Threads weaving Puskas with Postecoglou make coach perfect for Tottenham

<span>Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Ange Postecoglou turned to his father. “Get off the pitch,” he said, “you’re going to get arrested.” It was 1991 and South Melbourne had just beaten Melbourne Croatia to win the NSL Grand Final. It had been an exhausting, ridiculous game. Melbourne Croatia had finished top of the regular-season table, had been the better side on the day, had taken the lead, had seemed to be on their way to the title, only to concede in the 88th minute. South Melbourne had missed three penalties in the shootout.

Melbourne Croatia twice had kicks for the match. Postecoglou had to convert the fifth penalty to keep his side in it. And in sudden death, South Melbourne had won it.

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South Melbourne, Postecoglou said, “wasn’t just a soccer club; it was a sanctuary”. For people like his father, who had fled Greece for Australia in the 60s, it was a little piece of home where Greek was spoken and souvlaki was always on the grill. That’s why his father joined the pitch invasion to jog next to his son on the lap of honour.

That was the high point of Postecoglou’s playing career and a moment of great pride. But that season was also something more. When Postecoglou lifted the trophy he had not done so alone; he had done so with Ferenc Puskas. The story is told in an as yet unreleased documentary by the Australian journalist Tony Wilson. It contains some remarkable footage of Puskas playing in friendlies in Australia in the mid-80s. He waddles around, vast belly straining at his shirt, suddenly clipping perfect 50-yard passes to players who fail to control them. At one moment, the ball ricochets hopelessly around a packed box on a hard and dusty surface, then falls to Puskas who, with the languidness of genius, caresses it into the top-right corner with the outside of his left boot.

Puskas, who had been away with Honved playing a European Cup tie at the time, had decided against returning to Hungary after the Soviet invasion in 1956 and, when political turmoil forced his departure from Greece, where he had been managing Panathinaikos, he was in effect homeless. He worked in Spain, Chile, Saudi Arabia and Paraguay but it was in Australia that he seemed most comfortable. For a time he coached a youth team in the Melbourne suburb of Keysborough before the reception he received from Greek fans on going to watch South Melbourne persuaded their president, George Vasilopoulos, to make him coach.

Although Puskas could speak five languages well, including Greek, English wasn’t one of them, so he relied on his assistant Jim Pyrgolios and Postecoglou, his captain, to translate. “In football, there are three possibilities,” Puskas said at his first team-talk, as the players leaned in eagerly, desperate to hear what wisdom this legend might impart. “Can winning, can losing, can make a draw.” There was widespread bewilderment. Was that it? “All he was trying to do,” Postecoglou said, “was make us relax.”

It would be wrong to say Puskas didn’t care – he wept after the Grand Final and on one occasion rowed with a whole stand that was barracking him – but he had a healthy sense of perspective. He didn’t care for training in the rain and Pyrgolios had to sneak in fitness work. Throughout the drama of the penalty shootout in 1991, as those around him clutched their heads and punched the air, he sat alone on the bench, benignly smiling and chewing gum.

His football was attacking, his coaching style relaxed and based on technique. Every training session would begin with players pairing up and simply kicking the ball back and forth to each other for several minutes. His interventions were infrequent and gnomic. “Ball alone don’t make the goal,” he would say in his broken English. “Must shoot the ball.”

As Puskas didn’t drive, Postecoglou began acting not only as his interpreter but also as his chauffeur, giving the opportunity for long conversations about football. The key thing he learned, Postecoglou said, was that by “having a unified dressing room, a dressing room that cared about something beyond the result, you can create something special”.

That seems a basic point, but in a world obsessed by data, by passing lanes and half-spaces, by technocrats and analysts, it is one worth reiterating: a large part of a coach’s job is man-management. The humanity Postecoglou projects is a central part of his approach. During the recent injury crisis, he has been able to call on fringe players who would have been ostracised under previous regimes.

Puskas came from an era before pressing was universal and would berate forwards who tracked back. How much Postecoglou could have learned from him tactically is debatable. Yet they clearly share an attacking ethos, as well as something even more nebulous but perhaps for Tottenham more significant.

For England, the road to victory in the 1966 World Cup began in 1953 with the 6-3 defeat to Puskas’s Hungary at Wembley. That forced the English game to reassess its tactical assumptions, leading to the radicalism of Bill Shankly, Don Revie and Alf Ramsey. Ramsey had played at full-back in the 6-3 and always rejected the widespread claim that English football had been defeated by continental sophistication. Hungary, he insisted, simply practised a variant of the push-and-run game utilised by the Tottenham side for whom he played.

Ramsey was never keen to say anything good had come from abroad, but in this he had a point: Arthur Rowe, who had managed Tottenham to the league title in 1950-51, would have taken a job in Hungary but for the start of the second world war. There was a philosophical congruence there that went back to Jimmy Hogan and Peter McWilliam and the spread of the Scottish passing game.

Football history is a mass of these overlapping threads. The idea that clubs have a unique style is often specious. But there is a link there. By turning to a manager from the other side of the world, Tottenham have, via Rowe, Puskas and Ramsey, reconnected with the philosophy that made them great 70 years ago. If there is such a thing as club DNA, it may be that Postecoglou is the perfect coach for them.