Who Is Ange Postecoglou, The Australian Linked With The Celtic Manager’s Job?

First off, this article has to start with a disclaimer. I’m a Celtic fan, and have written about the club for years. I’m also an Australian sports journalist, covering the National Rugby League and Aussie cricket from here in Sydney. I state these facts because wandering blindly in the debate that has sprung up over the weekend has seen many well-informed people told that they just don’t understand. So, at the risk of being pilloried by both #FitbaTwitter and #SokkahTwitter, there you have it. 

When the news dropped on Saturday morning, Sydney time, that Ange Postecoglou, probably Australia’s most celebrated football manager, was linked with the vacancy at Celtic, one of European football’s most historic clubs, the general reaction was outrage from the Scottish part of the internet, and excitement from the small part of Australian society that cares about football.

The reaction takes two forms. In Scotland, the idea that the nation’s perennial champions (nine of the last ten championships, and 14 of the last 20) would have a coach from a country in which football is (at best) the fourth most popular sport and whose domestic competition is (at best) globally peripheral, is ludicrous. Simply by dint of provenance, Postecoglou was unacceptable.

On the other side, Aussies saw Postecoglou as finally getting his crack, the culmination of years of success. In Australia, few would argue that Postecoglou is one of the pre-eminent coaches of the A-League era: he’s won multiple titles, led the national team to continental success and overseen a youth development program that has seen Australia qualify for four consecutive World Cups.  

It is, of course, possible that Ange Postecoglou is the best Australian manager ever, and yet still too small a figure for Celtic, because ultimately, football is a very globally unbalanced sport.

His prospective appointment, from Celtic side of things, makes little sense. Celtic were all in for Eddie Howe, the former Bournemouth boss, until the end of last week. For them to move straight for Postecoglou shows a total lack of joined-up thinking: Howe is big name English manager, with an established reputation and drawing power for players, whereas Postecoglou is at his core at coach, used to working in a competition with a salary cap and in national team setups, where the emphasis is on developing the players that you already have. 

The players aspect is vital. Celtic are likely to lose all their best players this transfer window: Odsonne Edouard, their star striker, and Kristoffer Ajer, their best defender, will undoubtedly leave. Scott Brown, captain for the last decade, is already out the door. Whoever takes over will have to begin to rebuild a team from scratch.

Celtic aren’t like normal clubs, either, because their season starts meaningfully in July with the Champions League qualifiers, so a new manager will have six weeks to get something together with no backroom staff, no captain and with all his best players away at the European Championships.

Celtic have been without a permanent manager since February, when Neil Lennon resigned the job after a disastrous campaign. Howe was the top candidate, and presumably the only candidate for four months until last week. 

Whatever perception there is that Ange Postecoglou is unqualified because he’s Australian, you can double that with the perception that he’s also a distant second choice. It looks like the managerial equivalent of walking around the dancefloor at the end of the night looking for someone to take home because you’ve been rejected by your crush.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Ange Postecoglou, context aside, is probably the sort of manager that Celtic should be looking at.

Many supporters, myself included, have called for a shake-up at the structural level, with a Director of Football/Head Coach model instead of the all-encompassing manager. In that context, a combination of Postecoglou, a developer of players, and a Director of Football above him handling recruitment, makes perfect sense. 

That Director of Football could well be Fergal Harkin. He’s currently the Football Partnerships and Pathways Manager at Manchester City, and hotly tipped to move up to Glasgow. Celtic’s CEO is Peter Lawwell, but he will soon retire. Former Scotland Rugby Union executive Dominic McKay will assume the role and, potentially, bring in the Harkin-Postecoglou combination. Peter Lawwell’s son, Mark Lawwell, is Head of Scouting and Recruitment at City Football Group, the wider group of clubs under the Manchester City banner that covers Melbourne City, New York City FC, Mumbai City, Girona and others.

Ange Postecoglou is currently in charge at Yokohama F Marinos, the Japanese outpost of CFG, so both Harkin and Lawwell junior are well aware of his work. The links between Celtic and CFG are well known: players such as Jeremie Frimpong, Olivier Ntcham, Patrick Roberts, Daniel Arzani, Jason Denayer and Dedryck Boyata have all travelled north from Manchester since CFG took over in 2013. 

It’s worth pointing out that, had Celtic gone for this model from the start, most Celtic fans would have been happy to see a coach signed from the CFG system, and taken that as an indication of a significant cultural change. 

Enzo Maresca, who recently took over at Parma in Italy’s Serie B, was linked with the Parkhead role in his previous position as manager of Manchester City’s Elite Development Squad. Maresca is yet to manage a first team game, while Postecoglou has managed hundreds of them very successfully, but the cultural weight is heavily stacked against him.

It’s worth going into just how successful Postecoglou has been as a manager, and if you’d like to insert the caveat of “in Australia”, feel free too. His Brisbane Roar team were known as “Roarcelona” due to their playing style, which was seen to ape that of the great Barcelona teams under Pep Guardiola, now, of course, at Manchester City. Roar won two consecutive A-Leagues, including a 36 match unbeaten run, which is an achievement in any competition but a phenomenal one in one of the few football competitions that operates with a salary cap. 

He then took Melbourne Victory from 8th to 3rd, then led Australia to a better than expected performance at the 2014 World Cup, won them the 2015 Asian Cup, then qualified them for the 2018 World Cup. Oh, and he won Yokohama their first Japanese title in 15 years.

Postecoglou is undoubtedly a good coach, with a proven track record in youth development. Throw in that he’s used to working at CFG, where high analytics and scouting are the best to be found anywhere, and that he’ll likely be working with a guy poached from that same system, and it seems like a great hire. Were he called Enzo Maresca, who Celtic fans have heard of from his playing career, it would probably be seen as innovative.

Jesse Marsch, recently promoted from Red Bull Salzburg to Red Bull Leipzig, was touted as a potential next Celtic manager and was welcomed excitedly, despite also being from a non-traditional football nation, the United States. Had Celtic signed him direct from New York Red Bulls, and not from Salzburg, he would have faced the same ire that Postecoglou faces. 

Ultimately, there is a lack of respect (potentially deserved) for Australian soccer, and that is the biggest obstacle in front of Postecoglou. As an archetype of the sort of manager that Celtic should hire, he fits. 

Fundamentally, however, football isn’t played or managed by archetypes. As with any cultural change, the biggest single factor is buy in: how much are the players and fans actually going to go along with what you are saying? In Australia, and to a lesser extent in Japan, Postecoglou had that. He’s been a towering figure within Australian soccer over the last twenty-five years, and a legend in wider Asian football circles, so commands respect. 

In Scotland, almost nobody has heard of him and he has the wrong accent. Scottish football is even more parochial than most, and Glasgow’s football environment would compete with anywhere in the world for parochialism. It’s been quite funny, as someone in a foot in both Sydney and Scotland, to see the innate parochiality of Australian sport, where only Aussie Rules and rugby league matter, clash with the Glasgow goldfish bowl, where only two clubs matter. 

Were the roles reversed, and, say, a GAA coach was brought in to coach an Aussie Rules team, or an English coach hired by a club in the National Rugby League, the reaction would be exactly the same. What can he teach us about our thing that we don’t already know?

Celtic often suffer from the idea that the manager has to “get the club”, as if Scotland played a different game to everywhere else. While this is the peak of Scottish parochialism, the pressure of managing Celtic is huge, and will be more than Postecoglou has ever faced before.

Even as manager of the Australian national team, you’re only ever the third most important sport in a media environment that has 16 NRL clubs, plus New South Wales and Queensland, then another 18 AFL clubs to talk about, then cricket, then whatever else. Getting on the back page at all is an achievement. 

In Scotland, Celtic and Rangers make the front page, the back page and much of the in between. The USP of Scottish football is how intense it is. While it might be useful on a footballing level to be apart from that, on a day-to-day level, Postecoglou will have much to learn. 

In the past, he has struggled with the media at times and gave up the Australia job because of the toll it took on him. Four years managing the Socceroos is probably the equivalent of four days managing Celtic in terms of media scrutiny. Throw in that Celtic are on the back of their worst season in decades and you can hike that up further. 

There is a perception in Scotland that Postecoglou has been hired because he doesn’t have a profile, and will thus be malleable to the whims of the Celtic board. Those who think that don’t know very much about Ange Postecoglou. 

If given the job, he’ll have strong ideas about what he wants to do with it. If Celtic hire him as part of a wider cultural change towards a coach-first, development-based structure, then it might work out. 

If the new hierarchy expect him to win immediately, as fans certainly will do, then he’s doomed to failure from the start, because the problems run deeper than who the coach is. They need to back him as they would a bigger name, allow him to go to work improving the players that he already has, while redeveloping the team with new faces identified through a competent scouting system.

Whoever the coach is, Celtic need to change the culture from one that can’t see past the end of its nose, to one that is geared for long-term sustainable success. It’s possible that Ange Postecoglou is the man to oversee the first step of that.

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