ANGE Postecoglou might have felt that Hibernian had “parked the bus” in the cinch Premiership game at Easter Road on Sunday – but there was never any prospect of him throwing his Celtic players under one afterwards.
Fans of the Parkhead club may have been incensed by the top flight leaders’ toothless performance in the goalless draw in Leith – a disappointing result that handed Rangers the chance to move to within a point of them in the league table – but Postecoglou was always going to keep his cool.
So much has been spoken and written about the expansive style of play which the Greek-Australian coach has introduced since arriving in Scotland back in June.
And “Angeball” has, with its patient build-up play from the back, inverted full-backs, relentless pressing high up the pitch, extended periods of ball retention and emphasis on attack, certainly been fascinating and enjoyable to watch.
But the Celtic manager’s masterful man management and icy demeanour off the park have been just as important to the Glasgow giants’ domestic resurgence in the 2021/22 campaign as his revolutionary tactics on it – and will be invaluable during what promises to be a tense run-in.
Callum McGregor and his team mates lifted the Premier Sports Cup back in December, are in first place in the Premiership as well as the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup and are bidding to complete their fifth domestic Treble in six years.
However, they have suffered many disappointments and encountered several bumps in the road during the past seven months. At no stage has Postecoglou absolved himself of blame or publicly castigated his players following them. Quite the opposite, in fact, has been the case.
Nor has the 56-year-old, who has won leagues in Australia and Japan during his 28 year career on the training field and in the dugout, been adversely affected by the criticism and outcry which have followed draws and defeats.
When Celtic failed to convert any of the scoring chances they created and lost 1-0 to Rangers at Ibrox in August, he immediately accepted full responsibility for their shortcomings in the final third.
He had played Kyogo Furuhashi on the left of the front three in the absence of James Forrest and only moved him through the middle, where he made far more of an impact, midway through the second-half. “I should have started him there to begin with,” he said.
When Celtic were beaten 1-0 by Livingston on the artificial pitch at the Tony Macaroni Stadium back in September, he was scathing about their efforts in defence and attack. But he added: “That falls on me to get it right.”
When Celtic were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Dundee United the following week and found themsleves six points adrift of the defending champions in the table, he once again accepted culpability. “The result is on me,” he said.
Instead of bemoaning Liel Abada and Jota for their missed opportunities he lauded them. “They were unbelievable,” he said. “I thought they were both outstanding. I couldn’t praise them highly enough for their efforts.”
Is it any surprise that both men have since flourished since with that sort of support?
Postecoglou embarked on a major rebuilding job in the summer. Some of his signings made an immediate impression, others have taken time to settle. But those who cost six figure sums have all come good and established themselves in the first team. Knowing their manager was in their corner regardless of the outcome at the final whistle, has allowed them to make mistakes, recover, improve and prosper.
Many talented, expensive and experienced internationalists have arrived in the East End of Glasgow over the years and proved unable to cope with the scrutiny of playing for a club that is expected to win every game. But Abada, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Kyogo Furuhashi, Giorgios Giakoumakis, Joe Hart, Reo Hatate, Josip Juranovic and Jota have simply gone from strength to strength.
So it was no great surprise when Postecoglou launched a robust defence of his Celtic side following their stalemate with Hibs at the weekend. Privately, he may well have been unhappy with both the quality and number of opportunities the visitors had carved out up and with their failure to score.
But if he was then he kept his own counsel. “We dominated the game, we played it on our terms, but obviously we didn’t get our rewards and didn’t get the goal we needed,” he said. “But in terms of the performance I thought the players, at a difficult venue on a difficult pitch with the opposition sitting deep for the most part, were good.”
Why exacerbate a setback by further inflaming the situation? As it turned out, Rangers let a two goal lead against Motherwell slip, were held to a 2-2 draw and remained three adrift.
The late, great Walter Smith appreciated the intense pressure that footballers at Rangers were under and endeavoured to keep the atmosphere in training and on match days light-hearted and fun. His thinking was that they were under enough pressure from supporters and the media as it was. His policy served him well over the years.
That is a trait which Postecoglou shares. He certainly defused the growing concerns surrounding his new-look side’s concerning run of form after the United result in September with a little Antipodean humour.
“It’s a weird league,” he said. “You call things early here, don’t you? It’s quite remarkable that seven games in people are calling the title already. I know people are wanting to push me on some kind of edge of the ledge somewhere. It’s just not going to happen. I don’t worry about those things.”
He played down the Hibs result on Sunday too. Asked by one reporter if he thought his men had lacked spark after he had repeatedly expressed his happiness at how they had acquitted themselves, he tapped his microphone and asked: “Is this working? Where were you sitting?”
Many individuals who have managed Celtic and Rangers have been unable to cope with the over-the-top reaction to dropped points or losses. Not Postecoglou. He takes it all in his stride.
The Scottish title race has 10 games left to run and is set to heat up considerably in the coming weeks; Ange Postcoglou will remain unruffled, upbeat and firmly behind his Celtic players whatever happens.