Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick says there’s no excuse for the club to miss the 2014-15 finals after taking “enormous” strides since he started in the job almost exactly 12 months ago.
Merrick, who last week celebrated one year in the New Zealand capital, reflected on the challenges he faced upon his arrival at the club in June of 2013.
The ex-Melbourne Victory coach argued the club are far better placed for a finals tilt in 2014-15 after narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon to finish ninth last season.
“It’s an enormous difference,” Merrick said. “Last year at this time I had 9-10 players and had to sign another 12.
“We had no pre-season planned, we had no physios in place, no medical team, we didn’t have our strength and conditioning sorted and virtually no sports science. We had no games arranged for pre-season.
“All of those are the opposite now. Day one has arrived, I’ve got 18-19 players training and everyone is pretty fit because they’ve had off-season programs.
“I only need to sign two players, a striker and a number 10.
“We’ve got an 18-week pre-season program planned which includes local and regional teams, plus four A-League teams and two EPL sides to play against.”
The highlight of Phoenix’s pre-season will be two glamour friendlies in late July against Premier League duo West Ham and Newcastle.
The club will also tackle the inaugural FFA Cup which begins in late July for A-League clubs, and Merrick is delighted with the contrast to last term.
Wellington endured a horrid start to 2013-14, with a travelling roadshow of home fixtures played all over New Zealand combined with the All Whites’ 2014 World Cup campaign which limited the entire group’s training time and ultimately their performance.
“The fixture last year was already organised when I arrived. The first eight-to-10 weeks were horrendous,” he said.
“Players were away on national team duty, so we didn’t win a game in the first 10 weeks. It was horrendous with the amount of travelling we did. It’s not so much that you’re playing away from home, but you’re restricted in training time.
“We’ve got a training schedule which is a much higher standard than last season.”
Phoenix have already moved to re-jig their squad too, with the addition of Spanish midfielder Alejandro Gorrin from Sunderland, while Carlos Hernandez, Leo Bertos and Stein Huysegems are the big-name departures.
The Wellington mentor refused to discuss any names for potential signings although he has made it clear he wants a striker and number 10.
Merrick added Phoenix are not close to any signings, despite talk of Michael McGlinchey joining, and that they are in no immediate rush either.
“You’ve got look at 20-30 players, then get it down to a shortlist of five or six and hope to get one or two over the line,” Merrick said.
“Nothing has changed, we’re not close on signing any of them.
“What we’re looking for is quite specific. These two players need to be experienced good quality players to complete the balance in our side.
“Rather than having exciting and creative players, we’ve got to be a team of workers. We’ll look for someone who can press high, get back, create and keep possession.
“We’ve got four months to get the right players and we’ll take our time.”
With time and planning on his side, Merrick added there would be no excuses for missing the finals in 2014-15.
“My expectations last year was a finals spot, so I feel like I failed the players and fans,” Merrick said.
“It’s important I get it all in place so we make the finals this year. That’s a goal that the players set themselves.
“There’s no excuse to not be in the finals this year.”