Hope and hard work: How Australia’s aspirations mirror Ange’s story

Tottenham Hotspur have enjoyed an opening month of hope and promise to start the season; a blissful month of magic leaving the faithful dreaming of what may be possible under their new coach Ange Postecoglou. Appropriate, perhaps, given a similar sentiment is increasingly prevalent in their new gaffer’s homeland.

Spurs’ fans have decent reason to be singing Postecoglou’s praises given the team is unbeaten in four league games to start the campaign. Spurs sit second in the table as the Premier League breaks for internationals and, perhaps just as importantly, they’ve accomplished this while playing a style of positive, possession-based football that harkens to the footballing values that the club envisions itself as possessing.

Unsurprisingly, the Australian’s personality and distinctive approach has won plaudits on all sides of the four walls of Spurs; the English press is also getting a rapid education on the versatility of the word “mate” depending on inflection and context.

Postecoglou’s success is also helping to raise spirits in Australia, even if, on some level, his positive start hasn’t surprised. Australia has long known what the 58-year-old can accomplish, watching as he’s gone from strength to strength at home and abroad. That he’s now risen to the Premier League shouldn’t shock because he has demonstrated consistently that’s the level of his ability, and now he has some of the best players in the world at his disposal to go about things.

Yet, almost paradoxically, it still feels a bit unreal, as if there’s some kind of cruel joke being played, or it’s an illusion. Postecoglou’s rise feels disarmingly simple and romantic in a maddening football world that has long considered Australia to be a footballing backwater to be dismissed offhand. He has emerged from Australia and reached this point because his talent and effort earned it.

It’s aspirational, really. And aspiration is a big word in Australian football right now.

Through July and August, Australia fell in love with the Matildas and football — women’s football especially — in a manner that few could have predicted, and even fewer would have thought possible. The success of the Women’s World Cup has ostensibly left fertile ground for the game not only to lay claim to the imagination of the millions of newly engaged fans but also to also orchestrate a greater push for funding and respect.

Half a world away from White Hart Lane, the club that served as Postecoglou’s footballing nursery, and which helped to forge his view that football clubs are cultural and community institutions to be treasured just as much as results, is making a pretty good go of things, too.

For the first time since 2015, South Melbourne’s men’s and women’s sides qualified for the Grand Finals of their respective leagues this year, with the women being crowned champions and the men falling to a second-successive defeat in the decider. The four-time Australian champions have also confirmed they had submitted a proposal to join Football Australia’s National Second Tier (NST) competition mooted for launch in 2024 — returning to the national stage for the first time since the collapse of the NSL under the weight of years of mismanagement in 2004.

It feels serendipitous. At the same time that South’s favourite son is reaching heights hitherto thought unreachable by an Australian football public worn down by years of bitter cynicism, his old club is on the cusp of being part of something also long discarded as outlandish: The establishment of a functional and sustainable national second tier.

South is one of several parties that have publicly indicated they have submitted a proposal to take part in the competition, with other famous names confirming bids including APIA Leichhardt, Marconi, Preston Lions and Wollongong Wolves. Though total number of applications remains confidential, the public declarations surpass the minimum 10 sides the federation has stated it would need to launch the competition, albeit this comes with the disclaimer that submitting a proposal and actually meeting the necessary criteria are different things.

Elsewhere, more progress is being made as the A-League Women this season become the nation’s first major women’s football league to expand to a full home-and-away season, which should help the league further establish and market itself and provide an improved platform for young Australian players to develop before heading overseas; it is a pathway the scale of which no other code in Australia can match. Improvements in professionalism and remuneration, though slow, continue for those who stay.

Additionally, new franchises are tapped to enter the A-Leagues — fielding both men’s and women’s teams — between 2024-2025 (Canberra and Auckland are already tapped for that season) and 2025-26. Not only does this open new markets and infuse the leagues with an influx of expansion fees but also it provides hundreds of employment and developmental opportunities for players, coaches, administrators, and more; the addition of more opportunities to play is the only surefire method that Australian football has to maintain improving developmental pathways.

The Socceroos and Matildas, especially the Matildas, are beloved, demonstrating the power of both international teams and the nationwide appeal of football. Postecoglou is at the vanguard of Australian coaches making an impact overseas: Joe Montemuro leading Juventus’ women, Kevin Muscat at Yokohama F. Marinos, Tanya Oxtoby in charge of the Northern Ireland women’s team, and, potentially, Nick Montgomery at Hibernian (he obtained citizenship in 2017, Australia can claim him) are among them.

Laid out in succession, there’s certainly a general vibe of opportunity. Of rainbows and sunshine.

Yet this being Australian football, and Postecoglou being at Spurs, there are lingering levels of apprehension. Both have a history of missed opportunities and heartbreak tempering naive thoughts of optimism with a layer of heavy cynicism, and if any country embodies the principles of “Spursyness” when it comes to developing the game, it’s Australia.

Tottenham face Arsenal and Liverpool in their second and third games back after the international break — Spurs’ stiffest test yet given Manchester United’s ongoing tailspin makes the victory vs. the Red Devils seem less impressive with every passing day.

In Australia, the wounds of previous seasons and rancor remain. The A-Leagues and Football Australia have divergent remits — the professional game and everything else — leading to duelling priorities and tension between the two. As ever, the cost of playing at elite levels remains an undue burden to talented yet underprivileged kids, while the cost of coaching remains a concern.

Chris Nikou has announced his intention to stand down as Football Australia chair and reports have begun to swirl that A-Leagues chief executive Danny Townsend is set to become the latest footballing figure to accept a “life-changing” offer in the Middle East. Executive and board turnover are a natural part of any organisation’s life and, if managed properly, should present just as much opportunity as risk. But these moves, confirmed and mooted, still represent change and potential challenges at a crucial period.

The A-Leagues’ plans for growth are ambitious, but delivery on the promises is another thing entirely. Imminent announcements of ownership groups for Canberra and Auckland were flagged to ESPN by Townsend last month. That’s a start and a test of trust. Other sports, meanwhile, are moving to try to syphon the groundswell of support for the Matildas, and time alone will tell if the A-League Women or A-League Men can harness the energy into bums on seats, eyeballs on TVs, memberships sold, and sponsors captured.

Aspirational clubs, meanwhile, grumble about the opaqueness of the NST application process, and there’s still no concrete information from the federation about the makeup or model despite a planned March 2024 introduction. Disquiet has built over standards to apply perceived as onerous, although the federation maintains they are eminently achievable and scalable. The prospect of a Champions League-style model has also been steadfastly maintained as an option by Football Australia despite almost nobody outside Barangaroo wanting it.

“If you know the history of football, we don’t have many of these moments where the whole country is looking at the game, let alone the Matildas,” Postecoglou reflected during the Women’s World Cup.

“For people like me and people who grew up [there] … it’s hard to get the game in the papers or on TV or any sort of exposure.

“Hopefully, it’s everlasting.”

Indeed, Australian football has long toiled on the fringes, slipping countless times thanks to incompetence, hubris, malice, or arrogance. But hope springs eternal, and if Postecoglou can actually bring a trophy to Spurs this season, then surely anything is possible. But lads, it’s Tottenham — and Australian football.


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