Glasgow (AFP) – Celtic are champions of Scotland for a 10th time in 11 years, but for a club used to winning there has seldom been a more unexpected triumph.
The Hoops were a club in crisis less than a year ago.
Rangers had demolished their quest for a record 10th consecutive Scottish title by romping to the league by 25 points.
Months spent courting Eddie Howe then backfired when the now Newcastle boss turned down the job at Parkhead.
In retrospect, Howe’s decision was a stroke of luck as it turned Celtic’s attention to Ange Postecoglou.
The Australian, who was coaching Yokohama Marinos in Japan, was little known and little-fancied by many pundits and fans who mocked his appointment.
Eleven months on, Postecoglou has delivered the league title, a League Cup and has Celtic back among Europe’s elite in the Champions League group stage for the first time in five years.
“I take great pride in it, but I didn’t get the one I was favourite for –- sacked by Christmas,” Postecoglou quipped when picking up his manager of the year award from Scotland’s football writers on Sunday.
The speed of the turnaround at Celtic Park is all the more impressive given the context of a huge overhaul in players and Rangers’ run to the Europa League final.
Rangers have seen off Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig to make just a second European final in 50 years.
However, Celtic were beaten only once in four Old Firm clashes in the league — back in August when much of their recruitment was still to be done.
Postecoglou’s knowledge of the Japanese market has unearthed gems at bargain prices in Kyogo Furuhashi, Daizen Maeda and Reo Hatate.
But Celtic’s net has been cast far and wide with signings from America, Croatia, Greece, Israel, Portugal and Sweden all playing major roles.
Since losing three of their first six games in a rocky start, Celtic have not tasted defeat in 31 league matches to clinch the title with a game to spare.
“We’ve taken every game with the same preparation and intent, equal respect for every opponent, home and way, and not looked beyond that,” said Postecoglou.
“That’s served us really well to be in the position we are, because 30 games ago we were a fair way behind in terms of looking like a team that could end up being champions.
“For the most part we’ve been at our best, and even when we haven’t been, we’ve still found a way to get the job done.”
Direct qualification to the Champions League alleviates Postecoglou from one of the major stresses faced by Celtic managers in the past decade of season-defining qualifiers in July and August.
There is also a bounty of at least £30 million ($37 million) to boost his recruitment in the transfer market in the coming months.
But Rangers’ European success has upped the pressure on the green-and-white half of Glasgow to up their game on the continent.
Celtic have still not won a European knockout tie beyond the group stage since 2004 and were knocked out three times this season in the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League.
“My ambitions for this football club is to make it the best football club it can possibly be and play at the highest level,” added Postecoglou.
“If we’re at our best, or try to be at our best, every time we go out there then there’s an opportunity for something special to happen.”
A special season has already delivered more than expected, but Postecoglou is just getting started in Scotland.
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