Should Celtic’s new manager be so inclined, it is possible to imagine him casting his eyes over the newly-relased Premiership fixtures, and wondering if he is being stiffed by bottom-of-the-deck dealing. Across his first five weeks of competitive football at the helm, the Greek-Australian will be forced to play with the sort of hand you can lose your house on.
The 55-year-old, wherever he is currently residing ahead of the squad returning for pre-season training next week, will discover exactly the stakes at play when on Wednesday morning in Nyon the draw is made for the Champions League third round qualifier with which his era will begin in earnest. Rapid Vienna, Galatasaray, or FC Midtjylland will be his first competitive opponents for the July 20/21 first leg, with the return a week later. In light of their historic issues previously negotiating the more favourable champions route across the past nine years – a period which covers three managerial tenures and brought five qualifying exits – it would be fair to say a settled Celtic would require to pull out a few aces to ensure progress. Right now, with the squad in a complete state of flux, it feels as if Postecoglou will need a royal flush to fall in his lap.
The Parkhead club bounce from this tie straight into a Premiership opener away to Tynecastle. Game four of their title tilt takes them to Ibrox. These two grounds have borne witness to their heaviest domestic defeats in the past decade. Never mind that Rangers are on their longest unbeaten run – a six-game sequence – against their ancient adversaries in almost nine years. And that Steven Gerrard’s men blitzed the league championship by a 25-point margin through remaining unbeaten throughout the top flight campaign.
Postecoglou will have to avoid losing ground in the title race during an exacting opening month while also targeting continental progress. If not in the Champions League, then the Europa League. If not in the Europa League, then the Conference League. Even that isn’t all. On August 14, Celtic will have their first tie in the newly-branded Premier Cup, the League Cup by a sponsors’ name. Their ruination last season was accelerated through losing at this second round entry point; a defeat at home to Ross County halting a remarkable monopoly of domestic honours that stretched back to 2016.
Celtic supporters who live in constant fear of the very worst happening – which is all too many of them – already are very much alive to the doomsday scenario to which next season’s scheduling potentially gives rise. Within his first 11 games, it is possible Postecoglou effectively could be out of five competitions. Four – three European tournaments and the League Cup – indisputably. Any stumbles in the cinch Premiership, meanwhile, would hardly make it a cinch for them to play catch-up on a Rangers team having their time.
The bullish 55-year-old will have no truck with such gloomy analysis, of course. Those who know him well, and the man himself, have repeatedly said he relishes being backed into a corner and having to stick it to doubters. And, it ought to be acknowledged, he did precisely that with South Melbourne, Brisbane Roar, the Australian national team and, most recently, Yokohama F Marinos. That represents a fair old track record of wriggling his way out of tight spots.
Postecoglou gave a hint as to how he intends to extricate himself from the individious situation he is walking into at Celtic during his interview with club’s media that was released as soon as his appointment was confirmed five days ago. “I’m going to set us off in a new direction and people have got to believe in me more than anything else,” he said in reference to turning round Celtic’s run-aground tanker. “Anything I say or do beyond that will be fruitless if they don’t believe in me as a person and that will be my first task to make sure everyone understands me as quickly as possible.”
The very fact Postecoglou’s playing strategy – an high-intensity, possession game designed for full-on attack – isn’t so far removed from that patented by Brendan Rodgers suggests there may not be as much remodelling of the current players’ mindset as has been claimed. Moreover, there is one other means by which you make yourself the man in the eyes of players under your charge: you be the man who places them there.
Sources in Sunderland have intimated that a deal for the Tyneside club’s striker Charlie Wyke is in the offing. The move would bring in a bustling 28-year-old who bagged 30 goals for the League One side last season. On Postecoglou’s shopping list is also reported to be Aaron Mooy. The Australian midfielder, currently at Shanghai SIGP, enjoyed his best years in the international set-up under the new Celtic manager. An aggressive ball-winner, he could be seen as the natural heir to the now departed club icon Scot Brown. New arrival Liam Shaw, who has joined up on a free contract from Sheffield Wednesday, is raw but does possess the physicality Celtic lacked – among countless other facets – last season. Postecoglou is also likely to give consideration to furthering the career of Republic of Ireland full-back Lee O’Connor, whose emphatic showings on loan for Tranmere Rovers last season earned the 20-year-old a call-up to the full national team.
Even with Odsonne Edouard and Kristoffer Ajer on their way out, and even with holes in the team created by the departures of a number of loanees from last season, Celtic could still have a semblance of a squad as long as Postecoglou is backed with a quartet of new signings in the coming days. The chips are down for the club, but the Greek-Australian doesn’t appear the sort to fold.