When once presented with a question about his philosophy, Martin O’Neill told the story of the new manager who lost his first three fixtures 3-2, 4-3 and 5-4. By the time a fourth high-scoring defeat in a row arrived, boardroom purring over style had given way to edginess and questions on whether victory was likely at any point in the future. O’Neill’s Celtic side would never win awards for artistic merit but the Irishman’s generally successful tenure meant supporters had little cause to bother. As Tiger Woods puts it, winning takes care of everything.
Celtic do not make a habit of losing their opening league fixture; their defeat against Hearts on Saturday was their first at such a juncture since 1997. One must go back further decades to discover the last time Celtic did not win any of their first three competitive matches in a season. That a Champions League qualifying-stage exit to Midtjylland does not even register as a mild embarrassment says everything about Celtic’s dysfunctional state. This week, a club which prides itself on status far beyond Scotland will begin their quest to scrape towards the Europa League by seeing off Jablonec. It is far from a given.
An angry rump of Celtic’s following believed the sacking of Neil Lennon was all that was required to kickstart better things. Lennon exited on 23 February. Since then Celtic have played 13 matches and won three, against the might of Falkirk, St Johnstone and Livingston. Ange Postecoglou, appointed as the manager in early June, is not gregarious by nature but looks quietly troubled by what continues to transpire in front of him.
So has this job delivered more challenges than Postecoglou had anticipated? “No, not really,” he said. “It’s not like everything has happened in the last week. I think it was fairly evident at the end of last season that the club was going to go through a big change. A lot of players had left before I got the job. When I was appointed I knew there was a lot of work to do and I actually saw that as an opportunity to bring in the players I want, to bring in the kind of football I want.”
If Postecoglou is therefore overawed by or fearful of the dire hand as delivered him, he is keeping as much to himself for now. As would be wise; the former Australia national coach made great play of doing considerable homework on Celtic. If, instead, he is completely confident of restoring the faith of the Celtic support in their team, then such a sense is undermined by his demeanour. Managing clubs the size of Celtic requires personality. Brendan Rodgers had it, just as Tony Mowbray – and there were deeper reasons for this – visibly wilted as his team malfunctioned.
Celtic’s recruitment shambles is barely worth re-emphasising. Postecoglou’s sentiment as delivered long before John Souttar headed home Hearts’ 89th-minute winner implied he is not altogether impressed with the background structure at the club. Nonetheless, step one for any new manager – let alone one facing clubs with a fraction of his resource – is to make his team difficult to beat. Postecoglou has not done that; Celtic are timid in attack and laughably poor defensively.
The 55-year-old, coaxed from Yokohama Marinos via a process which is worthy of scrutiny, is yet to deliver something, anything that infers Celtic have struck coaching gold. Focus on the upper echelons of the club is perfectly valid but the early stages of Postecoglou’s tenure are not littered with glimmers of hope. Signing players to suit the style Postecoglou wants to implement – and there is nothing particularly cosmic about that – becomes an increasing struggle as desperation increases. Postecoglou has not got a single coach of his own choosing in whom to confide, a strange scenario whether at his or Celtic’s behest.
On separate occasions at Tynecastle, Postecoglou upbraided journalists for repeating questions. The blunt retort would be that the manager keeps presiding over similar outcomes. “Our first five to 10 minutes were chaotic, which we expected,” said Postecoglou. It is legitimate to ask why that should be the case, save the deployment of a new centre-back, Carl Starfelt, after just a single training session. Much later in the match Postecoglou threw on the Japanese forward Kyogo Furuhashi, just free from travel quarantine. It looked it.
“Our front third play wasn’t great all night,” Postecoglou said. Something is wildly amiss there, given David Turnbull, James Forrest and Odsonne Edouard – all starters at Tynecastle – are among Celtic’s best players. Liel Abada, deployed on the right wing, at £3.5m cost far more than Hearts XI combined. Robbie Neilson, the Hearts manager, made tactical switches in the latter stages of the fixture as his team wrestled back control. Postecoglou can be as sharp as he likes with journalists – and history tells us there will be plenty more where that came from – but it would be better coming from a position of even moderate strength.
Celtic have an absentee principal shareholder, a chairman who is about as visible as women in the Muirfield clubhouse and a new chief executive with no previous working experience in football. Such matters add to the sense that this club has completely lost its way. That is not at all Postecoglou’s fault; but Scottish football will chew him up and spit him out should he not keep up his end of the bargain. On the basis of preserving reputation alone, the manager would do well to remember that much. O’Neill’s tale had indisputable merit.