Ange Postecoglou takes Celtic stage but exit seems near: treble snared, the electric eel and valiant Inverness
The words ‘exit’ and ‘stage’ could only come to mind … the Hampden hoopla of 3-1 final victory over a valiant Inverness Caledonian Thistle set against the backdrop of the Greek-Australian soon to receive an offer from Tottenham Hotspur he can’t refuse.
There was little to be read into Postecoglou – a single-minded and self-contained coach of immense substance – walking slowly at a distance from his players as they circled the national stadium to accept the adulation from their faithful for a faultless domestic campaign. Or the Celtic manager slapping hand to chest towards the club’s support as he partook in such celebrations. These have become regular elements of a ritualistic mutual appreciation as the 57-year-old has taken ownership of the Scottish game across two years at the helm. Still, though, it felt like there was a sense of one more with feeling as the Celtic faithful filled the national stadium with the name-checking chant they have lustily belted out in his honour as he has become – in his words post-match – “one of their own”.
He never was that. Even as his emotional intelligence, immigrant upbringing, and adherence to swashbuckling football made him seem such a perfect fit for the Celtic post. Fiercely ambitious and with a sense that his talents have never been allowed to flourish in top level environment befitting of them, his covenant with Celtic was to restore them to pre-eminence in Scotland and the trophy-munching that had allowed them to claim four trebles in the five years before he pitched up. Then see where this would take him. That domain, for all the world, now appearing to be north London.
His seeming last act, then, as the captain of Celtic’s ship proved a relatively serene negotiating of the waters that stood between his men and the promised land of a domestic clean sweep. Even if early on, they seemed to putter more than cut a swathe, that fact attributable to Billy Dodds’ exhibiting coaching smarts in setting out his Inverness men in a holding pattern Celtic did not find it easy to play around. Perhaps with the unhelpful four week lay-off the Highland club had prior to their exertions at the national stadium, it might have been expected that they would have had all the time required to formulate a good shape. They did more than that, though. They not only retained it throughout the first half hour, but demonstrated complete focus and unrelenting application to prevent themselves becoming the pushovers so many more illustrious Scottish opponents have proved across the Postecoglou era.
This elicited surprise of both the pleasant and mystifying kind across the south side bowl. It was palpable that the chests of 5,000 Inverness fans began to swell across those early stages. And that, in the three-and-a-bit sides of the arena the 40,000-plus Celtic following started to lose a smidgen of their boisterous over the anodyne nature of what was unfolding in front of them. On an evening when they had fronted up for the decider with absolute zero sense of jeopardy over what would unfold. Understandably so when no lower tier team had felled a top flight opponent across the modern age in Scottish football’s showpiece.
Whenever Celtic have required inspiration under their current manager, they had tended to find in a human form that may be diminutive but encases a giant of a game-changer within these borders. In short, Kyogo Furuhashi.
Postecoglou stated afterwards that the wriggling, electric eel of a frontman was far from fit. For the second final of the three consecutive such occasions in Scotland he has now netted in – which must place him in the most rarefied company – the Japanese forward’s questionable fitness was no impediment to his coming alive when it counted. It took 36 minutes for Celtic to fashion their first attempt on target. A matter of two minutes later, Furuhashi had flashed the ball high into the net in the most trademark style, one, lethal touch at the front post the product of Matt ORiley forcing a right-wing cross to the front post. A 34th goal of the season, the player is the totemistic performer of the Celtic team Postecoglou built. The £4.7million signing from Vissel Kobe in June 2021 as the manager’s first act of reupholstering his team, it felt fitting for Furuhashi such a crucial say with the opener as the era surely prepares to end.
Indeed, it was notable that all but Callum McGregor and Greg Taylor in the Celtic starting line-up for the final were Postecoglou purchases. A measure over how completely he has reshaped the club … and how he has been allowed to do so by a board who have given over Celtic to be run as his fiefdom. The second goal in 64 minutes, awarded following a lengthy VAR check for offside, was Postecoglou-patented for the slick swift movement with which the Scottish champions pulled Inverness apart. A quickly taken Tomoki Iwata free-kick led to him feeding Reo Hatate, who in turn released Oh Hyeon-gyu as he was wiped out. Just staying onside down the left, he slipped the ball to McGregor to squared for Liel Abada to slam in. The final likely also to be the Israeli’s final appearance for the club.
It was to Inverness’s great credit they didn’t cave at 2-0 but instead breathed life into the contest with an 84th minute response when Daniel Mackay sweetly met a cross whipped over from Wallace Duffy to produce a fine diving header. Any thoughts of a comeback were snuffed out when Jota, in added time, restored Celtic’s two-goal advantage, controlling an Abada centre and clipping in from close range. In football, moments of joy and hope can be transient. Inverness and Celtic will testify to that.