, a great mentor and we let him down," Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante told media, fighting back tears.

Highlights from Ernie Merrick's last game in charge of the Wellington Phoenix. Source: Youtube.

RadioSport football commentator Jason Pine called Merrick's resignation as a "major surprise."

"[The] Phoenix were fun to watch," he wrote, in the New Zealand Herald. "They wanted to get forward, they wanted to attack, and they wanted to score goals. Yes, they conceded a few, but it hardly mattered.

Others weren't so sure. "Supporting the Phoenix is like waiting for summer to arrive in Wellington," Radio New Zealand's Paul Thompson wrote.

"You'll occasionally get a balmy day but the next northerly gale is never far away. Yet still we live in hope. I am sure Merrick did some things well, though I am scratching my head to come up with much of a list."

The question is: what does it take to win in Wellington? The next Phoenix coach - former Sydney FC defender Mark Rudan and Auckland City boss Ramon Tribuletx are the leading candidates - will need to figure that out fast.

Yesterday, Fox Sports columnist Simon Hillwrote that after dodging a potential loss of A-League license last year, the Phoenix will be under increasing pressure from Football Federation of Australia to get the formula right.

Wellington's average crowd (7744) is the second lowest in the competition, while their season memberships (4953) are the smallest in the league.

"The sword of Damocles continues to hang over the club's continued participation in the A-League," he wrote.

"It's only ten months since FFA agreed a structured licence extension, dependent upon the Welnix Group (the clubs owners) fulfilling certain KPI's at regular intervals.

"In the pre-agreement discussions, FFA CEO David Gallop went so far as to say the Phoenix could not simply "squat on a licence" - outlining key "metrics" that were in need of improvement, such as crowds, TV ratings and memberships."

Hill also suggested the recent Kaikoura earthquake - forcing an A-League game in Wellington to be postponed - is spooking the partners of some of the Phoenix's non-Kiwi playing group.

"The recent earthquake around the Wellington area is believed to have unnerved several of the players wives, with at least one having already left the country. Unhappy wife? Unhappy life," he wrote.

There are only a few A-League coaching roles to throw around, and, as hard as the Wellington situation seems, Merrick's vacancy won't sit there for long.

Knowing if his successor can do any better is anyone's guess.