There are some who believe that it is the man who makes the times, and there are others who believe that the times make the man. There’s a little truth to both arguments because there are some individuals who clearly bent the shape of the world to themselves and there are others who emerged during turbulence and trouble and who you cannot imagine having come to prominence at any other time. Either way, their impact is enormous.
Ange Postecoglou could have become Celtic manager at a time of stability. He could have become manager when things were great and this club was riding high. The fans would have loved him, and his style of football. The fit would have been perfect.
But this man arrived at Celtic Park with the club in a darker place than any of can remember since before Martin O’Neill arrived. I say often to my friends that the couple of years between us stopping the ten and the hiring of the Irishman were the worst, by far, that I’ve ever experienced as a fan, and I was 21 when we won the title in Jansen’s epic campaign.
I had grown up with two thing – Tories winning elections and Rangers winning titles. The world hadn’t always looked like that ; I thought for a long time that I was cursed. Then Blair’s landslide was followed up by Wim’s last day seizure of the prize … and I assumed (fool that I was) that some sort of proper order had been restored to the world.
God, I was wrong. Don’t even get me started on the right wing Islington war criminal. In football, Rangers ramped up the spending and it looked, for all the world, like Murray and his club had the capacity to go on another long, long, long winning run.
Advocaat won the title by a double-digit margin, swept the manager of the year awards and told the hacks “I’ll see you next year” and then taunted a Celtic supporting kid at the airport on the way to his holidays.
That was a grim, grim time; we didn’t know the sunny uplands were just over the horizon and in some ways, in spite of the ghastly loss of three years before Rangers collapsed, the entire period has been dominated, more or less, by this club of ours.
But O’Neill walked into a club that was reeling, a club that was punch drunk and stunned. By the time he left we were a treble to the good, laden with trophies, a European final reached and Strachan’s revolution was built on top of his.
Then the Lawwell inspired failure to close a deal for a striker to win us four in a row brought us to disaster and three more Ibrox titles followed … but this club never, even in the Mowbray year, looked so lost as it sea as it had before Martin swept through the doors and changed everything.
Last summer we looked exactly as we had then, or at least on the surface we did. This club was deep in crisis ,there is no doubt of that whatsoever, and the thing was, you could see how that crisis could easily spill into another campaign and wreck that too.
It was our deepest fear. We seemed to have created, without any help from any outside force, the perfect conditions for a three or four year cycle of disaster.
Even the prospect of Eddie Howe did not fully lift the spirits because the size of the job was so enormous that you just didn’t know how it could be done in a summer, or how a new team was supposed to gel quickly enough to even mount a token challenge.
I wanted Howe; he was a builder. He was a pragmatist who would introduce the sort of philosophy that was needed to develop something over the course of a couple of years and put us on a good footing to re-establish our dominance. Howe had the gravitas and the reputation to assure that he got the time he needed to get it working,
Yet in spite of believing that very strongly, I knew that I was hankering after something that Howe couldn’t give me; certainty. Because of the Champions League cash that was on offer for winning this title, I was very sure that we needed to win it … but at the bottom of my heart, I could not imagine how Steady Eddie Howe was going to be able to do it.
I spoke to the Endless Celts podcast shortly before that deal collapsed and I laid out the scenario that scared me most; that negotiations for Howe would come up short and that we would face not only the humiliation of a snub but a raft of gruesome additional consequences, everything from the board being forced into a panic appointment to everyone we approached being well aware that they were a second choice at best.
The day the deal collapsed, Celtic immediately leaked the name of Ange Postecoglou to the media and to me all my darkest fears coalesced at that moment and took the form of the man from Australia. The potential for disaster was so obvious that I could not believe the excitement from those who recognised the name or set out to learn about him.
There were three big worries; first, that this guy was going to get chewed up by the media unless he was very, very sharp. Second, that he might not be able to command a dressing room in the manner that a great leader must and third – and it was this that scared me most – was that because he was a mystery man to most of us that he would not get a honeymoon period and would need to hit the ground running or sink without a trace.
The state we were in, I thought that the prospect of a good start was remote to say the least. The scenario that played out in my mind was almost exactly the one that unfolded in front of us; the loss of early games, the Champions League knockout … by every available metric, the fans should have turned before the good times started to roll and the collapse would have been swift and the media without mercy. Indeed, their pencils were sharp and ready to go. Ange’s football manager obituary was probably sitting in many a desk drawer.
They – all of them – expected the fans to turn.
Why wouldn’t they?
They live in their own wee bubble and don’t really understand our club and the supporters at all, and they failed miserably to read the mood of the stands. They will ponder this for years, and ask themselves in their wee men’s club – if I wasn’t on holiday I would be writing an excoriating piece on that disgrace of an awards night – why it didn’t play out like that.
That’s all it would have taken, they think, for this to have come crashing down; for the fans to turn hostile because of the bad start, and Project Ange would never have got off the ground.
Incredibly, something momentous was going on behind the scenes that we didn’t even know about and it would have made that scenario all the more likely if we had; the club was preparing to dispatch its new CEO.
The ruthlessness with which they went about that would have been a big, blinking warning light for any manager who was floundering and had lost the confidence of the fans.
There is no question that they media fully expected a backlash from the stands … some of them seemed hell-bent on pushing that process along. But times have changed and dare I say it but fan media no longer allows the hacks to set the mood music for our support. Once we had established ourselves as the man’s praetorian guard he was free to focus on the job. `
The fans didn’t turn because by the time a ball had even been kicked Ange had made believers out of all of us, and there was genuine excitement about what he was trying to do. It helped that even amidst that bad start were two extraordinary home displays in the league, and the emergence of Kyogo Furuhashi and Liel Abada as examples of his eye for a player.
I believed that we were already a credible title contender the night we beat AZ. I could see the outlines of the miracle that was to come in that performance. When the summer window shut I wrote that we had a title challenging squad … although we were already operating under what Ange had already called “zero room for error” in the league.
So how did Ange succeed in that task, in winning over the support in such a way as the early games were put to one side, and the man allowed the time and space to get his ideas across? Part of it was the man himself, and that is beyond doubt … but another part of it, which deserves some real acknowledgement, was the strategy of the club itself.
Celtic’s performance on the PR front has been absolutely outstanding and one of the success stories of the campaign.
The decision to let fan media talk to the manager at his official unveiling was a stroke of genius and one of the best things the club has done on that side of the business in years.
It was, and remains, a masterstroke and that the fans got so much access to the manager and players, when our rivals charged their outlets for the same, created a contrast which their sites must find intolerable. When Ange appears before fan media in the aftermath of the Motherwell game – I, alas, am not in the country for that – he will get a standing ovation when he enters the room, but the Celtic PR team should get one too for organising it.
The decision to give the supporters behind the scenes footage of Ange in training was another brilliant move, and it has given us one of the soundbites of the season; “We never stop.” It has become such a prominent part of the Ange philosophy that the players wore it on their jerseys for the title party last night. That was another great move.
When you consider some of the preposterous coverage in the media at the start of the campaign, you see clearly how colossally they underestimated the job the club had done in promoting Ange to the supporters, and how well he had done selling his vision.
Furthermore, by the time Boyd wrote his notorious garbage, Ange was at the centre of everything the club did, and the idea that this man lacked the support of the board was manifestly ludicrous. We now know that an entire year of planning, including the hiring of a Director of Football, had been trashed to support his vision instead … he had, behind the scenes, negotiated more control of the football club than any boss since O’Neill himself.
That, too, speaks volumes about Ange as a man and as a manager. Brendan Rodgers arrived at this club with a sky-high reputation and universal acclaim and the club did not grant him the power that it did this relative unknown from the other side of the world, and perhaps in this case they did so because they had to, but that also suggests that Ange is a formidable man who played his hand quite brilliantly and got more than Eddie Howe would ever have dared ask.
Right from the start, it was equally clear that this man had the total respect of the players, and his duels with the media have become part of Scottish football folklore. On the night of the Champions League exit, the BBC asked one of the stupid questions, and made one of those stupid points, for which they have become notorious when they suggested that the defeat was “a catastrophe.” Ange suggested the guy look up the word.
Within weeks he was reminding them that a football season lasts 38 matches, when they were all but demanding his concede the league race before September was halfway through. He was plainly appalled at that, and let them know that he thought so.
I thought one of his finest moments came when he was asked about the Glen Kamara racism storm.
When a journalist asked him if he thought that people just need a better education about this stuff he dismissed that for the claptrap that is. Why do you need educating to act like a human being, he asked, and that pretty much sums up how most of us have felt about the issue all our lives.
Ange is an immigrant. He knows what immigrants and the children of immigrants go through. It’s one of the many, many ways he understands this club … and far better than some of the people who have had the job before him and talked a good game.
Ange is a good man. He is a genuine, warm and decent individual … but underneath the big teddy bear exterior is a manager of real steel. That teddy bear has claws and is not shy about exposing them to send a clear message when necessary, and some journalists have felt those claws on more than one occasion, and always deservedly.
Most regular readers know that I’ve never, personally, been in the slightest doubt that Celtic is the only footballing super-power in this country; the club from Ibrox, for all its pretensions, can’t really get near us except in those times where we have allowed that by our own stupidity or lack of foresight. Still, the scale of what Ange has done here is extraordinary, even if you believe, as I do, that it’s simply restored things to their proper place.
He is clearly a man, a manager, of substance and if he had taken over Celtic in better times, under better conditions, there is zero doubt that he would have been a mighty success story. The world may have seen his achievements and simply not understood the full range of his talents and skills … in a way it was perfect that he inherited a shambles, that he took over a team which didn’t need fixing but transforming. A club that required a revolution.
This is not a case of the times making the man. The man was always who he is. Where Celtic has been fortunate is to have found such a man in these troubled times, a man so single-minded and purposeful at the moment we needed him most.
They say that success has a thousand fathers and that failure is an orphan.
Ange is a man who likes to share the credit, and the fruits of his accomplishments with others. But as I know for sure that he would have taken all of the blame if this went wrong – those above him never accept one iota of personal responsibility and his coaching team survived last season’s calamity when many think they should have fallen on their swords too – I find it somewhat unfair that he should not take the full measure of credit for all that’s gone right.
To raise a building from the ground, you need builders and an entire buearocracy backing them up, health and safety consultants, folk to fill out the planning paperwork and an army of others all busying away … but every single thing about that building is designed first by the supreme talents of the architect … it’s not for nothing that so many of our modern construction projects bear the names of those individuals above all else.
This is Ange Postecoglou’s construct. The master architect of this Celtic team may work amidst an entire football department which operates within the structure of the PLC, but this has been his triumph, his victory, and he deserves all the rewards that come with it. He arrived when the fans were hoping merely for someone credible, someone who steadied the ship and started to face us in the right direction again. The scale of the job was awesome; Eddie Howe personally found it to be overwhelming. The man in Japan didn’t even blink.
The times didn’t make the man, but this man will shape his times. For this is his third title in three different countries, on three different continents. That is exceptional. That is a measure of his gifts and his ability to get the best out of players, and shape a squad to his style.
He has done at Celtic no less than what he expected of himself, but more than any of his critics dared to dream. That is the real strength of the man, that unshakeable belief in himself and his own ideas, and they have proven to be the very finest, the very best.
Ange Postecoglou, double winning Celtic boss.
Ange Postecoglou, always the winner.