Ange Postecoglou, who has been linked with the vacant manager’s post at Celtic, has proved a controversial candidate for some, but the Australian coach is a thinker, a scrapper and most of all a winner.
But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what Brendan Rodgers had to say about him back in 2013, long before he had won the 2015 Asian Cup with Australia, or the J-League title with Yokohama F. Marinos in 2019.
“Their coach is outstanding,” Rodgers said. “I’ve had a couple of chats with him, and to see his team play, he’s very similar to myself and he believes the game should be played in a certain way.”
At the time Rodgers was in the hot seat at Liverpool, with the Reds in Australia to take on Postecoglou’s Melbourne Victory in a pre-season friendly. “You can see the team is very well coached, so we knew it was going to be a tough game for us.”
There has been a degree of “but he’s only from Australia” scepticism about a coach from a country without the footballing heritage or pedigree commensurate with mighty Celtic. But say that to Postecoglou, and you will soon find out there is more than just a tactician and motivator beneath his grizzly exterior.
He resists forcefully any suggestion Australian football should suffer from an inferiority complex, railing against critics “painting a picture of a team that’s not good enough, a league that’s not good enough, players that are not good enough”. He might not bark like Jim McLean or Sir Alex Ferguson, but he’ll tell you soon enough he’s not one for taking a backward step.
That will spell trouble for one or two inside Parkhead. Postecoglou has no problem rattling cages early in his tenure, putting everyone on notice that it’s his way or the highway. He put noses out of joint at Brisbane Roar – including those of Charlie Miller and Craig Moore – before reshaping them into the most impressive club side in Australian history. They were known locally as “Roarcelona”, and it wasn’t entirely tongue in cheek.
With the national team he was charged with rejuvenating a squad that had grown stale. That included upsetting members of Australia’s “golden generation” that led the Socceroos to the 2006 World Cup, their first in 32 years.
He took the job less than a year out from Brazil 2014 with Australia ranked 59th by Fifa, the lowest of any competing nation. “Any team can be beaten on their day,” he responded bullishly.
It might sound implausible, but Postecoglou believed passionately that as manager of Australia his imperative was to win the World Cup, not simply qualify and enjoy the hospitality. To that end, he implemented his trademark proactive, high-pressing style that focuses on dominating possession, overloading the midfield, and beating the best at their own game.
It was heroically ambitious, although more often than not he lacked the personnel to turn his fantasy into reality. He will be better resourced in Glasgow.
But for all Postecoglou’s belief in himself and his strategy, not everyone in Australia’s volatile football community went along for the ride. His 2015 Asian Cup triumph (achieved with a final victory against Son Heung-min’s South Korea) failed to cut through. “There were no honours bestowed upon anybody in that group. There was no understanding of the magnitude of the achievement,” he reflected years later. “It’s almost like within our own game we kind of keep our heads down and don’t stick them up too high in case we get them knocked off.”
So he left, in a public relations shemozzle. After delivering silverware and qualifying his country for the 2018 World Cup he opted not to coach in the finals. Instead he went to prove himself overseas, at Yokohama F. Marinos, in the City Football Group’s stable of clubs. In his second season he guided the club to their first title in 15 years.
But if Postecoglou is a serial winner, builds sides that play attractive football, and endears himself to fans with a gruff “we’ll show them” mentality, what’s the catch? Why hasn’t a 55-year-old with this track record already been on the radar of Celtic and others?
Aside from the stigma that comes with being Australian, Postecoglou’s added value takes time. In his first season in Japan he flirted with relegation, his overhaul in Brisbane began with a second-bottom finish. He is not an overnight saviour.
The fruits of Postecoglou’s appointment may not ripen until next season. His relationship with likely incoming director of football Fergal Harkin (also from the City Football Group) will be paramount.
Will Celtic’s board hold its nerve? Will the fans give him a chance? Modern football is notoriously impatient, but appointing Postecoglou without allowing for a period of adjustment would be asking for trouble. Communication out of Parkhead has to be spot on.
But it should be worth it. The track record is there, as is the hunger and ambition. “I’ll back myself in any league or in any position to have success,” he told The Guardian in 2018.
Australians have known for years that an accomplished manager deserving of broader acclaim was hiding in plain sight. Celtic’s talent spotters should be applauded. They are giving their fans one heck of a ride.