‘Ange Who?’: How Postecoglou took Celtic from turmoil back to the European elite

While the arrival of the little known Greek-Australian manager prompted protests, Ange Postecoglou is set to have the final word by winning the title at Celtic in trademark style.

Ange Postecoglou has turned Celtic around and won plenty of fans in the process. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Ange Postecoglou has turned Celtic around and won plenty of fans in the process. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

When Ange Postecoglou comes into the Lennoxtown training centre on a weekday morning the Celtic manager says hello to his coaches, gives each of them a fist-pump or a high five, gets his breakfast and then disappears to his office. The staff have long since accepted that he isn’t going to eat or sit for the long chats with them.

When he and his backroom team are in their respective offices he rarely comes through to shoot the breeze. After a briefing session from a coach or scout he thanks them and soon leaves again. Nor is there any real discussion with his assistants on tactics or team selections, to the extent that before Celtic played at Livingston in March Postecoglou amused himself by coming to them and saying “name your team for Saturday” as if setting them a test. It wasn’t an act of consultation. As each of them responded he said “nope, you have eight out of 11” or “no, seven out of 11”. None of them picked the team that Postecoglou had decided on. And who called it right? The result was 3-1 for Celtic at a ground where they had not won since 2007.

That was one of what now stands at a 30-game unbeaten league run which has landed the Scottish Premiership in their enigmatic manager’s debut campaign. Beating Hearts on Saturday put them nine points clear of a Rangers team with only three games left and a vastly inferior goal difference they had no hope of overturning.

Celtic came from behind to win against Hearts and all but secure the title. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Celtic came from behind to win against Hearts and all but secure the title. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

It is Celtic’s tenth title out of the last 11 but by far the most unexpected and a triumph for what fans christened “Ange-ball”. This time last year the club was a crippled mess which limped home 25 points behind a Rangers side which went through the campaign unbeaten. Celtic spent three months waiting for Eddie Howe to come as Neil Lennon’s replacement only for Howe to stun them by pulling out.

Within days they had turned to Postecoglou, a little-known 56-year-old Greek-Australian managing Yokohama F Marinos in Japan.

“I’m sure that Google got a helluva battering when my name came up with people trying to figure out who I am,” he said.

There were echoes of the scepticism and cynicism when another major British club turned to the J-League to find a manager. For Arsene Wenger in 1996, read Postecoglou in 2021. Delighted Rangers fans mocked the appointment, certain this unknown would be a failure.

Last summer Celtic’s longstanding chief executive, Peter Lawwell, stepped down only for his successor, Dominic McKay, to be such a bad fit he lasted 72 days. The club had no head of recruitment and key players Odsonne Edouard, Kristoffer Ajer and Ryan Christie got the transfers they wanted. Rangers looked dominant under Steven Gerrard and seemed sure to win this season’s Premiership and with it a £30 million windfall from near-certain entry to the 2022-23 Champions League group stage. Celtic fans were gathering outside Parkhead for regular protests against their own board. “He’s walking into a mission impossible job,” said Chris Sutton of Postecoglou.

Postecoglou arrived in Scotland with plenty of doubters. Picture: Steve Welsh/Getty Images
Postecoglou arrived in Scotland with plenty of doubters. Picture: Steve Welsh/Getty Images

There are no Celtic protests now, only mass worship of Postecoglou and a team which won the Premier Sports Cup in December and now has a double. The board’s huge gamble paid off. Better still, for the connoisseurs within their support, their new leader has done it with his way and with style. Celtic at their best have been exhilarating and expressive, playing at a breathless tempo which has often swept teams away by half-time including Rangers when they came to Parkhead in February.

At the end of his first week of training last July Celtic released a clip of their new manager mic’d up and barking at his players: “We never stop. We stop at half time and we stop at the end of the game when we celebrate. If the opposition wants to stop that’s good for us.” Sometimes these lines can seem clichéd or corny but from Postecoglou it was an accurate declaration of what he was all about.

Postecoglou was born in Athens 1965. When he was five his family emigrated by boat to begin a new life in Melbourne. His parents’ sacrifice and determination shaped his character and when his father, Jim, died in 2018 Postecoglou spoke movingly about how he had been the most important figure in his life and especially his football.

The bond between them was close even if there was tough love from father to son. “My dad never told me he loved me, he didn’t give me cuddles,” Postecoglou said. “He was my biggest critic all the time. I am a totally different father, I kiss and cuddle my kids every day and tell them I love them, which is terrible because I am making them too soft …”

Postecoglou quickly became a fan favourite with his ‘Ange-Ball’ tactics. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Postecoglou quickly became a fan favourite with his ‘Ange-Ball’ tactics. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Jim and Ange would devour British football together, watching Match of the Day on Australian television. He sought his father’s approval throughout a playing career in Australia and then in management, always setting out his teams to play in an attractive style with the ball mainly on the ground which would appeal to Jim. In his first job he coached South Melbourne to two Australian titles before another two with Brisbane Roar.

He managed Australia at the 2014 World Cup and qualified for the following one in Russia before resigning and moving to Japan where he won the J-League with Yokohama F Marinos. That club is partly owned by the City Group, with which Celtic has connections via Manchester City.

Last summer’s turbulence at Celtic and too shallow a squad meant teething troubles were inevitable. There were early setbacks in the league and eliminations from the Champions, Europa and Conference Leagues in July, November and February respectively. But Celtic have not lost a Premiership game since September and from the last three Old Firm league games they took seven points to Rangers’ one.

His recruitment has been extraordinary and it really has been his, as his time in the J-League gave him the insight and confidence to sign strikers Kyogo Furuhashi and Daizen Maeda and midfielders Reo Hatate and Yosuke Ideguchi. Just as Wenger was initially doubted for signing so many Frenchman, so some wondered whether Postecoglou’s Japanese imports would cope with the rigours of Scottish football.

In fact they have been particularly successful as have on-loan pair Cameron Carter-Vickers from Tottenham and Jota from Benfica. Joe Hart, Josip Juranovic, Carl Starfelt, Liel Abada and Giorgos Giakoumakis also arrived to make huge contributions. Postecoglou’s judgment has been so unerring that Matt O’Riley arrived for £1.5 million from League One MK Dons and was instantly impressive.

The signing of Kyogo Furuhashi has been one of Postecoglou’s most celebrated decisions at Celtic this season. Picture: Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images
The signing of Kyogo Furuhashi has been one of Postecoglou’s most celebrated decisions at Celtic this season. Picture: Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images

Giovanni van Bronckhorst replaced Gerrard at Rangers and they started spilling points. Celtic’s league form remained relentless and Postecoglou’s credibility grew. He may keep his distance from his staff and have no interest in being one of the boys but they now understand him well enough not to take it personally. He isn’t into socialising and admitted he can sit through a long-haul flight without saying a word to the passenger in the seat beside him.

“It totally uneases people, particularly players,” he said, joking that at his previous teams they would shuffle boarding passes to avoid getting “the death seat” beside him. Yet at Celtic his coaches do feel that they have his respect. There have been examples of personal generosity towards them and as he won four consecutive manager of the month awards he took the unusual step of insisting some of the coaching, analysis or other backroom staff were prominent beside him in the publicity photographs.

Around Parkhead and Glasgow he is stopped for selfies from Celtic fans who adore him. Some identify with his own history as an immigrant and believe that he “gets” Celtic. He has said of the supporters who flock to watch his side: “I’m sure a lot of them walked in with some problems in their life. For this 95 minutes we made them forget that and feel good and that’s something special.”

On Christmas morning some fans posted pictures on social media of them wearing their presents: Postecoglou-style black sweaters. The manager and the club have been a perfect fit.

– The Times