THIS time last year, Charlie Mulgrew was pondering his future while seeing out a miserable campaign at Aberdeen with a series of relatively meaningless fixtures in the bottom six of the SPL.
Twelve months on, he finds himself at the heart of one of the most miserly defences in British football and on course to secure a championship and Scottish Cup double with Celtic.
It is in many ways a remarkable set of circumstances for the 25-year-old whose return to Celtic Park on a free transfer last summer as manager Neil Lennon's first signing was regarded with scepticism by pundits and punters alike.
After some initially unconvincing displays at left-back appeared to lend merit to those doubts, however, Mulgrew has been something of a revelation in the second half of this season as a central defensive linchpin in Lennon's side.
For Mulgrew, who left his boyhood heroes five years ago after failing to make the first team breakthrough as a youngster, his rebirth is a source of joy and relief after he chose not to rush any decision on his next move when his Aberdeen contract expired.
"I had a couple of offers from down south and other places in Europe," said Mulgrew. "I was just concentrating on trying to end a disappointing season at Aberdeen with a few wins before making the right decision for my career. I'm just glad I waited and didn't take one of the first things offered to me.
"The minute Celtic were interested, there was no doubt this was where I was coming. I grew up a Celtic fan and this is a huge club so I was glad to get the opportunity to return. I suppose there was a bit of surprise when the call arrived, because it just came out of the blue. The manager has been great to me so I'd love to repay him by doing well for the club and hopefully winning something."
Mulgrew now feels his departure from Celtic to Wolves in 2006, in a swap deal which saw Lee Naylor move in the other direction, was the making of him as a man and a footballer.
"I felt I had unfinished business at Celtic but it was about moving on and doing the best for your career," he added. "Sometimes you have to do that. I was just looking to go and play games so it felt like the right decision. You don't want to sit at a club not playing first team games for too long when you are young. You need to move on and further your career.
"I think I did that. I learned a lot of lessons and I'm definitely a better player for it. You get motivation to prove your worth and you grow up when you leave a club like Celtic. Coming through as a kid here, a lot is handed to you. It maybe becomes a bit easy, so it's good to go away to maybe lesser clubs and fight for your position. Moving away from home was another big change and part of growing up."
Mulgrew was a pivotal figure at Ibrox last Sunday as Celtic recorded their 20th SPL clean sheet of the season, the 0-0 draw against Rangers handing them the initiative in the title race. Although he had played in central defence on occasions while at Aberdeen, only now is he convinced it is his best position.
"I maybe didn't think I was a central defender until I came here and played quite well in the position," he admitted. "Now I see myself in that role, but I'm happy to be versatile and play in other positions if needed.
"Playing alongside Daniel Majstorovic has been a big help for me. He has great experience and is a good player. He has a lot of international caps and has played against a lot of good strikers. So it's good to speak to him after games and in training. You learn a lot from him.
"He said in the press recently that I was a natural born centre back. To hear that from him gives you great confidence. I still know there is a lot of things to learn. It was said before by some people when I was at Aberdeen that my defensive qualities were not that great but I've worked very hard at that side of my game. Hopefully, it's proving people wrong and showing that I can defend.
"Sometimes when a thing is said often enough, you start to believe it. But if you believe in yourself and your ability to defend then that is a big thing. It just doesn't happen overnight. I've worked hard and believed in myself. It's great to be part of a defence with one of the best records in Britain this season, but the whole team defends well. We press from the front and everyone deserves credit for the record."Mulgrew is now bracing himself for the five match sequence, starting at home to Dundee United on Sunday, which will determine whether Celtic win their first SPL title in three years.
He expects every game to present a severe test of Celtic's mental resolve and was dismissive of the conspiracy theory surrounding their final day fixture, at home to Motherwell on 15 May, which has depressingly reared its head on phone-ins and internet forums. If Celtic win the title, then Motherwell will qualify for the Europa League irrespective of the result of the Scottish Cup final between the teams a week later. If Rangers retain their crown, then Motherwell will need to win at Hampden to qualify for Europe.
"I know what it's like to play against the Old Firm for another team," said Mulgrew. "The pressure is off for one game and you are desperate to beat them. Motherwell will work hard to try and beat us that day like they always do. Every game is going to be hard for us and we need to be mentally tough enough for them all."