THEY were once the coach and captain who delivered two championships for Melbourne Victory, but now the rivalry between Ernie Merrick and Kevin Muscat has become so intense they did not shake hands at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday – either before or after the game.
After Muscat’s Melbourne team beat Merrick’s Newcastle 1-0, the same scoreline as in last season’s grand final, Merrick said he went to congratulate his former lieutenant, but he “sprinted” in the opposite direction.
Muscat denied deliberately snubbing his former mentor, but indicated he was disappointed not to have received a welcoming pre-game handshake.
It is not the first time the pair have been at loggerheads over a handshake, or the lack thereof.
There was a similar incident in April, 2016, when Merrick was coaching Wellington Phoenix.
On Saturday, Merrick said it was a “regular occurrence” that he was unable to gain a handshake from the former Socceroos captain.
"I walked over to the bench to shake hands, as I did with the assistant coach, the goalkeeping coach, the fitness coach, but Kevin sprinted in the opposite direction over to his fans, and I wasn't about to chase him,” Merrick said.
"But that's just the way he is.”
Asked if he was sure that Muscat had seen him approaching, Merrick replied: "I don't know. I think you can ask [former Sydney FC coach] Graham Arnold.
“He had some trouble getting a handshake as well.
"I was looking forward to a handshake. He's the one that disappeared.
“I don't make a big thing of it, but it's just disappointing really.
"He won the game. He should be happy."
Muscat dismissed any suggestion that he had intentionally ignored Merrick after the game as “ a lie”, saying: “I didn’t see Ernie”.
He then produced a counter claim, implying that he had been expecting Merrick to greet him before the game.
"I was also waiting for a handshake prior to the game and there was none, which normally happens when you're the home team,” he said.
"If you watch the footage, I shook all the officials' hands, and all their players' hands.
“So it is what it is."
Almost three decades ago, when coaching Sunshine George Cross, Merrick promoted 16-year-old Muscat to make his National Soccer League debut.
When the Scotsman was then appointed Victory coach for the inaugural A-League season, Muscat was one of the first players he signed.
Former Victory player Rody Vargas said before the grand final in May that Merrick once had a “special relationship” with Muscat, whom he held “in very high regard”.
After last season’s title decider, Merrick congratulated his protege on the pitch but proceeded to say at the post-match press conference: "If that's the way you win ... I would hope not to coach a team that plays like that.
"Once they got the goal up, they weren't going to let us play in the second half. It was very stop-start from then on, they packed their defence, every ball out was a long ball.
“We controlled the play.
"You just have to look at the stats – twice as many shots … some of the tackles that went in in the second half I was pretty disappointed about."