‘When I walk out, my old man’s next to me. He’s a hard man, still is today, but he’s the one that kept saying to me, “Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to love this game, you’re going to make it to the very top”.
‘Hard man, though. When we won the Asian Cup, I went to his place, showed him my medal, he goes, “Well done, son, but if you’d made a substitution a little earlier and stopped this playing-out-from-the-back s***, it wouldn’t have gone into extra time”. Still a hard man. Can’t please him. That’s who made me. He walks out with me tonight.’
Heartfelt, humble, humorous, this was Ange Postecoglou’s speech to Australia’s players before their 2017 Confederations Cup opener with Germany.
Postecoglou puts thought into these talks. How he can tug at heartstrings. What picture he wants in his players’ minds. Australia lost 3-2 — they were facing the world champions — but this was ‘Big Ange’ at his best.
The 58-year-old Australian will have something special prepared for his first north London derby. The only regret is his father, Jim, is not here to see if his son succeeds at the Emirates on Saturday.
Tottenham have made an encouraging start under Ange Postecoglou so far this season ahead of the North London Derby
Ange Postecoglou has spoken of the role his late father has had on his footballer career
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Jim’s funeral was held in July 2018, by which time he had seen his son move to Japan to manage Yokohama Marinos after coaching his country and various clubs in Australia and Greece. He never saw him at Celtic or Tottenham but, as Postecoglou tells his players, he is with him at whichever ground he graces.
It has been a long journey to Tottenham. Peter Filopoulos gave Postecoglou his first job as a manager, at South Melbourne in 1996. ‘He’d been captain at 24 but was managing a bad injury, which ended his playing career at 27,’ Filopoulos, now a Football Australia administrator, tells Mail Sport from his home in Sydney.
‘He became an assistant coach and had two years under Frank Arok. In the season’s fourth-last game, we lost miserably (3-0 at Marconi-Fairfield Stallions). There was an hour-long bus ride to Sydney Airport. Frank was despondent, he saw the writing on the wall, and the players were misbehaving.
‘Ange lunged towards the microphone and, in a very colourful way, reminded the players they had disgraced the badge. We got back to Melbourne. There was a board meeting. I broke the news to Frank the next morning and went to see Ange, who was working at a bank to supplement his salary. I waited for his morning tea break to tell him he was going to take the reins for the last three games. He said, ‘I want a meeting with the players tonight at 6pm’.’
Postecoglou told the team what’s what. How coaches do not sack themselves. How they had let themselves down. How he would not stand for it, even as caretaker.
South Melbourne won their remaining three games and after the season’s end, Postecoglou visited Filopoulos, who continues: ‘I naively told Ange the club were talking about X coach and Y coach. He said, ‘Is anyone talking about me?’ I said, ‘No one has raised your name in the boardroom. We’re going to have to work hard to sell it to them’. The next phase was the barbecue.’
South Melbourne was Australia’s biggest club. They wanted only big names. But Filopoulos had an idea. He invited the more impressionable board members to a barbie in his back garden where Postecoglou could pitch his ‘coaching manifesto’. He did just that in 45 minutes.
You imagine the interview process with Daniel Levy did not involve sausages, though Tottenham’s chairman did describe Postecoglou as a ‘normal bloke’ in a fan forum last week, adding: ‘I like someone who tells me as it is. Ange, I have to say, is a breath of fresh air.’
It was a similar story at Celtic. No barbecues, but there was a grilling from supporters who did not know who he was, as club legend Chris Sutton tells Mail Sport: ‘Celtic’s fans wanted a big name and instead they got a long name. ‘Who the hell is this Australian from Japan?’
Glasgow is a pressure cooker of a city, intense. But he was perfect for that job. He was shouting ‘we never stop’ during training, using it in team talks. It turned into Celtic’s mantra. After winning their first league title under him, the players wore shirts with that phrase printed on their backs.
The Australian was able to handle the pressure cooker of Glasgow to bring success to Celtic
The Tottenham fans are enjoying what they see from their team under the new manager
‘There was an early trip to Aberdeen. It was Postecoglou’s eighth league game and already there was talk of him being a goner if Celtic lost. Jota scored a late winner and that became a theme. Just like Tottenham against Sheffield United last weekend. One goal in the 98th minute, another in the 100th, and they win 2-1. Why? Because with Postecoglou, you never stop. He is one of the most fascinating men I’ve met in football.’
Whatever you’re feeling, they’re feeling f****** 10 times worse. Trust me. Because they’re chasing the ball. So however tired you think you are, understand this: your opponent is behind you. That’s who we are.
Tottenham would love to leave Arsenal feeling ’10 times worse’, though the Postecoglou revolution is in its infancy. As was the case at Celtic, he brought no assistants with him. Starting from scratch inspires new ideas, he believes, particularly if the coaches are young. All five of his Spurs assistants are in their 30s and have never coached with him.
Postecoglou does not get too close to colleagues, players included. It means he can take emotion out of decisions. Spurs insiders describe him as ‘introverted’, one adding: ‘He doesn’t do small talk. But that means when he does talk, it has more impact.’ Another suggests he could ‘run for Prime Minister and he’d win because he’s that persuasive’.
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When James Maddison was debating whether to join Spurs, he spoke to Postecoglou, who told him over the phone: ‘Whether you come or not, you’re going to see a different Spurs team under me.’ That stuck with Maddison.
Maddison should not expect cosy chats at Hotspur Way. Even Postecoglou’s presence in the dressing room is rare. He sees that as the players’ sanctuary, leaving it to captain Son Heung-min and deputies Maddison and Cristian Romero to man that space.
Postecoglou prefers to speak to players on the training pitch, and Yves Bissouma’s turnaround has been striking. When he took over, Bissouma was one of the few not on international duty. Postecoglou told him: ‘You can be a leader here.’ The next day, Bissouma was late for training and Postecoglou added: ‘Being a leader means being on time.’ Brief but stern. Bissouma has been exemplary since.
Antonio Conte’s Spurs tenure was volatile. That is not to say Postecoglou does not show his anger — he once surprised the Australia squad by smacking a TV screen at half-time — but it is a world away from Conte. He empowers players by displaying trust, demonstrated by how he lets them sleep in their own beds before a home game rather than use Hotspur Way’s Lodge.
Previously, academy players invited to train with the first team complained they felt as useful as cones. Now, they feel involved, because Postecoglou insists on a connection between the seniors and starlets with weekly call-ups for the club’s most-deserving youngsters. His use of players such as Destiny Udogie, Micky van de Ven and Pape Matar Sarr — all under 23 — is evidence that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
No longer are Tottenham’s stars subjected to hour-long daily meetings. They are now four a week and 20 minutes long. The canteen’s menu is more varied — goodbye plain chicken, hello tomato sauce — and the training sessions have variety too, with high-intensity small-sided games which players like much more than running drills. ‘Not that they wouldn’t barge through brick walls for him if asked,’ Sutton points out. ‘You’ve heard his speeches…’
You reckon if my old man were out there, he’d be afraid of Germans, Argentinians, Brazilians? That’s not what he instilled into me. When the opposition are looking at you, they’re not just looking at you, they’re looking at what made you, the people who made you.
It is not unusual for Postecoglou to reference his father in team talks and to understand why Tottenham’s manager is so evangelical about attacking football, you need to know his story.
Postecoglou was five when he arrived in Australia in 1970. His family had travelled 30 days by boat after Jim lost his furniture business during the Greek military coup. There was him, his father, his mother Voula and his 10-year-old sister Liz. They did not speak the language, did not know a soul. They had no home, no jobs.
‘I had a father who, like every little boy, I just wanted to get close to, but he worked all the time,’ Postecoglou told the BBC’S Football Focus. ‘He loved football and, growing up, that was my connection. Our local team was Greek, an immigrant team, and we went there on Sundays and could speak Greek, he felt comfortable for two hours.
Postecoglou faces his biggest test yet this weekend as he prepares for the north London derby
‘I loved that and I wanted to get close to that. We’d sit up late and watch the games, mostly from England. Match of the Day was our two-hour fix.’ Those Sundays were a day of worship in two senses for father and son. Jim and Ange went to church in the morning and then to Middle Park, the home of South Melbourne Hellas, in the afternoon.
‘This story resonated with the Celtic fanbase,’ Sutton says. ‘The club was formed to help feed the poor of the Irish immigrant community in Glasgow’s East End. That gave Postecoglou an immediate affinity with Celtic. That only gets you so far, of course. It was his dedication to winning, and winning beautifully, that won over his critics.’
Bill Shankly was a hero for Postecoglou, who grew up supporting Liverpool, and Jim waxed lyrical about the game’s greats. Alfredo Di Stefano and Real. Johan Cruyff and Holland. Ferenc Puskas, who went on to manage Postecoglou at South Melbourne Hellas. Puskas spoke scant English but had a grasp on Greek and so, in his busted-up Datsun 200, Postecoglou became an unofficial chauffeur to his boss. He found a kindred spirit during those car journeys, having grown up hearing Jim’s mantra of ‘Keep the ball down’.
Jim hated Italian football’s defensive catenaccio. As a player, Postecoglou was a defender, but as a coach, he wanted to build teams Jim would be proud to watch. Not that praise was forthcoming from his father.
Postecoglou is married to Georgia, a former marketing manager for South Melbourne, and they have three sons, James, Max and Alexi. He admits he is more cuddly than his father was. Still, he adored the man. When Jim passed away, Postecoglou told him that he loved him, adding: ‘Keep the ball down, Dad’.
‘I want to wake up tomorrow and the papers aren’t talking about the next AFL player who f****** farted, or the NRL player who did something stupid. I want them talking about our game, us. You wouldn’t be here unless there was a person in your life who gave you love and belief. But I don’t give a f*** what people say about me, what challenges I have, I’m going to make it. Alright. Enjoy your lunch.’
Ryan McGowan, now of St Johnstone, was in the room for that Australian team talk and jokes it left him so pumped, he ‘two-footed’ the waiter.
Matt McKay gained insight into Postecoglou, his manager for Brisbane Roar and Australia. McKay says he is a creator of ‘magic moments’, telling Mail Sport: ‘He has it all. He can motivate, has the tactics, gets everybody together. If you buy in, he will make you a better player.’
Postecoglou is part of a network of Australian coaches, including Eddie Jones, who meet monthly on Zoom. They discuss how to handle the media, though Postecoglou has taken to the Premier League spotlight with ease.
His straight-talking is appreciated by the media and at Spurs too, by those who grew tired of Jose Mourinho’s manipulation, of Nuno Espirito Santo’s lack of interest, of Conte’s negativity.
Ultimately, Postecoglou’s time at Spurs will be judged on whether they secure their first trophy since 2008. He wants to win, but win beautifully. There will be no crazy celebrations should they secure an ugly win at Arsenal. No Conte crowd leap. No Mourinho knee slide. Because as Postecoglou admits, in his mind will be the voice of his father telling him: ‘Don’t celebrate because that was crap.’