The Australian’s arrival in Glasgow was greeted by some with scepticism but for others a title in his first year is hardly surprising
Some 26 years ago, back when the late Tommy Burns was manager of Celtic, a 20-something Ange Postecoglou was working as a bank teller in Melbourne’s CBD. He was in the middle of serving customers when he received a call from South Melbourne, the National Soccer League club with whom he had won titles as a player (including one under the tutelage of Ferenc Puskás) and was now assistant coach.
“They said, ‘look, you’ve got the job for the next three games just as a caretaker coach, and then we’ll make a decision for next year’,” Postecoglou told the late Shane Warne in December. “As soon as I put the phone down I quit the bank, I walked out. There was a queue of people waiting to get their money out. I said ‘that’s it, I’m just going to go for it’.”
Since then he has not held what he calls “a real job”. He is, as he said, “doing all right”. What he meant was he had won five top-flight domestic league titles in two continents and was well on his way to a sixth in a third. Now it is confirmed, and Celtic’s capture of the Scottish Premiership marks an unprecedented achievement by an Australian football coach. It is also one of the less surprising outcomes associated with Postecoglou.
At least, it is for those who have followed his path in Australia and Japan these past two decades. For many observers elsewhere, his appointment last June was a cause for curiosity. Fans were bemused. Some welcomed him immediately. Others – mostly pundits, to be fair – thought the move a reckless gamble on a nobody, a poor man’s Eddie Howe with little understanding of the Old Firm’s unique set of pressures.
They could not have engineered a more perfect reception if they had tried. This type of environment has tended in the past to galvanise Postecoglou. His grandest reactions have sprung from external doubts he considers ill-fitted with his character or approach. Put simply, he detests being told he cannot do something. He will not hear that his attacking philosophy might not work this time.
At South Melbourne, after quitting the bank, he batted off calls for pragmatism and went winless for the first several games before overseeing two titles in three years. At Brisbane Roar in 2009 he came under pressure – including from his own players – for his uncompromising style of play but did not yield and lifted back-to-back A-League trophies.
With the Socceroos it was the same. Appointed eight months before the 2014 World Cup in urgent circumstances, he culled the veterans who had steered the country to qualification under predecessor Holger Osieck and dragged down the average age from over 30 to 26. He blooded – among others – a 22-year-old Mat Ryan in goal against group-stage opponents Spain, Chile and the Netherlands, and gave the latter a good shake.
The following year, ranked 100th and having won one game from their past 11, Australia won the Asian Cup. He went on to qualify them for Russia 2018. This all reads a bit like a message of worship. It is not. In some contexts, Postecoglou’s loathing of the inferiority complex can sound utterly fantastical.
In 2017, the day after a 4-0 friendly loss to Brazil at the MCG, he declared his Socceroos could win the upcoming Confederations Cup (they didn’t). “When you’re ambitious you have spectacular failures and spectacular successes,” he said at the time. “I’m not going to coach in between, just notch up a stint for my country as a coach flatlining.”
That statement was less wild than the next: that Australia could also win the World Cup. He repeated this to Scottish media a few months back. “I know people will say I’m being ridiculous but that’s just the way I’m made up,” he said.
To the neutral the sentiment appears mulish. To Australians who watched their national team squeak into the Russia 2018 finals via the playoffs (don’t mention three at the back) it is infuriating. But it is also somehow pleasing in its consistency. Wherever he goes, with whatever team, the unrelenting blueprint remains.
In Japan, during his first season with Yokohama F. Marinos, this meant avoiding relegation by a single point. The following season he led them to their first J1 League title in 15 years, with 68 goals from 34 games.
Which brings us to Scotland. Again, it was not straightforward. The fractured state of the club left no time to play the long game. The rebuild phase and the winning phase had to be sardined into the same can. There were early wobbles. It has been, as Postecoglou said after Celtic’s 1-1 draw at Dundee United sealed the title, “a hell of a season”.
But match by match, month by month, he has picked up the masses and whisked them along for the ride. He has not ingratiated himself with the media, rather commanded their respect with each deliberate decision, tart one-liner and smart signing. And those players, headlined by the brilliant Kyogo Furuhashi, are playing for him.
“If you’d told me 12 months ago I’d be standing here, I wasn’t even sure I’d be on this continent let alone as manager of this club,” Postecoglou said. He probably would not have predicted this 26 years ago, either, while he was working in a bank and Rangers were on a nine-title run.