There are times when appointing an unknown manager works wonders at a football club. The classic example that will always be given is the appointment of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in the 1990s. Nobody in English football knew who Wenger was when he got the job after the dismissal of Bruce Rioch. Expectations were low, but Wenger was a revelation. His progressive methods transformed not only Arsenal but top-flight English football as a whole. Given Arsenal’s struggles since his retirement, there are fans who want him to return to the club and resume command even now despite the fact the Frenchman is 71 years old.
It was the example of Wenger that was cited to Celtic fans when many of them were concerned about the appointment of Ange Postecoglou as a permanent replacement for Neil Lennon in June 2021. The Greek coach was, like Wenger, a total unknown to British football fans. He’d spent his whole coaching career to date managing clubs in either Greece or Australia, and his four-year tenure as coach of the Australian national team yielded decidedly mixed results. Nothing on Postecoglu’s resume suggested he was capable of coping with the demands of a club as big as Celtic, but supporters were urged to be patient. Four months later, there are signs that patience among those supporters is already wearing thin.
To say that Postecoglu’s start at Celtic has been inauspicious would be to understate the obvious. Their attempt to qualify for this season’s Champions League was over inside two games when they lost on aggregate to unfancied Danish side FC Midtjylland. They followed that disappointment up by losing their opening game of the league season away at Hearts. A loss to Rangers on 29th August was a setback after encouraging results against St Mirren and Dundee, and then September was a disaster. Celtic were beaten by Real Betis and Livingston, held by Dundee United and thrashed at home by Bayer Leverkusen. Starting October with a gritty 2-1 victory away at Aberdeen has been cited by some in the media as a sign that the Bhoys are turning a corner, but the fact remains that Celtic lie sixth in the table after eight games. Rangers are already six points clear of them. This legendary club is currently suffering the embarrassment of being behind Dundee United, Motherwell, Hibernian, and Hearts, as well as their Old Firm rivals.
For his part, the manager is satisfied with the efforts of his players and his coaching team. He was asked at the end of September whether he’d underestimated the scale of the task when he’d agreed to fill the vacancy at Celtic Park. His reply was that he found the question condescending. He thinks it’s a suggestion that he doesn’t understand the history or the magnitude of the club or the ramifications of losing, and he finds that insulting. He’s right to. Postecoglu is not stupid. He knew the vacancy didn’t exist because the previous manager had decided he’d achieved all he could with Celtic, and the time was right to move on. He was fully aware that he had an enormous rebuilding task ahead of him when he got on a plane to Scotland, and the grim reality for Celtic fans is that much of that work is still to be done.
You could make a strong argument that no manager could have made an immediate impact at Celtic this summer. There were simply too many things wrong with the club. The squad he inherited was disjointed and jaded. There’s been a chronic lack of investment in the playing staff for years, and the shortcomings of Neil Lennon only exacerbated that problem. If anything, Celtic’s sudden decline served only to highlight how well Brendan Rodgers performed in the role before he went back to England to take over at Leicester City. A decent proportion of Celtic fans – possibly even the majority – appreciate that Postecoglu is doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances and that it might be years before they’re in a position to challenge Rangers for supremacy again. It’s not a reality that supporters relish facing, it but’s there all the same.
Still, though, there’s an expectation that Celtic will be in or around the championship race no matter who’s in charge of the club. Even in dark days, underperforming Celtic managers have finished in the top two. The longer Celtic stay outside those positions, the greater the pressure on the board to act will become. It’s in Celtic’s nature to gamble. That might be why they’re one of only two clubs in world football to have their own licensed and branded online slots game (the other being Liverpool). There might be lessons to be learned from that online slots game, the biggest being that spinning the reels after a loss doesn’t always give you a better result the next time around. It’s the temptation to keep spending your money on another spin that keeps players at online slots websites for so long, but eventually, you’ll drain your bankroll if your luck isn’t in. When that happens, you’ll find yourself wishing you’d kept hold of what you had before you decided to take the risk.
Even taking all of the above into account, there are worrying signs that Celtic’s board wasn’t one hundred per cent confident in Postecoglu when they offered him a contract. It’s standard practice in football to offer a new manager a two or three year guaranteed term when appointing them to a position. Postecoglu doesn’t have that level of security. He was given a twelve-month rolling contract that presumably won’t be renewed if Celtic aren’t where they ought to be when those twelve months are over. The short term also means Celtic aren’t required to part with a huge compensation payment if they decide to end the contract early. That has to be a worry for the coach and his players, with the saving grace being that there isn’t an outstanding candidate waiting in the wings. Celtic can’t attract a genuinely world-class manager in their current state, and there’s no guarantee that anyone less than world-class will do any better than Postecoglu. This has all the hallmarks of a marriage of convenience – and such marriages tend not to last very long.