SIXTY-ONE games. Should Celtic reach the Scottish Cup Final, as is their aim, that is the number of competitive fixtures they will play this season.
It is the price of success, of course, and Ange Postecoglou isn’t about to complain about it for precisely that reason. But the Celtic manager is also acutely aware that maintaining the level of performance he wants his side to aspire to is impossible over such a long stretch of matches.
That’s why he was dismissive – even a little defensive, perhaps – when questioned about his team’s showing at Easter Road on Sunday when they spilled points to Hibernian in a drab goalless draw. It’s not that he doesn’t recognise the performance level of his players dropped, or accept the subsequent criticism, it’s just that he doesn’t think there is reason for panic.
After all, sticking to their footballing guns has left his team in a pretty handy position on all domestic fronts, with the League Cup in the bag, sitting atop the Premiership, and with the Scottish Cup still a live issue.
So, while Postecoglou understands that emotions will run high when points are dropped, he has told his players they can’t afford to be blown off course by the mood swings of pundits or punters. Their job is to remain focused and maintain a steady course that he hopes will lead them to more trophy success.
“Look, I kind of understand it,” Postecoglou said. “I totally get it. It’s not something that is surprising.
“I guess people find it a bit sort of weird that I don’t react to it, and that’s where people are a little bit confused by it.
“It’s not because I don’t think that sort of reaction happens if we don’t play well or we don’t get the result that people expect us to get, or that I want people to not be passionate or emotional about it.
“That’s not the case, when you are so invested in something then obviously you are going to get extreme reactions. I’m really hesitant to tell other people how they should feel.”
Does he feel though that criticism of his team has been harsh over the last couple of weeks given their long unbeaten streak of 27 games in domestic competition?
“Me saying that the players deserve more credit means me telling people how they should view us,” he said.
“I just think that people will take their view on me, the players and how they are performing, I get that.
“Internally though I give the players enormous credit for what they have already overcome this year and the challenges we have had as a team.
“We have rebuilt a side, we’ve had guys coming in at different times. Some of our boys are still in their second or third month of being at this football club.
“I keep saying to them that I have great respect for the way they have embraced this challenge. They are not shying away, they are not making excuses, they’re not dodging the challenges that are in front of us.
“If they keep tackling things the way they have been so far, then we will be in a good place.
“They understand that football is an emotional game, and they understand that sometimes when things don’t go well then there will be things flying our way.
“We can’t react to these swings in mood or attention, and that goes both ways. It can be equally as damaging if you start believing the hype that you have already achieved something.
“I’ve said all along, our job is to be there when the trophies are handed out, not in the meantime.
“At the moment, the players have been really good on focusing on ‘what is the next challenge?’
“Our next challenge is St Mirren at home, a tough game, and that’s where our focus lies.”
Ahead of that game at Celtic Park tonight, Postecoglou has urged his players to yet again resist the urge to abandon their style of play should they be hunting for a late goal to win the match, cognisant of the fact that anxiety may creep in and lead to aimless balls being shelled into the Saints box.
“That’s our challenge, to resist those kind of temptations that the game provides you, because there is no perfect formula to winning a football game,” he said.
“People seem to think that if you’ve got 17 plans going into a game, you can use them all to win that game of football. Well, you could use them all and still need an 18th. My view on all of that has been that we have to have a belief in something.
“We believe in playing the game a certain way, trying to be a really aggressive team, trying to create opportunities and score goals, trying to dominate games of football. When we do those things, more often than not we will win games, but we won’t win them all. I know that.
“No team does that, there’s no system that will give you that. What we’ve got to keep reflecting on is that we are in this current position we are at this moment on March 1st because we have believed in something.
“That is a certain way of playing the game, and if that has got us to this point, we’ve just got to keep reinforcing that to the end and hopefully that gets us to where we want to be.
“It’s extremely challenging [to maintain that over 61 games], but that’s what I mean. That would be another reason for us to make allowances, but the players are not.
“They aren’t complaining about it, we’re not raising it as an issue for us not performing at the levels we want.
“We accept that sometimes our performances don’t hit the levels we want, but it’s not for the lack of trying or the lack of the players wanting and willing themselves to play the type of football we can on a consistent basis.
“But if people expect 61 perfect performances then they are not going to get it, because you are dealing with human beings.”