Battle of the survivors

While much of the focus in the build-up to the season has been on the Hyundai A-League's new teams, it is two of the great survivors of the competition who will face off in the opening match of the season on Thursday night.

While much of the focus in the build-up to the season has been on the Hyundai A-League's new teams, it is two of the great survivors of the competition who will face off in the opening match of the season on Thursday night.

Ernie Merrick and Lawrie McKinna are the only two inaugural Hyundai A-League coaches to still be in charge of their teams after the first four seasons and given the cut-throat nature of football management, it speaks volumes for their talent and character.

Of course Merrick and McKinna share more than just survivor status. They share a proud Scottish background, the effect of which has not been diluted by in Merrick's case 34 years, and McKinna's 23 years, in the Australian sun.

They grew up not far from each other albeit eight years apart in southwest Scotland and at a similar age, were tempted by a move Down Under. When McKinna arrived as a player with Heidelberg United in 1987, Merrick was beginning his career as a manager for Preston. Those who know Melbourne geography will know that the only thing that separates the two suburbs is Darebin Creek.

McKinna would take his playing and coaching career across another river in the ensuing years, the Murray, north to be an assistant at clubs like Sydney United and Parramatta Power. He would make his senior coaching debut with Northern Spirit and win the NSL Coach of the Year in his first year.

Meanwhile, Merrick was in the midst of a successful stint in charge of the Victorian Institute of Sport, where he was grooming some of the future champions of the game.

It would be in 2005 when their paths would cross on the football field again, when their fledgling teams would meet in a Round 6 Hyundai A-League match at Bluetongue Stadium. Merrick would win the battle, with his side prevailing 2-1, but McKinna would claim the war, with his Mariners going on to win the other two games between the two and make the Grand Final, McKinna would be voted the inaugural winner of the Hyundai A-League Coach of the Year.

His successor for that award was Merrick, who oversaw a dominant 2006/07 campaign from Melbourne, which included two wins over the Mariners and an epic 3-3 draw where Melbourne finished with just nine players. Victory would famously win the Grand Final that year 6-0 over Adelaide United.

The scale tipped back McKinna's way in season three, with his side winning the Premiership and making the Grand Final, while Melbourne again missed the finals. They played two magnificent games at Bluetongue, with the Mariners coming from behind to score goals in the 82nd and 88th minute and win, before Victory got a measure of revenge with a 5-2 romp in the other match.

Season four, and the tide had turned again, with Melbourne winning the Premiership and the Championship and winning two of the three matches between the sides. The Mariners would finish fourth.

Over the distance, the main difference between these two sides is that while Melbourne has been in two Grand Finals and won them both, the Mariners have failed on both occasions they have made it.

McKinna will be hoping that the annual turning of the tide which brings either Melbourne or the Mariners to the top of the table, continues this year and raises his under-rated squad back to the pinnacle.

"Every year we from the press that we aren't a contender. So it doesn't bother us. Early expectations are as high as ever. We want to win the league, we want to get in the grand Final. That doesn't bother us. Everybody else's expectations aren't as good, but ours are just as high as usual," McKinna said.

The rivalry of these two clubs is built not on hard tackles and harsh words, but on free-flowing football and the willingness of their coaches to test each other out. The two men have a strong appreciation of what the other has achieved in a hectic four years.

"Ernie's quiet most of the time and doesn't like blowing his own trumpet. But he's got a good team. They've been successful and deservedly so," McKinna said this week.

"They have been stable like the Mariners have been for four years and probably two of us have been the most stable and successful clubs."

McKinna and Merrick have helped establish a mantra of stability at their two clubs. Stability has brought success and success has in turn brought stability. This has been the key to their longevity.

Merrick last week was delighted in telling the press of how he and McKinna had grown up with the same football idols and pursuing the same football dream, despite being eight years apart. He relishes taking on the Mariners, not just because McKinna likes to attack the Victory by playing a high offside, but because he knows he's in for an entertaining night.