Ange Postecoglou has come a long way since he served as a ball boy on the sidelines at Middle Park in Melbourne. A long, long way. The stage he inhabits now is significantly grander, but the early experiences and lessons in a place that allowed him to familiarize himself with a new land while remaining intimately connected to his own world continue to guide him.
On Wednesday evening, the 57-year-old will stand in the dugout as his Celtic take on Real Madrid in the Champions League at the Santiago Bernabeu. And disappointing as results from his first foray into the competition may have been — Celtic are already locked into bottom place of their group, guaranteed to exit continental football — European nights in Madrid represent one of football’s bucket-list items. Nevertheless, Postecoglou has made clear that Celtic must feel the stage is routine if they are to establish themselves as consistent continental contenders.
« From my perspective, it’s about how can we continue to have a presence here, » Postecoglou told ESPN in an exclusive interview. « Because it’s about this football club, it’s not about me. This football club, it’s one of the biggest clubs in the world and I think a club of its stature should be in the Champions League every year. »
Of course, given Celtic’s stranglehold on Scottish football alongside bitter foes Rangers, it’s likely that the only thing standing in the way of Postecoglou delivering on this mission statement is a change to Scotland’s UEFA coefficient.
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However, this perspective, the sentiment of badge over the man and a willingness to chase exceptionalism, provides a window into the principles Postecoglou shares with Celtic and just why, across the past 14 months since his move to Parkhead, he has quickly worked his way into the hearts of an initially skeptical Celtic faithful; chants sung, tifos erected, declarations of love broadcast across various social media platforms, and even costumes given in tribute.
Results, undoubtedly, have played apart — the Scottish giant’s fan base is not inclined to overlook trophyless seasons no matter how much of a « good bloke » someone is — as has the exciting and attacking football the coach insists upon. But elevating it all, taking the relationship between club, supporters and coach to the next level, is an underlying spirit of authenticity. Postecoglou’s unwavering commitment to his « Angeball » principles, acerbically straight-talking style, and respect for Celtic’s fans, past and values, have been reciprocated in kind; it’s an authenticity that you can’t fake, evoking a sense of credibility and loyalty you can’t buy.
« I was well aware of the football club’s history, » Postecoglou told ESPN. « I think sometimes people from [Europe] think that because we’re so far away that we don’t sort of really understand what football means over here. But if anything because we are so far away for guys like myself, I’m so passionate about the game you can immerse yourself and try and find out as much information. So I knew what I was walking into.
« But you do feel that sense … that it’s more than just the football club. For the people that support, it’s generational, something that is more meaningful than just going and supporting this sporting team on the weekend. It means much more than that.
« And I think it’s why I’ve sort of connected with the club really well and I think the supporters have embraced me. Because I think when I’m talking about my journey, they know that I understand what this football club’s about. And that’s been sort of an easy transition for me, that I’m not trying to sort of understand or trying to sell myself … I speak about my own experiences, and I think resonates closely. »
The experiences Postecoglou speaks of, the understanding of how a football club can become something much more than a sporting entity to those who make it their home, refer to his time with boyhood club, South Melbourne, with which he started a 32-year stint , aged 9, back in the 1970s.
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Graduating into the senior team in 1984, just in time for South’s first national title in Australia’s National Soccer League (the competition since replaced by the A-Leagues), he would go on to captain the side to its second national title — earning four appearances for the Socceroos along the way — before an injury-enforced retirement led to a move into coaching. Postecoglou then led South to back-to-back national titles from the dugout in 1998 and 1999, becoming the only individual to be involved in all four of the club’s national titles.
However, for Postecoglou, this on-field education was coupled with an even more important sense of community and belonging; the club represented a place of comfort and sanctuary for a family that had arrived from Greece when he was just 5 years old. This was especially so for his father, Jim, who was « animated and energized » by the friends and community he found at Middle Park.
« South Melbourne wasn’t really…well, it wasn’t just the football club for us, it was always more than that, » Postecoglou said.
« It was an extension of our family because many people in our situation, migrants coming to a foreign land and often without family support networks that you have, you seek shelter and comfort in other areas. And for us, that was what South Melbourne was It was a place of community. My best friends today are the guys I met when I was nine years old.
« So that goes beyond the impact it has on years of your football journey, the impact it has on your life. And for my family, in particular, it’s not a unique story, but the club was something that allowed us to adjust to life in a new land.
« And because of that, those lessons stay with you because you understand the importance of community, you understand the importance of support, of what it’s like to be an outsider and finding an environment where people actually embrace you and you feel comfortable.
« I was a young kid. So I didn’t know any different but I know it had a massive impact on my father. A lot of stuff that he left behind in Greece, which he missed, he could sort of find it at South Melbourne. »
For Postecoglou, it’s these connections that represent the key to any club’s long-term health and viability.
« For clubs to be really successful and sustainable … there has to be that sense of community about it, » he told ESPN.
« I think when clubs sort of treat themselves as separate entities to the communities they represent — because maybe an owner has a certain take on it, or they tried to build something that doesn’t fit with the community they represent — it never You’re gonna have short-term success, but it never works [long term].
« If you look at the old NSL clubs, who, for a long time were the biggest in our country and sustained their game, they were built around communities.
« When you look at the A-Leagues, I think the most successful clubs in terms of attachment to some sort of community are teams like Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers, who, again, have built their club around their fan base, the people that are most important.
« I think when clubs realize that the people who are coming through the turnstiles every week are your most important people, more important than the players, the coaches, the owners; it’s not easy to do that because for a lot of [club owners]they think around the financials, and they don’t see the person that buys the membership and buys the ticket as the key to growth — but ultimately, that’s where success really lies.
« And if you can put those people at the forefront of your football club, you’re more likely to have some sort of sustained connection and, I think, sustained success. »