Highs and lows: Ange Postecoglou. Photo: Getty Images
Pick a coach, any coach, any coach will do. Ange Postecoglou has been all of them.
Successful National Soccer League coach at South Melbourne. Sacked national coach of Australia’s under-20s. An Australian coach with Greek heritage at Greek club Panachaiki. An outcast coach at Victorian Premier League side Whittlesea Zebras. An out-of-work coach. A reborn, premiership-winning, I’m-back-baby coach at Brisbane Roar. Then the hottest coach in the land, lured to Melbourne Victory.
Postecoglou resurrected his career in the A-League with the all-conquering Roar. Photo: Getty Images
‘‘I was always destined to coach rather than play,’’ says Postecoglou, who did play, including four matches for the Socceroos, all of them with heart, a mullet and ‘‘a bad goatee’’.
Yet before all of these reincarnations as a coach, Ange Postecoglou was a fan. He was like any young boy, perched up on the lounge and watching footy, seeking validation from his father sitting next to him.
Jim Postecoglou brought his family from Athens to Melbourne in the 1970s and busted long hours, every day, as a cabinetmaker to make the most of his family’s new life.
Ange Postecoglou as coach of the Australian under-20 side.
‘‘We never saw him,’’ says Ange, now 48. ‘‘But if there was a game of football on, I was right there, sitting on a couch next to him. It didn’t matter what time of night it was. Even now, he’s not doing well health-wise, but I go over and he’ll inevitably be watching a game that he’s taped. I have two boys, and I’m trying to pass it on to them. We sit there in our Liverpool gear, like I used to when I was their age.’’
If he wasn’t wearing Liverpool gear, he was wearing Aussie rules gear at the public school he attended in South Melbourne. Along with other migrant kids, he played their version of ‘‘football’’. They won the state championships, and the photo firm in Postecoglou’s mind is of him and his teammates clutching the pennant, wearing the sleeveless woollen jumpers and the tight shorts of the school’s Aussie rules team from the year before.
‘‘I always question why I am so passionate about the game,’’ he says. ‘‘I love the game, right? I really do. It’s charted my life. I wonder why I loved a game that was very hard to love in this country when I was growing up. I know I followed it because of my father. It was the social glue in our family. On the weekend, regardless of how hard my parents – being migrants – had worked, they came to watch me play football in the under-age comp. It wasn’t just our family. It was all our families at a similar stage of life.’’
Postecoglou after winning the NSL title with South Melbourne.
On one of those nights, in 1974, Jim Postecoglou dragged his nine-year-old son out of bed. They sat in the dead of night and watched a black-and-white TV as the Socceroos made their first appearance at the World Cup, in Germany.
That’s when young Ange’s mind started to flicker.
‘‘You start dreaming how fantastic this game is,’’ he says. ‘‘And where it can take you.’’
It can take you all the way here, to a busy cafe at the bottom of Football Federation Australia’s headquarters in Sydney’s CBD, weeks before the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, as coach of the Socceroos.
Those who care the most about football in Australia talk about ‘‘The Mission’’. It isn’t so much about the Socceroos making the World Cup finals as growing, even indoctrinating, the code into the wider lifestyle of the nation.
When Australia departed the World Cup at the group stage in South Africa four years ago, under the stewardship of Dutchman Pim Verbeek, FFA chairman Frank Lowy made it clear he wanted an Australian to coach the national side – at some point.
Then he opted for German Holger Osieck, who not only had the personality of a dial tone but a game plan just as exciting. It led to a greater disconnect between the Socceroos and a picky Australian sporting public, just as it had with the Wallabies under New Zealander Robbie Deans and the Australian cricket team under South African Mickey Arthur.
When Lowy and FFA chief executive David Gallop pulled the trigger on Osieck after a humiliating 6-0 defeat to France in Paris last October, they knew the next coach had to be Australian, and had to have a broader view of the game than the national side defending its way to results ahead of trying to win.
‘‘[Ange] knows how to get off the dancefloor and stand on the balcony to see the bigger picture for Australian football,’’ Gallop says. ‘‘He’s the right man for the job because he sees the total picture.’’
At a media briefing leading into this World Cup, Postecoglou was presented to reporters heading to Brazil as a ‘‘storyteller’’. The coach writes his columns for Fairfax with the express wish they are not touched. Unlike other columnists, the words and thoughts are all his.
The column that stands out was published in the narrow period between Osieck’s demise and his own appointment, and it articulated the lack of faith in the Socceroos. One line rises above the rest: ‘‘The national team is there to sell hope, not to dampen dreams.’’
Some labelled it an inauguration speech. Others thought it a very public lodging of his CV.
‘‘Some people saw it as pumping myself up for a job,’’ he says. ‘‘Others understood and felt the same frustration. It was more about being passionate about the direction I wanted our national team to take. I’d watched the last two campaigns pretty frustrated. I was doing work for Fox Sports. When you work on TV, and because I was coaching, I couldn’t really say what I wanted to say.
‘‘When most people talk about any sport in Australia, that’s what resonates most: when we have a go. And when we don’t downplay our position. That’s never been us. In the last few years, it’s all been about, ‘This is who we are. This is our station in life. We have to accept that we’re not that good.’’’
The media coverage for which Postecoglou is best remembered in the football community is an SBS interview from 2006 during his final days at Australia’s under-20s coach, after his side had failed to reach the World Youth Cup.
Craig Foster – with some glancing blows from host Les Murray – went in for the kill with ICAC-like force. ‘‘OK Ange,’’ Foster said, ‘‘but that’s the second time you’ve failed to qualify now. You can’t just point to the players. You’ve got to take responsibility yourself, don’t you?’’
From there, it degenerated into an ugly 12-minute stoush between two men who dislike each other.
‘‘The worst thing for me is that I got defined by it,’’ Postecoglou says. ‘‘It was agenda-driven and there was some personal stuff with ‘Foz’. I’ve never got along well with him. He got sidetracked by that. I’ve been whacked plenty of times. At the end of this World Cup, if things don’t turn out, I could get whacked again. But that wasn’t really a journalist extracting information. It was a personal attack.’’
Postecoglou is convinced those 12 minutes of television cost him jobs at Melbourne Heart and Adelaide United.
‘‘That’s people’s first reference,’’ he continues. ‘‘If you want to appoint Ange Postecoglou, watch this interview. It didn’t paint anyone in a good light. You live with it now. People bring it up all the time. If you Google my name, it’s the first thing that comes up, apparently.’’
Since then, Postecoglou has traversed the most unlikely of paths, all the way to the most important coaching position in Australian football.
He picked up the pieces at Greek countryside club Panachaiki. The scrutiny was intense. ‘‘It was madness,’’ he recalls. ‘‘Every week, I had a police escort. I’m talking 20 police to get me in and out. If we won, they loved me. If we lost, they wanted to kill me. They were so passionate, but to a lunatic level. They had three daily newspapers, three TV stations, and they literally reported on everything. Then they made it up.’’
Growing up, Postecoglou had shunned his Greek heritage, wanting to assimilate in his family’s new country. At Panachaiki, he was the outcast again. He was the Aussie.
‘‘You grow up in Australia as a Greek,’’ he says. ‘‘You go to Greece, and you’re an Aussie. All the headlines were about the Australian who had taken over their team.’’
When Athens-based lawyer Alexis Kougias took ownership of the team from South Australia’s wealthiest man, Con Makris, he wanted to address Postecoglou’s side before a match.
The coach wasn’t having a second of it. He was sacked days later.
He returned to Australia and started working for Fox Sports, but also accepted a job with Whittlesea, on the fringes of Melbourne.
‘‘I want to make this as professional as possible,’’ he told his team of part-timers at his first training session. ‘‘I want people to be on time, we’ll do an extra training night.’’
The next day, his phone rang. It was the club president.
‘‘Ange,’’ he said. ‘‘Five of the boys have quit.’’
Postecoglou laughs telling the story. ‘‘It was challenging and depressing at the same time. I thought, ‘Is this it? Am I a TV pundit for the rest of my life?’ The thing is, it really wasn’t that long ago.’’
The moment that changed everything came on a Friday night at Etihad Stadium after Postecoglou had helped call a Victory fixture for Fox Sports.
As he was walking out after the match, he saw then A-League chief executive Archie Fraser walking just ahead of him. They’d never met, and it wasn’t in Postecoglou’s nature to speed ahead, corner him and introduce himself.
But he did. He needed a job. ‘‘If anything comes up, keep me in mind,’’ he told Fraser, pitching for a job, any job, any job will do.
‘‘We’ve got you on our radar,’’ Fraser told him. ‘‘If something comes up ...’’
The next morning, Brisbane Roar coach Frank Farina was arrested for drink driving.
‘‘I can’t promise you anything, but Frank’s under pressure,’’ Fraser told Postecoglou. ‘‘There might be a position in Brisbane.’’
Says Postecolgou now: ‘‘I wonder if Ididn’t tap him on the shoulder, would Ihave been in his mind?’’
Three days later, he flew to Brisbane Airport and met the Roar’s then owners, Emmanuel Drivas and Emmanuel Kokoris from the Coffee Club, and Claude and Serge Baradel from Luxury Paints.
His pitch: their club needed a change, irrespective of what had happened with Farina. They needed to build a new culture. ‘‘That’s what I believe in,’’ Postecoglou says. ‘‘That’s what I do. Ifelt like the audience I was talking to wanted to hear that anyway.’’
He was appointed, and two A-League titles followed. The coach who had been SBS cannon fodder only four years earlier was now the most coveted in the league.
‘‘The only thing to come out of that SBS interview was after everything I’d been through, I was only ever going to do it the way I believed,’’ he says. ‘‘There had been a collaboration with other people before that. But when it came to speak, I was the only one standing in front of the microphone. They weren’t around. That was the biggest lesson I had. Stuff that. From now on, the decisions are all mine.’’
With that in mind, how do you tell the second richest man in the country, with a net worth of nearly $7 billion, that it will be your way or not at all when it comes to leading the national football team?
‘‘Well, you have to,’’ Postecoglou says. ‘‘I didn’t really have to say it. I’d like to think by now they know what they’re getting. That the chairman and David Gallop knew this is what I do.’’
In 2000, Postecoglou sat down with Alex Ferguson before South Melbourne met Manchester United in the world club championships at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.
‘‘Don’t seek confrontation,’’ Ferguson advised. ‘‘As a manager, it will come to you.’’
Postecoglou says now: ‘‘I’ve lived by that adage. I don’t create blues for the sake of it. I’ve been clear about the direction we’re heading in. People can make up their own mind – whether it’s a player or staff – instead of me saying their time is up.’’
With ninja-like stealth, he has regenerated his side with astonishing ruthlessness. When it comes to hope, he isn’t selling hope, but dampening plenty of dreams.
Veteran players, most notably former captain Lucas Neill, have been ushered out the door without any real heartache or outrage. He similarly sliced experienced players Luke Wilkshire and Josh Kennedy from the final squad shortly after arriving in Brazil.
‘‘For a long time, we’ve leant on the same players,’’ Postecoglou says. ‘‘It’s a privilege, not a right. I want our national players to be excited or disappointed if they miss out, not to expect it. That’s why I’ve been closed about who I select. Even if you’re Mile Jedinak playing in the Premier League, I want you asking, ‘Am Igoing to be in it or not?’ That way, they come into camp appreciating the honour of representing their country. I have a five-year contract. I don’t expect to be here unless I perform along the way.’’
Doesn’t Gallop know it.
‘‘We’ve given him a long-term contract but we want to be competitive every time we play,’’ the chief executive says. ‘‘Australian sports fans want to see the nation punch above its weight, and we’ll certainly need to do that in the next few weeks.’’
Yet Postecoglou has a vision beyond Brazil 2014. It extends beyond next January’s Asian Cup, which his side will be expected to win on home soil. ‘‘I want the game to be stronger in 30 years’ time, but that will never happen if we become arrogant about who we are. We should not be afraid to let people in.
‘‘I get really annoyed when people tell me this is how it’s done overseas. You know what? Overseas they can do whatever they like. They can be arrogant about their code because it’s the No.1 sport. People will follow it religiously. We don’t have that luxury here. If young people don’t feel like their national team is accessible, that it doesn’t excite them, that it doesn’t represents them in the way they want to, the code suffers. My biggest driver is to grow the game. That’s what the chairman wants.’’
Postecoglou has actually been thinking about that longer than you might think. It stretches back to when he was nine-year-old, sitting next to the old man on the couch as they watched the 1974 Socceroos through tired eyes.
‘‘At school, I would get 20 cents for a pie and milk every day,’’ he says. ‘‘I spent eight cents on the newspaper every morning. I used to love reading the analysis; everything about the coaches, whether it was football or AFL. Every book or magazine I’ve ever kept is about coaching. I wanted to coach, even then. Where it would take me, I had no idea.’’