As the first Australian to manage an English Premier League team, Ange Postecoglou is used to being underestimated. But he’s seizing opportunity, and is about to be taken a lot more seriously. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Ange Postecoglou: the Premier League’s romantic
I first heard the news from a friend, who had called the family’s landline. The one in the kitchen. The one that precluded privacy. “He’s dead,” she said, and my legs vanished.
Benny* was gone. Plenty of others were still in hospital. Some of them were critical. Things would get worse. And here’s a secondary detail, which saddens me to think of now: how this profound shock was not sufficient to melt our domestic emotional estrangements. I was just as weird, just as reticent on that call as I would have been had I been speaking to a girlfriend. I tried to disguise the fact that my legs were abandoning me. It was 1998 and I was almost 17.
My friends’ soccer team, one I would often watch, train with and occasionally serve as linesman for, were returning to Perth from the regional south-west, where they’d played a preseason match. This was the under-18s squad, one of three that comprised the club – the reserves and the men’s were the others, the latter semi-professional and a feeder for the then National Soccer League.
The team’s coach drove a bunch of them there – he was a tradie and had a capacious van – and on the way back, along some stretch of high-speed road, that van kissed some gravel and swerved, corrected, violently fishtailed and then catastrophically rolled into the adjoining bushland. The van’s back doors burst open and several of its teenage occupants were spat out at high velocity.
We visited the survivors in hospital, and I learnt about their ICU’s two-visitor rule: any more and there was the risk of crowding a space that might need to be quickly occupied by medics; one fewer, and the solitary visitor would be without emotional support.
I saw Paul, unconscious on the bed, attached to several tubes. His head was shaved and conspicuously sutured. It was also enormous – his brain had swollen considerably and surgeons had drilled several holes in his skull to relieve the pressure. Among the tubes and flashing monitors were balloons and a Manchester United shirt.
Through a window in another ward, we saw his unconscious father – bloodied and bruised. The surgeons had taken hours to remove the stones from his face. On the way home, we barely spoke. There was just the car’s CD: Oasis’s Definitely Maybe.
It might have been the next day when a few of us decided to pay homage to Benny by skipping our school and going to his. He was a northern suburbs boy too, but went to a specialist soccer school in Fremantle.
I suppose some knew a few of his schoolmates in the academy, and at lunch we played soccer on the oval. It was a pilgrimage, I guess. And a way to meet those who also knew Benny. It was also a way to simply mark, and express, the alien feelings we held and were too young to properly incorporate.
As I sat to write this, I’d anticipated mocking this supposedly juvenile pilgrimage – but in retrospect, it all makes perfect sense to me. As an adult, I’ve again experienced the sickening restlessness of grief, or of acute anxiety, and the subsequent desire to funnel this burbling repugnance somehow. That seemingly benign phrase “I just don’t know what to do with myself” has awesome significance for the bereaved or soul sick, and we sought to answer that question with the conspiracy of wagging school and making a road trip of it.
It was another call that brought news of Diego’s death. As I remember it, he’d been released from hospital and then collapsed in the car park. He died two days after Benny. He was quiet, talented and spoken of as a potential pick for foreign scouts. But I didn’t know him well at all. He didn’t go to my school; nor was he part of the gang that went to Perth Glory games and tried to sneak entry into the boozy Shed.
But I remember the funeral. And I remember the sound his mother made when his casket was lowered into the ground.
Later that year, at our high school’s graduation, I commandeered the microphone. The speaking and presentation of awards had been left to our teachers, but I’d smuggled in some cheap bourbon and was ripe with courage. I can’t remember if I politely requested the mic or if I obnoxiously stole it.
The reason for doing so was this: one of the most academically distinguished in our year had also been in the back of that van that day. And quietly – very quietly – he had recovered and excelled that year. I wasn’t quiet and nor had I excelled – either athletically or academically – but I had seen an insulting absence where recognition was due.
And so, perhaps to the embarrassment of Kenji – and perhaps more for my gratification than his – I took the mic from whichever teacher was holding it. Happily, I don’t specifically remember what I said, but I made sure that Kenji’s peers understood the context of his achievement.
Here, incongruously, is where I turn to Ange Postecoglou – the first Australian to manage an English Premier League club. He was appointed Tottenham’s manager in June and was not the club’s first choice, but so it goes.
His appointment came after a sour and beleaguered few years for the London club: indifferent soccer, managerial tumult, a besieged board and very unhappy fans. There was also the lingering uncertainty over the status of their star striker Harry Kane – the club’s (and England’s) record goalscorer. The question of his departure, eventually resolved in July when he transferred to Bayern Munich, dominated early press conferences.
With Postecoglou, we can talk about several things. His preference for a 4-3-3 formation at former club Celtic (now 4-2-3-1 with Spurs), his use of the wings to feed final third entries, the aggressively offensive use of his fullbacks. We can talk about how he prefers that the ball not rest with the point of highest attack, or how he has refashioned certain players – notably, Yves Bissouma. We can talk about the creativity, the liquid possession, the beautiful fluency of Spurs now – a stark contrast to the deep defences and counterattacks under their previous manager. “There are certain things that are non-negotiable, and the first one is [that] I want my teams to have the ball,” Postecoglou said in 2020. “So, our attacking philosophy, our defensive philosophy, is all sort of measured around that.”
This may sound obvious – one of those meaningless axioms beloved by coaches – but it’s not. Some coaches prefer negation; Postecoglou demands creation. “The end goal is that we just want to score more goals than everyone else,” he said in 2020. “Me winning 4-3 is more exciting than winning 1-0.”
In this regard, he’s like the late, great manager Brian Clough, who took Nottingham Forest to two consecutive European Cup titles in 1979 and 1980. Their personalities couldn’t be more different – Clough was impish, provocative, vain, self-aggrandising, thin-skinned, ebullient and as verbally creative and memorable as his teams – but he had a proud and defining insistence on how the game should be played. “If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there,” he once said about playing long balls. And then there was this, about his desire to transform the thuggish style of Leeds United: “That might be aiming for utopia. And that might mean being a little bit stupid. But that is the way I am. I am a little bit stupid regarding this type of thing. I am a bit of an idealist. I do believe in fairies. And that is my outlook.”
The British press has enjoyed the novelty of an Australian assuming the high-profile role, but they have also warmed to Postecoglou’s calm, disarmingly blunt interviews. In a world of imperious egos – José Mourinho, one of his predecessors at Spurs, has the fearsome aura of long-reigning autocrat – Postecoglou’s humility and wry bemusement with the fuss surrounding him has appeared not so much refreshing as extraordinary.
Not that long ago, as Socceroos coach, Postecoglou rebelled against what he saw as Australia’s provincial sense of inferiority, the self-harm of low expectations. He did not make things easy for himself, and could be mocked for his lofty ambition.
Postecoglou is an itchy, impatient romantic – in Australia, he wanted nothing so mundane as team success but to revolutionise how we thought of the game and ourselves. He left the country frustrated.
Postecoglou, with justification, has nurtured his outsider status. His romanticism, which he upheld consistently and which upset plenty, could make him abrasive, defensive. He pre-empted criticism. But it was all fuel. After his appointment as Spurs manager, he was asked what might change about people’s expectations of him. “I still think people will underestimate me,” he said. “People have underestimated me my whole career, and I don’t want to change that – that’s good for me.”
When faced with the public’s indifference and the football establishment’s scepticism, Postecoglou could have changed. When coaching in Japan, and recognising his obscurity was making a European appointment unlikely, he could have changed. When joining Spurs, he could have regarded the appointment as a personal high-water mark and revised his philosophy conservatively – grateful merely for the opportunity, and now desperate above all to retain it.
He never did. And now, in quick time, he has transformed Spurs according to his long-standing principles – and, what’s more, it’s working so far. After seven league matches, Spurs sit second, only a point behind arguably the greatest team in Premier League history – Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Spurs are unbeaten and are playing delicious soccer.
We don’t know when we’ll go. But I learnt early that things can change tragically very quickly. In some way, we all know this – time is precious; to cherish what we have; to rebel against our own inertia and complacencies and to adventurously seek more for and from ourselves.
And so my admiration for Postecoglou is strange and personal. It’s idiosyncratic. But it amounts to this: there is little that is petty or grasping or dull about him. He is not an automaton, a man satisfied with mediocrity or choosing the easy way. Postecoglou is an unapologetic romantic and I like to think that when it’s time for him to shuffle off, he won’t have many regrets.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "The impatient romantic".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription