The 55-year-old is no stranger to major footballing spectacles. He led Australia to a first major honour with Asia Cup success six years ago in front of no fewer than 80,000 spectators. Yet, a first experience of a packed-out Celtic Park for the third round decider – into which his team take a 4-2 first-leg advantage – could provide an evening to rival his best such memories in his mental scrapbook.
“Big games in front of big crowds are all great,” he said, with Celtic preparing for their first such encounter since the pandemic hit in March 2020. “I’ve been fortunate to be involved in quite a few and they all hold their own significance. I’ve been pretty lucky that, in most of them, the results have gone my way, which helps you to remember that experience fondly, but I don’t rank them: they’re all special in their own way. I’ve no doubt that tomorrow night will be one of those occasions that, when I’m long retired and sitting on a Greek island, I’ll reflect on – hopefully in a positive way, about a great performance.”
Sound performances from personnel he inherited have come from some unexpected sources. It is fair to say his initial requirement to rely on Anthony Ralston and Greg Taylor in his revamp was supposed to be deathly for the drive to gain early momentum – offered now after the scintillating 6-0 squashing of Dundee at the weekend that followed the European win. Not least because the pair, hitherto consistently derided by the club’s support, have required to make the most dramatic adjustments in the system he has introduced. It is one that expects these full-backs ‘invert’, to operate akin to central midfielders at times when Celtic play out from the back. Ralston, helped by two superb strikes in recent weeks, and Taylor have demonstrated admirable willing and fortitude as market moves for upgrades have yet acquisitions.
“I probably put more demands on players than a lot of systems, a lot of clubs do,” he said. “Whether that’s your defenders being expected to play out from the back or your attacking players expected to defend pretty aggressively, which in a lot of other clubs they don’t have to be. Positionally, the full-backs play a little bit different for me. Both Greg and Anthony have embraced it. They want to learn, they see a different way of playing their position, and I think they have done well.
“I wouldn’t read too much around popularity contests. They are often decided by the most vocal minority rather than anything else. If you take a poll of every Celtic supporter I’m not sure how unpopular Anthony Ralston will be at the moment. I didn’t come in and think he wouldn’t be part of it because when a new manager comes in everyone sort of starts again. I’d like to think everyone wanted to come in and impress, and show me they want to be a part of it so what’s happened in the past almost becomes irrelevant – whether that is good or bad. Anthony’s taken his opportunity and he’s thriving.”