Fans are focused on promotion, relegation and everything in between in mid-May. But for thousands of coaches, club football chiefs and middle men it signals a collectively mad global scramble, determined to be ready – or employed – for season next.
This time last year, Ange Postecoglou was in a remarkably familiar but equally unique position. Despite Yokohama F. Marinos sitting third and mounting a title challenge, he all but decided that it was time to move on and set his sights on Europe.
Despite conquering Asia for club and country, he remained somewhat anonymous in Europe. Except to those who’d had a reason to follow his work in Asia, or somehow entered his orbit.
Recently departed Celtic CEO Peter Lawwell was one of those. His son Mark was a scout at City Football Group, whose managerial stable has included Pep Guardiola (Manchester City), Patrick Vieira, Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini.
Lawwell Jnr helped Postecoglou build his imposing Marinos squad and, impressed with his work, spruiked Postecoglou’s Euro bona fides. Several other advocates had played their part in the background.
By May 2021, with Neil Lennon sacked and Celtic in crisis, Postecoglou had (very) quietly made his way onto Celtic’s shortlist.
“He first came to my attention via my son Mark, who said guy called Ange Postecoglou is manager of Yokohama. This guy’s the real deal. That got my interest,” Lawwell said.
“I watched him carefully over that period. As CEO, I’ve always got a list of six names in top drawer – you never know what can happen with the manager.
“Ange was on the list for three years – just before he won the league (with Marinos in 2019). I watched him, liked him. He won the league and had great success.
“In my initial chats with Ange I got a really great impression. He was experienced, mature, had courage in his convictions. And having watched him over the years, he played football the right way.
“He was a football enthusiast, a football nut. He not only knows about Japanese, Australian and European football, he knew about Scottish football and Celtic, he knew the task that was (potentially) ahead of him. He knew Celtic.
“I’d spoken to Frank (Trimboli, Postecoglou’s agent) a couple of times in the process to gauge Ange’s availability and interest – we were looking (for a manager) from February onwards. Frank said he’d be interested, so we kept him in mind.”
But when crunch time came and fan pressure mounted, club chiefs opted for Premier League pedigree in Eddie Howe, who was reported to be their No.1 target as early as March.
May’s silly season was in full swing however, and Greek giants AEK Athens had emerged as a potential new home for Postecoglou.
With the support of the club’s sports director, Western United’s inaugural signing Panagiotis Kone, Postecoglou’s Greek heritage and brief spell with Panachaiki back in 2008 created a perfect storm. So with phone otherwise relatively silent, the ex-Socceroos boss expressed interest to his representatives, labelling it a suitable step into the European door.
But those same perceptions and doubts that have plagued him many times over the past 15 years resurfaced, with AEK’s board opting for Serb Vladan Milojevic.
Europe had again shunned Postecoglou, but this one was personal, having recently lost his dad and been estranged from family during COVID. Postecoglou and wife Georgia had privately grown excited by the prospect of a family reunion – his mother, sister and eldest son have all moved to Greece since his dad’s passing – and a new challenge in the Greek Super League.
Then came a call from his London-based agent, Frank Trimboli, amid a sudden and extraordinary turn of events.
Celtic was keen. Sceptical Postecoglou had heard it before and the straight-shooter reassured Trimboli, a fellow Aussie, there was no need trying to lift his spirits, having become accustomed to AEK-esque letdowns.
“Twelve months ago, we kind of made a decision that we’d been in Japan for almost four years, and I thought it was time to move on and look for the next challenge, but I didn’t know what that would be,” Postecoglou said.
“Because the reality is, there wasn’t really still too many doors opening for us, particularly here in Europe, which was the ultimate goal to come over here. And so I wasn’t really sure what the next step was going to be and to be honest, I wasn’t disheartened but I just felt, well, with everything I’ve done in my career, it was (still) either going to be somebody taking a real gamble on this side of the world or me just having certain things, sort of stars aligned for me to get an opportunity.
“And thankfully for me stars aligned because working with Yokohama gave me a link into Europe through the City Football Group and their association automatically means that there are eyes from here looking there and for me, it was the right eyes and the right kind of people were looking at what I was doing.
“And again circumstances where Celtic have gone down a certain road with a candidate. It didn’t work out with Eddie Howe, and I was the next cab off the rank and it happened really quickly after that.”
Trimboli is a kingmaker in European football via his agency CAA Base, who manage Carlo Ancelotti (Real Madrid), Jose Mourinho (Roma), Rapahel Varane (Manchester United), Son Heung-Min (Tottenham), Kyle Walker (Manchester City) and James Maddison (Leicester City). But even he was hitting dead ends.
Yokohama’s epic performance against Man City, where they out possessed Guardiola’s team, earnt praise from the Spanish super coach, Raheem Sterling and CFG chiefs.
Trimboli tested the waters, but it barely registered beyond Japan. Having managed Postecoglou since the tail-end of his Socceroos tenure, in 2017, when he was recommended by Socceroos great and CAA Base colleague Vince Grella, Trimboli had become accustomed to disappointment when presenting the Aussie coach to Euro clubs.
One rare ‘job interview’ was conducted by an English Championship sports director who couldn’t even extend Postecoglou the courtesy of stopping his car during the conversation, let alone skimming his extensive and impressive – depending on where you’re from – CV.
The “interview” was more of a superficial football chat in between a revving engine, tooting horns and indicators going off. Postecoglou is said to have done remarkably well to maintain his professionalism and composure.
It was akin to 2007 when Postecoglou was interviewed by A-League club chiefs as a courtesy, knowing they wouldn’t appoint him after his high-profile departure from Australia’s national youth teams.
But this time was different. Trimboli confirmed reports of Howe formally rejecting the Celtic offer, with the ex-Bournemouth boss unable to bring in his coaching staff. And formal dialogue with Celtic was reopened.
Still sceptical despite being on a shortlist, Postecoglou was soon on a Zoom meeting with Lawwell and Celtic owner Dermott Desmond. Thereafter another meeting with Hoops chiefs, chairman Ian Bankier and Dominic McKay – who had a brief stint as CEO. Postecoglou was unsure whether he’d heard correctly, but the Celtic job appeared to be his.
“Our first option was Eddie Howe. Being British, we thought he would know British and Scottish football and we liked him. When Eddie pulled out at the end of May, we went to the list. We agreed that I would speak to Ange and Dermott would (separately) speak to him,” Lawwell said.
“Dermott had a Zoom call with him and called me back and said ‘we don’t need to talk to anyone else’. He thought Ange was the real deal.”
The Postecoglou camp quickly double-checked and confirmed that he hadn’t been caught in a Scottish daydream.
Within 24 hours of the AEK Athens rejection, Postecoglou was on the verge of signing as the new manager of the famous FC Celtic Football Club.
“(Initially) I had no idea who Ange was, I couldn’t pronounce his name. Peter was insistent he was a person we should put on the list, that he had a great record,” Desmond said earlier in the year.
“We pursued another manager (Howe) in public. He was excellent to deal with. But, unfortunately, for personal reasons, he couldn’t take up the position. That happened at 12.30 on a Thursday and I made arrangements to speak with Ange at 5 o’clock UK time.”
But, in typical fashion, there were several more hoops to jump through, and at stages, there was concerns the deal could collapse.
First, Yokohama F. Marinos were eager to keep the man who had transformed the J-League and had even been touted as a future Japan national team boss.
The stunning 2019 title success Postecoglou had triggered a contract renewal that was an improved contract for the coach, but would also mean that potential suitors would have to pay a higher contract release fee.
Time differences, cultural nuances and classic negotiation stretched those talks out over several days, and time was of essence.
The compensation fee was eventually agreed, but Postecoglou still needed to quarantine and sign half a squad with Celtic playing a UEFA Champions League qualifier on July 20 (against Midtyjlland), with fans seeking answers and the club verging on crisis, with star players exiting and the higher-profile Howe’s U-turn unexplained.
If Celtic weren’t as hellbent on Postecoglou at that stage, they may have walked, or cast the net wider. But behind the scenes they appeared convinced the ex-Socceroos boss was the man.
Thirteen days after their initial meeting, Celtic confirmed Postecoglou’s appointment. And the Scottish reaction bordered between savage and surprise. Any coaching appointment in Europe’s top 10 leagues, outside of the traditional European and South American football strongholds usually is.
Celtic, like Postecoglou, appeared to relish criticism, even if some it came from an educated fan base that’s been spoiled with the likes of Martin O’Neill, Brendan Rodgers and the late great Jock Stein, who led them to 1967 European glory.
“Prior to that chat (with Postecoglou), I researched quite a bit about Ange and what he’d achieved, what his type of personality is,” said Desmond, an Irish billionaire.
“I watched that Craig Foster interview several times, that showed me his determination, integrity, passion and individualism.
“And that he was a leader, he was a general. I was very pleased to interview Ange.”
Lawwell said criticism was white noise in their mind.
“To a great extent its irrelevant, it didn’t matter. Because if you believe in what you’re doing and your appointment, the noise around it is irrelevant,” he said.
“It was just ignorance really, a lot of discussion and comment was not very well informed. If you took five minutes to discover the guy’s background you’d realise he had an outstanding record.”
Japanese red-tape meant that Postecoglou only got his passport back with 30 minutes to spare on a Friday afternoon before a Saturday flight to London, otherwise a delay would’ve again tested Celtic’s mettle.
And even when Postecoglou entered the UK, his Asian Football Confederation (AFC) coaching badges were not recognised by UEFA, causing another scrambled meeting with the Euro-governing body’s technical chiefs.
By the end of the process, it is believed that UEFA technical chiefs were impressed with his knowledge and presentation. Few in Europe are questioning his competency now.
Finally, Postecoglou formally began plotting ‘operation Celtic 2021/22’ from his Chelsea Harbour hotel room, with some basic assistance from friends and associates such as food App recommendations, to provide some variety to his hotel menu.
“Once I got the sense that it was going to happen, I just got really focused on making sure that I didn’t let people down, the ones who took the punt on me. But second, that I brought success to the football club and that would then give me the impetus to keep continuing here,” Postecoglou said.
Akin to the Brisbane Roar job in 2009, Postecoglou was in some ways starting from scratch and needing to prove himself. He signed a one-year rolling contract, which has been Celtic’s MO in recent years.
And as he did at Brisbane and Melbourne Victory and to an extent at Marinos, he inherited his coaching staff.
“It’s very similar in terms of the construction, but just the scale is enormous, even compared to Yokohama where, a big and well-supported club, but again, in terms of infrastructure, resources, this is a different scale,” Postecoglou said.
“So with that comes more responsibility, of staff and the way you handle those resources, the actual mechanics of what I want to do and building belief into the group, building a certain environment and culture.
“The biggest curiosity around me, particularly when I first got a job, was I came on my own. No staff, no entourage. And that’s very unusual, particularly here in Europe. One reason I can do that and I’m comfortable doing that, is that particularly when I was coaching in Australia, when I first started coaching at South Melbourne, I was doing everything – signing players, negotiating contracts, the analysis. The training.
“You literally did everything, that started with me, and I had an interest in that all the way through. So every job I’ve had, whether that, Brisbane (Roar), (Melbourne) Victory or Socceroos, then Yokohama, I got my hands in everything. And I’m comfortable doing that.
“Part of it is just, I guess the controlling aspect, I need to have control. But I’m also comfortable. So coming here on my own, this is not usual, but I felt it’s the best way for me to work initially. Assess the staff I had. And they’ve all turned out to be fantastic contributors. But then do things my way.
“It’s why Australian coaches I think will do well overseas, because they have to do so much more with so much less. Whereas, here in Europe, particularly if you’ve been working in the top leagues, you can pretty much narrow your focus to doing one aspect of the job, whether that’s your manager or a coach and have great people around you.”
By the time Postecoglou’s appointment was confirmed, Odsonne Edouard, Kristoffer Ajer, Ryan Christie, Mohamed Elyounoussi and captain Scott Brown were racing out the exit door.
When he touched down in Glasgow on June 23, Postecoglou had a threadbare squad, even factoring in those involved at Euro 2020.
Buoyed after watching Callum McGregor at Wembley, the Celtic academy product became his Mile Jedinak of the Socceroos, the man who signified continuity but ushered in a new era with the captain’s armband.
“I didn’t (know much about him), I’ll be honest. Probably the majority of the Scottish Celtic contingent didn’t know too much either,” McGregor said.
“We spoke to Tommy (Rogic) who’s an Australian international and had him as national team manager and couldn’t speak more highly of him. When you hear someone like Tom speak like that and very positive, automatically gives you a really good feeling.
“As soon as we met him, you could tell what he was all about. He came in with authority and since we’ve just grown brilliantly as a team.
“His recruitment’s been fantastic, he’s recruited for the style of football he wants to play. He’s been very clear in the message and what he wants from the players, how we transfer that onto the pitch and how we train and behave on the training ground.”
There were early challenges. But Postecoglou had made early ground, and the information-thirsty Hoops supporter base had by this stage done their research, becoming well-informed of his trophy-laden CV, backstory and pride in his Greek heritage as well as the influence of his father.
The Scottish media was also eager to tell the story of this fascinating new man with 25 years’ coaching experience, but one who they – and Europe – knew little about.
There were positive signs and regular reminders that Postecoglou had done his research.
But no-one could have predicted the stunning 29-point turnaround that Postecoglou would go on to mastermind, leaving him on the verge of a famous debut-season Scottish title.
Meanwhile, AEK Athens are on their third coach (Sokratis Ofrydopoulos), after Vladan Milojevic, who was picked ahead of Postecoglou, lasted seven games (4 wins, 1 draw, 2 losses) and Argiris Giannikis lasted 23 matches.
Celtic’s Motherwell match and trophy-lift on Saturday will be their latest match beamed live into England this season on Sky Sports.
And next season, Postecoglou’s Celtic will have at least six Champions League matches beamed live to a multi-million global audience.