ROB DRAPER: Ange Postecoglou took over as manager of his mates’ team aged 12 and won his first title… No wonder he’s changed the face of Tottenham already

Something has changed at Tottenham. A senior member of staff, used to observing the team at their training ground in the leafier edges of Enfield, noticed it the minute Ange Postecoglou arrived. ‘He’s just very approachable, always comes over to chat, shares his thoughts and asks questions’ said the staff member. ‘He just seems a really open person. That didn’t really happen with the coaches before.’

Before Ange seems a long time ago now. The dark cloud that descended over the club in the latter days of Mauricio Pochettino and the reigns of Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo and Antonio Conte, where the football got regressively worse, seems to be lifting.

It is very early days to posit a revival at a club where the man who owned it, at least until last year, is facing 25 years in jail for alleged securities fraud and which is also the club who recently appointed a director of football who was soon after banned by FIFA.

Yet given that they have sold one of their greatest ever players this summer because he concluded they were nowhere near winning trophies, it was hard to imagine, they would approach today’s North London derby with this amount of bravado. It remains to be seen whether the renewed sense of well-being survives 90 minutes at The Emirates, but ‘Big Ange’ as Robbie Williams christened him his serenade to the new manager, might just have turned something around.

Craig Foster, the former Portsmouth and Crystal Palace player and now prominent Australian pundit, goes way back with Postecoglou. So far back that they have fallen out publicly on TV in spectacular fashion – more of that later – kissed, made up and since grown into mutual admirers.

Ange Postecoglou has enjoyed a superb start after becoming Tottenham’s head coach

Postecoglou has quickly lifted the mood across the club and with the Spurs supporters

Postecoglou has quickly lifted the mood across the club and with the Spurs supporters

A mood change was required at Tottenham after the dismal end to Antonio Conte's reign

A mood change was required at Tottenham after the dismal end to Antonio Conte’s reign

‘We all knew it was only matter of time before Ange moved into the Premier League and we were all just delighted it was Spurs, given their historical commitment to attacking, attractive football,’ said Foster. ‘And he’s coming on the back of Antonio Conte, whose football was absolutely turgid, almost impossible to watch at times. The way they have started is absolutely no surprise, he’s done it time and time again. 

‘The thing about Ange is that Australian coaches have to build their capability with a lesser level of player. So they have to find a way to make every player better. [Now at Spurs] It’s like going from a pretty good sports car to a Ferrari. You’re able to do the same things at much higher level.

‘Some years ago I was doing pro licence and Ange came along to have a chat. ‘He said: “The hardest thing for coaches is to disregard the concept of time. The vast majority of coaches are scared of losing jobs in next few weeks; that’s how industry operates. That conditions a lot of their thinking and work. In tough situations, they tend to make compromises to buy more time. But you can only work at your full capacity in life when you disregard the consequences.”’

It’s a bold take and perhaps one that could only be forged outside of the crucible of major European football leagues, where the relentlessness can grind you down. Postecoglou once believed his Australian passport would bar him forever from being accepted into major European football, recalling being introduced to clubs owners. ‘They just didn’t know who I was. It was so depressing.’ But it turns out being formed outside of the treadmill of European football might actually be his super power, the feature that makes him unique and accessible and Tottenham exciting.

Craig Foster is among Postecoglou's admirers despite their previous public falling out

Craig Foster is among Postecoglou’s admirers despite their previous public falling out

Albert Park is an oasis in South Melbourne, a green lung in the city centre, from where you can see the clear blue sea of Port Phillip Bay just a few blocks away. Nearby is Port Melbourne, where the ferries dock and where once thousands of migrants coming from Europe took their first steps into a new life. ‘A lot of migrants got off the ship and ended up around the ports and inner city in South Melbourne because that’s where it was affordable,’ says Kimon Taliadoros, part of the Australian Greek diaspora.

These days Albert Park plays host to Formula One’s Melbourne Grand Prix yet until 1994 it hosted a more culturally significant venue: Middle Park stadium. The ramshackle ground built in 1959 was a community hub that hosted South Melbourne Hellas football club, a refuge for the migrants, a corner of Australia that was forever Greece. ‘It wasn’t the most-hospitable environment for migrants coming to Australia and they found themselves coalescing in areas that gave them comfort,’ says Taliadoros, now CEO at Football Victoria. ‘Football was one of them, food was another as were community and family. And those all came together at Middle Park. It was accessible to everyone and sufficiently far away from the dominant Anglo Saxon culture of AFL [Australian rules football] and cricket. You wouldn’t catch anyone in and around the precinct going to MCG in those days.’

The smell of souvlaki, the chatter of Greek provided a home from home. For Dimitris Postecoglou, an Athens carpenter forced to work aboard in Libya due to economic chaos in Greece in the late 1960s, who then decided to move his family to Australia, it was a weekend solace. ‘I know my dad struggled a lot,’ his son, Ange, who was five when he moved, wrote in his book, Changing The Game. ‘You have to be in such a situation, with no language, to really understand how debilitating it is, how dehumanising. It wasn’t just a man, his wife and kids in a restaurant where they couldn’t read the menu; it was a vulnerable family arriving in a new county. There was no way in. No familiarity. You could only go as far as the language could take you.’

For Dimitris and Ange that was as far as Middle Park, a few blocks from their Greek dominated neighbourhood of Prahran. ‘Football was really the only thing that relaxed my father. Maybe it was because he was surrounded by the people who had the same sort of issues, the same dilemmas, all of them just there to enjoy the game and get a weekly release from ordeal of being a stranger in a strange land. Eating and speaking Greek – one can imagine how powerful an analgesic that was,’ wrote Ange.

A brief flirtation with Aussie rules football, with Ange winning a trophy for most-improved player at school in Year 5, was met by a stony silence from Dimitris. The message was clear: this father was not going to allow this new nation’s culture to break his filial bond. He needn’t have worried.

Ange Postecoglou has spoken of the role his late father has had on his footballer career

Ange Postecoglou has spoken of the role his late father has had on his footballer career 

Postecoglu established and took charge of his school football team aged 12 and won a title

Postecoglu established and took charge of his school football team aged 12 and won a title

The legendary Ferenc Puskas coached Postecoglu while he was a player for South Melbourne

The legendary Ferenc Puskas coached Postecoglu while he was a player for South Melbourne

At the age of 12, Ange had badgered his school sports department at Prahran High to start a football team. Aussie Rules and rugby league dominated the school sports department, which didn’t have the expertise to run a football team so they put the music teacher in charge, who spent practice marking homework. ‘So I took over,’ recalls Postecoglu. ‘My mates in that team are still my mates today and they ask me: “Why the hell were we listening to you?” We were are all the same age and I had no experience other than sitting around the older guys [at South Melbourne Hellas] listening to them talk. But the team, my peers listened. I must have made sense.’ Indeed he must have. In their hand-me-down Aussie rules kits, they became Victoria State Champions.

Postecoglou would soon be progressing through the ranks as a player at South Melbourne Hellas, captaining the team to a famous 1984 national title win at the age of just 19. ‘He was the youngest ever captain of South Melbourne and was an aggressive and proactive, overlapping left back – and this was in the mid 1980s,’ recalls Taliadoros, who joined the club in 1987.

By an extraordinary turn of events, he came under the tutorship of a life-changing mentor and the man who influences Tottenham’s current style. ‘Ferenc Puskas had been brought out by Hungarian community in Melbourne to run some football programmes for kids,’ said Taliadoros. ‘Of course he was a god among Hungarians and Europeans in general. South Melbourne Hellas heard about that. Puskas spoke Greek [due to his coaching time at Panathinaikos] and so they approached him. He and his wife decided they liked Melbourne, so he found himself coaching a team that was a new generation of young players.’

Star of the Mighty Magyars who humbled England in 1953 and 1954 and architect of Real Madrid’s European Cup domination he have might been, but not all the team were fully aware of the coup the club had delivered, ‘When he first arrived, they said: “We’ve got a new coach called Ferenc Puskas.”’ Paul Wade, a team-mate of Taliadoros and Postecoglou, told ESPN. ‘And we’re thinking: “Yeah, right, good on ya. Which suburb is he from?”’

But in an era where everyone played 4-4-2, where catenaccio still dominated European football, Puskas was a throwback to something more innocent. ‘He just did not like defending at all,’ Postecoglou told Gary Lineker on Football Focus yesterday. ‘His attitude was: “They score four, we’ll score five”. He wanted to play with wingers but didn’t want our wingers to come back over the half way line. I was full back and I was like: “Mate! You’ve got to come back and help at some point!” We’d win games 5-4, it was ridiculous. And that stirred something in me, to say: “Why not? Why not just play the football everyone wants to play?”’

They won the 1991 National Soccer League grand final and the NSL Cup in 1990 but attacking football had its limits. ‘Many people suggested we under achieved,’ said Taliadoros. ‘We would typically lose games if we couldn’t convert chances because we were committed to playing attacking football.’ Might they be classed a bit Spursy? ‘Spot on’ says Taliadoros. ‘People enjoyed watching us, loved the ride but it didn’t always result in ultimate success.’

Puskas departed at the end of the 1992 season and it would take six years for South Melbourne Hellas to win the title again. They needed a bright, young manager, who had been schooled by Puskas. Postecoglou led the club to NSL titles in 1998 and 1999.

Postecoglou won the Asian Cup with Australia and led the nation to the World Cup in 2014

Postecoglou won the Asian Cup with Australia and led the nation to the World Cup in 2014

Foster, who by that point was playing for Portsmouth, would take a particular interest in his success. As a successful export to Europe, Foster was renowned in Australia, while Postecoglou was making his way and coaching Australia’s Under 19 team. In 2006, Postecoglou’s team were knocked out of the Asian Cup by South Korea in the quarter finals after a lacklustre campaign.

Foster, by now a prominent pundit, confronted Postecoglou with his tactical deficiencies live on air, resulting in an on-screen bust-up which is one of Australian football’s most memorable moments. ‘What I care about is the quality of your coaching,’ said Foster. ‘I think you should put your hand up and walk out.’

‘That says more about you than is does about me,’ Postecoglou shot back, accusing Foster of shoddy research. Foster protested that it wasn’t personal. ‘You’re not attacking me personally?’ retorted Postecoglou. ‘OK, I feel a lot better, because you’re a real close mate,’ his words dripping with irony. The back and forth goes on for almost ten minutes in a fiery exchange.

‘We both could have handled that interview better,’ concedes Foster. ‘We were both much younger and today that interview would be very different. But it was important in a number of respects, because Australia was going through growing pains across all of our game and that created quite a bit of conflict with coaches and administrators. Change and growth often involves tension and if today we’re in an extraordinary positon, if we look back 20 years ago, that’s in part only because everyone was able to push really hard.

‘The repercussions were deeply regrettable but media job is to hold coaches and administrators to account. Australia is a very small football nation and we have four different codes. We want to be successful internationally and to do that have to among best thinkers and innovators in world football, so we have to be at forefront. We were anything but 20 years ago, it has been a huge journey and today our coaches very highly educated and Ange is great example of that

Luckily Postecoglou isn’t a man to hold a 17-year grudge over a tactical disagreement. In a recent exchange with Foster it was evident just how much his early years at Middle Park are seared into his identity. Foster has become an advocate for migrant’ human rights, playing a crucial role in securing the release of Bahraini footballer and activist Hakeem al-Araibi when detained in Thailand. On a live TV link up with then Celtic manager, Foster was left surprised by Postecoglou’s impromptu greeting. ‘Craig, great respect for what you’ve been doing over there with refugees, an unbelievable cause and an unbelievable effort form yourself mate,’ said Postecoglou.

‘I didn’t expect him to mention it but I’m pleased he did,’ said Foster.

Memories forged in childhood stick. When he was managing Australia, Postecoglou had written about ‘parents working abroad and sending earnings back home to their families. I see a lot of that now as I travel through Asia. I can’t help but feel empathy. As I fly into and drive by these communities, and am served in hotels by expat remittance workers, I wonder how their kids are being shaped as I was by that separation and transience?’ As he was, when his dad went to Libya.

Postecoglou appears to have reconnected the Tottenham team with their fanbase this season

Postecoglou appears to have reconnected the Tottenham team with their fanbase this season

And then there is the renewed sense that Spurs might just have reconnected with their fan base. ‘Coming out of South Melbourne Hellas, with that immense amount of passion, community and love for the club means he intimately understands the importance of how the players go about playing for the fans,’ says Foster. ‘This was an ethnic community living their dream through their football club. And because he wasn’t a top player, he really saw the community side of it.

‘This is why Spurs is ideal club for him. The fans are so desperate for something to believe in and so hungry to be proud of their football. He understands they want to feel the thrill. In football, you see a huge amount of pragmatism. And, that is probably true of life. People lose their job and then think: “Oh I wish I’d been more authentic, more true to my ideas.” But [what Ange told me is that] it’s of little use to be concerned about what might happen. The objective is to play the football you believe in.’

In other words, to dare is to do, as someone once said. Ange and Spurs do, for now at least, seem a perfect fit.


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