Merrick, Craig bang heads

Old friends Melbourne Victory coach Ernie Merrick and Adelaide Crows coach Neil Craig are spending some time together this week getting to know each other's codes and the demands of their respective jobs.

Part of the growth of football over the last few years has been built on the education of fans from other football codes, such as rugby league and AFL, on the virtues of the round ball code in order to broaden their sporting tastes.

Now professionals from those rival codes, such as Adelaide Crows coach Neil Craig, are now looking to their counterparts in the Hyundai A-League in order to develop a better understanding of their own jobs and their own code.

Craig is spending a week with Melbourne Victory coach Ernie Merrick as he looks to broaden his football knowledge in the AFL off-season. The pair met in the 1990s when Merrick was working with the Victorian Institute of Sport and Craig was a fitness coach at the South Australian Institute of Sport. They struck up a strong professional relationship and over the journey have leaned on each other for advice.

"I've known Neil for 10 years, since the Victorian institute of Sport days, he's a physiologist, a sports scientist and an outstanding coach," Merrick said.

"It's about information sharing in a broad range of areas and we get together every now and again. He's going to be involved in this week, and I've been involved in watching his build up and preparation for key matches as well."

The conversations between the two over the years have thrown up many correlations between their jobs despite the obvious differences in the codes. Craig says the general principles are the same and it is enormously beneficial to see how different sports apply those principles.

"There's obviously just the general coaching principles which are exactly the same no matter what sport you are dealing with. There are a lot of common things we talk about. Whether it be just basic coaching principles, the management of players and relationship with media, which plays a big part, as it should," Craig said.

"I really like Ernie's intellect, I like the way he thinks, his capacity to debate. I like the way he's got a nice balance utilising the sciences of the sport versus gut feel. I like some of the structure that (football) has as a game in general which can be brought into our game."

Merrick also sees strong similarities between the basic principles of the two games, and how the players are managed in order to achieve the goals that you want them to.

"They are both team invasion games. It-s about getting into the territory of the opposition to create goal-scoring chances," Merrick said.

"The difference is the technical skills and how you acquire and dispose of the ball. The principles don't change very much. There's certainly lots of things we can glean from other sports."

Craig is renowned for his open-minded approach to coaching structures, employing former Australian cycling coach Charlie Walsh in a specialist role with his club.

He said in an ideal world he would love to use someone of the calibre of Merrick in the coaching panel at the Crows, given his expertise in elite sport.

"That would be the ultimate for me. Charlie comes in, and he's had a huge impact on the football club and on me as a coach and he has huge impact on our younger players in particular. For someone like Ernie to come into our club on a full-time basis would be the ultimate for me," Craig said.

"That would be heaven from a coaching perspective, to get a successful coach coming from a different sport and being able to challenge you all the time."

"We've already spoken about some new ideas that if Ernie was the coach of the Adelaide Football Club, what would he do immediately? We've already had a bit of that discussion."

But Merrick is happy with his lot at Melbourne and has no intention of crossing codes. What he and Craig do hope to gain out of this week is a better understanding of what they can offer each other. Craig believes there are many aspects of the round ball code he can take into his own.

"I like the structure of (football). There are certain areas of the ground where you need to be patient versus where you need to be more aggressive. I think that's something which I want to introduce into our side," he said.

"It's those sort of concepts. You often see concepts such as width and penetration which are starting to infiltrate into AFL as well. The more we can get on top of that and hopefully introduce that into our game the better."

"It's changing slowly. They are new concepts for our sport, but 100 years old in (football). It's like anything in life, when you see the change, there's often criticism and it takes a while for that to become embedded in your sport and for people to accept it."

"Those sort of concepts have infiltrated into AFL whether it be from football or basketball or hockey. I think it's making the game a much more sophisticated game and a better game, and a more enjoyable game to watch."

But Craig is hoping that he can also give plenty back to Melbourne Victory, which has been kind enough to open itself up to the South Australian, despite the fact it faces a huge clash against Sydney on Friday.

"That's up to Ernie. I guess I come into his environment with a very open mind that it's about sharing. It's not about me being here and taking what I can and keeping everything to myself. It's not the way Adelaide wants to do it, it's got to be a two-way process," he said.