When will Celtic learn they are yesterday’s men?

Ange Postecoglou has agreed to become the manager of Tottenham Hotspur. It’s been a whirlwind two years for the Australian – while experienced in Asian football his appointment at Parkhead was met with raised eyebrows and initial derision as Celtic struggled.

That quickly became a distant memory as the gears began to click, and in just one year Celtic dethroned their city rivals Rangers and reasserted themselves as the dominant force in Scottish football, a trend which has continued into this season with a record eighth domestic treble.

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Two years ago Celtic looked lost next to a resurgent Rangers. Now the reverse is true, in no small part thanks to Postecoglou’s tactical work and shrewd recruitment. It’s easy to point to him using his knowledge of Asian football to bring in the best the J-League has to offer, but Celtic’s recruitment has stretched beyond just Japan – Joe Hart and Cameron Carter-Vickers have been solid and popular buys.

Plus of course you win trophies on the pitch, not in the transfer market, and Ange has led Celtic to several important victories over Rangers in league and cup games on the way to silverware.

It’s not a surprise he’s won admirers south of the border, and it’s overtures he’s decided to reciprocate. He’ll join Spurs on a four-year deal and become the first Australian to manage in the English Premier League.

This has naturally led to disappointment in East Glasgow, and some of that disappointment has spilled over into anger. Take a look around social media and you’ll see a lot of spitting rage over Ange’s departure.

It’s a similar story to Brendan Rodgers’ departure, and arguably more of a tantrum – the timing of Rodgers’ departure left Celtic in the lurch, whereas Ange has chosen to jump ship at the very end of a season, after the trophies have been delivered and pre-season is yet to start, giving his successor plenty of time to work with, though this has not stopped an outpouring fury.

Of course fans will always be disappointed when a manager leaves, but the attitude of Celtic fans in both of the above cases is rather telling. As I write this a cursory glance through social media shows me Celtic fans decrying him as a ‘lying rat b*****d’, ‘mercenary’, and images of snake emojis. To leave Celtic isn’t just disappointment at losing a successful leader, it’s a betrayal. It’s chasing money, chasing status, spitting in the face of tradition and history.

No one could possibly want to leave Celtic because there’s a better opportunity elsewhere, because at the root of these complaints is a major sense of exceptionalism that runs through Celtic fans.

The football landscape has changed dramatically over the last 40 years, and one of the unfortunate victims of it is Scottish football. In the 90s Rangers and Celtic were able to recruit significant internationals such as Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Ronald de Boer and Henrik Larsson.

Nowadays their scouting pools are limited to fishing for diamonds in the rough that could potentially grow into great players, or luring away English Championship-calibre players with the promise of European football. The aforementioned Hart and Carter-Vickers, heaped with praise by Celtic fans, were club-hopping in England before arriving at Parkhead.

In 1992/93 Rangers defeated English champions Leeds in the inaugural Champions League before narrowly missing out on a final appearance. Thirty years later, the Gers reaching the final of the Europa League, the second-level tournament, was considered a truly shocking achievement, while English clubs have rattled off a number of Champions League and Europa League triumphs.

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The Old Firm has always been two big fish in the small pond of the Scottish league, but in the days of less-globalised football their support and wealth enabled them to assemble squads of comparable or greater strength than the top English sides. European expansion has unfortunately left them behind at the expense of the Big Five leagues, who can not only promise regular European football but a greater chance of success in it. They have been invited to the table, but only to make up the numbers before the knockout rounds get underway.

This new reality seems to be completely lost on Celtic’s fanbase, however. In the aftermath of their 2022-23 Champions League group stage campaign fans still insist that they were let down solely by a bit of bad luck and poor finishing. In the real world, Celtic finished with a record of 0 wins, 2 draws and 4 losses (the third worst in the entire group stage), a measly 4 goals scored (third worst again), and aggregate 8-1 and 5-1 defeats to Real Madrid and RB Leipzig respectively.

This was not an unusual outcome for Celtic’s recent European adventures either. They were only in the group stage for certain this year thanks to Rangers’ improbable Europa League run dragging Scotland’s coefficient up to two group stage spots. While Rangers were doing that, Celtic were losing their one Champions League game to Denmark’s Midtjylland, falling out of the Europa League behind Bayer Leverkusen and Real Betis, then suffering an embarrassing thumping both home and away to Norway’s Bodo/Glimt in the Conference League.

In all three of the European tournaments Celtic played that year, they failed to advance beyond a round.

In fact, Celtic haven’t been beyond a European group stage since 2020, when they won a Europa League group composed of Lazio (the lowest ranked Pot 1 team), Rennes (third lowest Pot 3) and Cluj (second lowest Pot 4), whereupon they were humbled 4-2 by Copenhagen.

Reaching the Champions League group stage at all has proved patchy, falling short in four consecutive qualification campaigns before their automatic entry this year, and they haven’t advanced beyond it since 2013.

None of this is shameful, it is a perfectly fine effort for Celtic given their current place in European’s football hierarchy. The fanbase however seems utterly convinced they’re just a couple of missed chances away from the Champions League final. The fact that they’re being eliminated not by Real Madrid or Bayern or Manchester City, but by the same kinds of teams as them that limp to third place group stage finishes, does not occur to them.

So where does this attitude come from? Comfort is one obvious reason – Celtic are so used to winning the reality that 10 out of 11 of their yearly opponents have a fraction of their resources seems to be forgotten. Celtic win lots of trophies; Real Madrid win lots of trophies. They’re basically the same.

There’s also the reflexive need to defend Scottish football from the sneers of the English. The Scottish game is oft maligned by their southern neighbours as an irrelevant, uncompetitive two-team league. The dominance of Celtic and Rangers is unquestionable, so instead all that can be done to defend themselves is to inflate their importance.

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It might be a two-team league, but those two teams are massive clubs, far exceeding all but the biggest English clubs. They have big stadiums with lots of fans. They sing very loud. They’re passionate unlike the tourists of England. All of this means they’re on a level-pegging with Manchester United and Liverpool.

The average Celtic fan on social media will spend just as much time denigrating English football as they do eulogising the Bhoys, but constantly feeling the need to tear down others to lift yourself up has never been a sign of confidence. Perhaps deep down they know Celtic’s standing in European football is not what it once was, but that’s not a reality they can bear to face, so they surround themselves in mythology.

The number 1967 constantly reverberates around Celtic media, the year the Lisbon Lions became kings of Europe. 1967 proves Celtic are and always will be one of the major players in football. Aston Villa, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven, Marseille, Red Star, Steaua Bucharest and Nottingham Forest are all smaller clubs than them, even though they’ve won just as many if not more European Cups than them, and more recently to boot. Aberdeen having won a European trophy more recently than them doesn’t matter either.

When Brendan Rodgers departed for Leicester in 2019 Celtic’s Green Brigade held up a banner declaring he had ‘traded immortality for mediocrity’. By this point Leicester had already topped their group and won a knockout game in the Champions League, neither of which Celtic have achieved in the Champions League era. After Rodgers’ arrival, he would ultimately lead them to an FA Cup win as an underdog, and was a late-season collapse away from more Champions League group stage football. In 2021-22, Leicester would feature in the Europa League and Conference League alongside Celtic. Ultimately they’d reach the semis, taking down PSV Eindhoven before narrowly losing to Roma, while Celtic crashed out three rounds earlier to Bodo/Glimt.

The same fate likely awaits Ange Postecoglou. Despite his achievements at Parkhead sections of the Celtic support are already turning on him as a greedy charlatan who strung them along, paying lip service to the legend of The Celtic Football Club then stabbing them in the back at the first opportunity. Foregoing the legacy of Scottish league and cup titles in the name of money – nothing else could possibly attract him to the ‘mediocrity’ of Tottenham, a team that lost the Champions League final more recently than Celtic played a knockout game in the same tournament.

How successful Ange will be at Tottenham remains to be seen, and I certainly have my doubts, but he has been presented with an opportunity to turn around the fortunes of a club with a much higher ceiling than his current one and has chosen to grab it with both hands.

This is obvious to everyone except the fans of the club he has left behind, who have chosen once again to close their eyes, plug their ears, and pretend. In Paradise it is, and always will be, 1967.

The Author

Alex Jackson

I write about non-league and world football, as well as football culture. Can occasionally be found wandering the world in search of a kickabout.

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