Victory for lateral thought

On the spot: Ange Postecoglou oversees training at Melbourne Victory.
On the spot: Ange Postecoglou oversees training at Melbourne Victory.

MELBOURNE Victory coach Ange Postecoglou is someone whose thoughts on sport I always listen to.

When some coaches and sports bureaucrats speak, I wonder who their audience is. Because it's not the ordinary person, and sport, as much as politics, is about the ordinary person. Postecoglou uses words clearly and well, and there's a modesty and rare balance to his views. I appreciate that some will see this as Fairfax Media self-promotion since Postecoglou now writes for this newspaper, but that is how I see him.

Born in Athens, he arrived in Australia at the age of five. Fitting into his new country wasn't a problem. Naturally adept at sport, he was good at all the games in the schoolyard and his second favourite sport remains AFL (he's a Carlton man). But his father Jim was an unrelenting advocate of the round-ball game and, by the time he was nine, he was playing under-age for South Melbourne Hellas.

From the outset, he says, "the whole game permeated to my core". If he got 20 cents for lunch, he spent half of it on a newspaper and would sit "transfixed", reading soccer results from around the world. He was fascinated by the strategy of the game, "by the formations and tactics you use to beat opponents and overcome obstacles on the field". That aspect of the game still fascinates him and leads him to be interested in lateral soccer thinkers such as former Dutch star Johan Cruyff.

Postecoglou has an easy manner and a faint edge of humour to his words. He has, he says, "an itch to disprove the myths of the game". The latest to attract his attention is that titles are won and lost in defence. He floats an idea: "Imagine telling a team that their aim this year is to score more goals than are scored against them, and then see what happens."

In year 7 at Prahran High School, he was a member of the school's first soccer team. He still has a photo of them wearing tight shorts and woollen short-sleeved Australian football jumpers - the only sports jerseys the school had. A music teacher with no knowledge of the game was assigned as their coach. Young Postecoglou took over or, as one of his former teammates told him recently, "You bossed us about".

As a player, he describes himself as very competitive "but not the most skilful". His hero was Liverpool striker Kenny Dalglish. "He wasn't blessed with speed. He wasn't a great dribbler, he didn't have a thunderous shot, but you could always see him thinking. He expressed the possibilities for players who think."

Postecoglou is arguably the best-performed coach in any code of football in Australia. He won the past two A-League titles with Brisbane Roar and, in the course of doing so, set an Australian record of 36 consecutive victories. He was involved in four national titles with South Melbourne, two as a player and two as coach, also winning the Oceania Club Championship.

In 2008, he spent a year in the Greek port town of Patras, managing the local club, Panachaiki.

The memory causes him to grin. "It was a crazy year. If we won, I needed a police escort because they wanted to mob me. If we lost, I needed a police escort because they wanted to lynch me."

The team's fortunes were the city's over-riding passion. If he conducted a scratch match at training, it was covered on television and radio and in the press. At the same time, the players were disinclined to train, one of them saying: "I'm not going to run if I don't have to.'' Postecoglou added: "They were probably technically better than most players in this country, but they needed to know why they had to sweat at training."

As a kid, he barracked for Liverpool. "They always seemed to me to be a club that was built on more than sporting success, that the game wasn't just about winning, it was about the way you won."

This leads us to one of the best novels I've read on sport, David Peace's The Damned United, an account of mercurial manager Brian Clough's 44 days as manager of Leeds United, then the champion of England. Clough arrives at the club and informs the players that although they are winners, they have won unfairly and he intends to change that. Postecoglou has read the novel and Clough's biography as well. "I'm interested in Brian Clough," he muses. Like he's interested in Johan Cruyff, another who explored the game's extremities.

The single game that remains with him most strongly is Manchester United's victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final. Trailing 1-0 after 90 minutes, United won 2-1. "That game came down to the last couple of kicks but there was an inevitability about the result because of the team Alex Ferguson had built," he said.

It is precisely the quality he endeavours to build into his teams, but he shakes his head at coaches such as Ferguson and Kevin Sheedy staying at one club for decades and finding renewed success. "You have to go through so many evolutions to do that not only with the players but with the staff and generations of supporters. You would be constantly having your will and your beliefs tested."

The other danger with success is to relax. That's part of the reason he left Brisbane Roar at the end of last season and took the job with Melbourne Victory.

"I do my best coaching when I'm under pressure," he says, "when I'm on the edge."

This story Victory for lateral thought first appeared on WA Today.