A-League Grand Final rich in Ernie Merrick, Kevin Muscat's intertwined history
Anyway you cut it, Saturday's A-League Grand Final between Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory is rich in storylines.
It's the Newcastle fairytale season against Victory's comeback campaign. The little guys against the three-time champions.
The magical semi-final goals of Riley McGree and Terry Antonis that put both clubs there.
And, of course, it's about Ernie Merrick and Kevin Muscat.
Melbourne Victory's foundation coach and captain meet on the Australian game's biggest stage on Saturday.
But neither man wants to talk about it.
Both are adamant the Grand Final is about their teams, their clubs, and not themselves.
"This week is about the players and their families. Not me," Muscat told AAP.
Except, part of this Grand Final story very much is.
Merrick and Muscat's football journey dates back 30 years, beyond the establishment of the A-League, when Merrick gave a 16-year-old Muscat his debut for Sunshine George Cross in the National Soccer League.
Their A-League partnership allowed Victory to establish themselves as the A-League's biggest club with two of the first four championships.
The wily tactician and the defensive marshal remain one of the league's most iconic duos; similar to Ange Postecoglou and Thomas Broich at Brisbane Roar, or Graham Arnold and Alex Brosque at Sydney FC.
Then they fell out.
Muscat played on into a sixth and last season at Victory, in part because of Merrick's overtures. It would be a season too many for both men.
Muscat finished his own domestic career with a ghastly tackle on Melbourne Heart's Adrian Zahra, earning a ban that didn't allow him to finish the season.
A new ambitious board, which remains today, headed by Anthony Di Pietro, axed Merrick after six seasons, following a fifth-place finish and failure in the AFC Champions League.
The climate in the dressing room and manner of their departures led to bad blood that hasn't been repaired.
One man who saw it all was Archie Thompson, the club's much-loved striker.
Thompson won titles for both coaches and sees them both as club greats.
"I won't say it's a meeting of the master and apprentice because I don't think Kevin would like that," he joked to AAP.
"Plus Kevin has made his own way now. He's a title winner.
"There's friction because of the way Ernie left the club but I've got so much respect for both of them. Everyone does."
Thompson said the pair were like chalk and cheese as managers.
"Kevin was always destined to be in this position because of the way he drives players," he said.
"He can get very animated. He can get players to do the impossible.
"Ernie is a completely different manager. He's more subtle and you can tell by his calmness on the bench.
"They're both great coaches and to be honest it's a game I don't want either team to lose."
When asked earlier in the week about his former captain, Merrick declined to respond, suggesting it was an attempt to distract from the Grand Final.
Asked by AAP, Muscat offered kind words to his former mentor.
"I enjoyed a lot of success with him and so did we as a football club," he said.
"I have outstanding memories of winning trophies under Ernie. Those sort of memories you don't forget in a hurry.
"I had a great time. I learnt a lot. And I'm looking forward to a battle on Saturday."
The Victory boss insisted his attention was not on the personal battle.
"All these subplots; they're energy sappers," he said. "I'm not focussing on it, I'm looking at the massive challenge against a good team.
"The subplots are great but they're for everyone else."
Thompson, who has three titles in part thanks to the efforts of Merrick and Muscat hopes the pair can use the showpiece occasion to recapture a bit of their lost spark.
"Sport is just sport. I hope this grand final can extinguish all that, all that anguish," he said.
"I'm so pleased Ernie is happy and doing so well, he's such a great manager."