Anatomy of a Championship – Recruiting

In the first of a three-part series on the elements of a championship-winning side, Melbourne Victory’s coach Ernie Merrick speaks to Sportal’s Bren O’Brien about the club’s recruiting policy over the short history of the Hyundai A-League and how it helped Melbourne reach its peak in season four.

In the first of a three-part series on the elements of a championship-winning side, Melbourne Victory’s coach Ernie Merrick speaks to Sportal’s Bren O’Brien about the club’s recruiting policy over the short history of the Hyundai A-League and how it has helped Melbourne reach its peak in season four.

The dust had barely settled on Melbourne’s stunning 6-0 Grand Final win in season two when Ernie Merrick turned his attentions to trying to retain his best talent for the title defence.

When Brazilian midfielder Fred, who had set up all but one of the Victory’s sextet of goals on that humid February night in 2007, departed for a lucrative deal with MLS club Washington, Merrick was reminded that when it came to the rest of the footballing world, A-League clubs were not on a level playing field.

“When you win a championship in Australia, the salary cap becomes even more restrictive for you because your players expect to be remunerated for their success, their contracts go up. Players become a target both domestically and for overseas clubs,” Merrick said.

“Soccer is different from AFL in that, in AFL, the salary cap operates in a closed market. Now Asian teams are after Melbourne Victory players, as well as European teams but in the AFL transfers are not the norm. There are no overseas options for players. Club development is long term and the players don’t move around much, where in soccer, it’s traditional that players move around.”

Merrick’s has long voiced the opinion that he believes the loyalty of the core of Melbourne’s team has been crucial to the club’s successes in seasons two and four.

“You’ve got this dynamic changing squad but we’ve been fortunate enough to have very loyal players at our club. The core of the team have been there since day one or certainly since the start of the first championship season in year two.”

Season three stands out as the exception in Melbourne’s landscape. The premiership defence was complicated by what Merrick said was a lack of depth that had existed since season one. Merrick said a good run with injury in season two had hidden the fact that Melbourne did not yet have the complete list it wanted.

“We knew it was going to be difficult in year three to live up to expectations of a 6-0 Grand Final win. So there was a high expectation despite losing a couple of key players.

“Year three became a year where we had to build on the foundation of years one and two and see who we could retain. We never felt we had a great deal of depth, but year two was a year where we won everything and we won it with 13 players. We never really had great depth and that told on us in year three. “

While in the aftermath of season three, fingers would be pointed at the club’s recruiting policy, Merrick said he felt the club made significant steps in terms of shoring up the depth of the club.

“Year three, because the results didn’t go our way, there was criticism over recruiting. There was an expectation that when you recruit a player locally or from overseas they should be the best performers immediately. This is totally unrealistic.

“We thought our recruiting was very sound and that Gary Cole, in particular, had done a great job, but the fruits of that would be seen much later in season four.”

Merrick points to the fact that several key players in the treble-winning side of 2008/09 joined the club either ahead of or during the 2007/08 season.

“Season three our recruiting was good. Season three we recruited (Matthew) Kemp, (Carlos) Hernandez, (Nick) Ward, (Seb) Ryall, (Mitch) Langerak and (Evan) Berger and they all became key players in season four. Season four we finished up with far better depth and balance than we did in season two when we won it. Season three, our depth was tested with a horrendous run of injuries and suspension, and season four, it was also tested somewhat,” he said.

Merrick said that in assessing the success of recruiting, it was important to assess each player individually. He said issues like injuries, fitness, technical awareness and even culture could complicate a player’s ability to integrate quickly into a team.

“It helps if they’ve got time to settle in. Carlos’s situation was different. He came with a fairly significant hamstring tear. The challenge was getting him fit, secondly, not only did he have to get used to our team, he had to get used to the physicality of football in this country,” he said.

“Kempy had to adapt to the brand of football we play and he copped a bit from a small group of people who call themselves supporters. With youngsters like Berger, Ryall and Langerak, they are developing growing players, they need time to settle in. Ward came mid-season with an injury, but we reckoned we could get him fit.

“Critics would say, why have you signed an injured player? You’ve got to back yourself and your medical team. Kevin Muscat would never have been signed if you follow that policy. He came back to Australia with severe injuries. Now look at him last year. He didn’t miss a minute of any game.”

Merrick said a player’s success in integrating into a team could even be determined by the position they play on the field.

“I think it’s easier for defenders and midfielders, who have to win their own ball. But the strikers and attacking midfielders rely on quality service and they have to learn about their teammates, the play patterns, our strategy and anticipate the timing of passes. Because of this, it may take attacking players longer to settle into the team,” he said.

Merrick revealed that in assessing a player’s suitability for the club, there were four key areas which the club assessed prospective recruits on.

“Overall, I think our recruiting has been very good. It hasn’t changed much but we are always learning. What we have is a physical profile, a technical profile, a strategic profile and a psychological profile of the type of players we want to recruit.

“The most important thing is attitude and whether or not a player is prepared to fit in to our club culture. Our culture can be defined as the way we go about our business and is underpinned by our values and beliefs. Honesty, respect, selflessness, responsibility and commitment are key ingredients in the mix. We believe that ultimately the team culture will determine the success of the club.”

Melbourne’s strong club culture has been indentified as one of the team’s strengths, but there has also been criticism that having such a tight knit group can often make it hard for new players to immediately fit in.

“History proves otherwise and to date 99 per cent of our signings not only fit in, but thrive in such a positive and supportive environment. You only have to look at some of the players who have joined us from other teams and have progressed enormously,” he said.

Merrick denies that imposing captain Kevin Muscat, renowned as one of the strongest characters in the Hyundai A-League, is a determining factor within the playing group. Merrick said Muscat’s approach off the field is in contrast to his ‘take no prisoners’ approach on the field.

“There’s never a personality clash between the captain and any one player. That never happens at our club. In fact, it usually goes the other way. Kevin Muscat is the first person who does his best to help new players settle in,” he said.

“He really looks after new signings especially overseas players and youngsters. He does everything to assist them and when he feels the need to have a captain’s type chat with them, it’s done privately and honestly and it’s not an emotional outburst during a training session.

“Kevin really is an outstanding leader for this football club in so many ways, has an enormous amount of respect from the players and really has been one of the keys to galvanise the playing group, which has assisted in our ultimate success.

“The most important aspect of Melbourne Victory, and indeed the area that takes the longest time to develop, is team culture. Honesty and respect are a given as well as a willingness to be selfless and accountable in the team-s single-minded pursuit of success.”