The vagaries of football have never been better illustrated than in the fortunes of Callum McGregor.
A month ago, Celtic were the team with a misshapen 4-2-3-1 system that was striker-shy as well shot-shy. Apart from goalscorer Leigh Griffiths, they were culled of creativity if Kris Commons were missing or having an off-day. Without injured captain Scott Brown, they were bereft of battling qualities.
Those perceptions have altered because the potent attacking displays are now being racked up – with the forward-going verve once more powerful in Saturday’s 3-1 win that took the goal tally of Ronny Deila to 15 in three games. Those potent displays have a central figure in McGregor, even if two-goal Gary Mackay-Steven and fellow scorer Stuart Armstrong were given star billing on a day that ensured Celtic will take a six-point lead when they travel to closest rivals Aberdeen a week on Wednesday for their next Premiership outing.
Until McGregor was thrown in against Ajax in late November – scoring in a defeat that ended Europa League group qualification hopes – there seemed not a chance the 22-year-old would again by an influential member of the Celtic senior side, as he was in the early months of Deila’s tenure the previous year. Now he is the favoured No 10 in a squad with a shedload of them and has started the club’s last 12 games, his crisp, quick probing passes crucial to Celtic finding the rhythm and invention to hurt team.
Not that good guy McGregor would admit the picture seemed so bleak. “It is just the way football is sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes you think you are out the picture. Then two weeks later you are back in and playing every week again. I was always confident that I would get another chance. I just kept working hard in training in the hope. It is great for me confidence-wise to be scoring goals and making goals and doing well.”
Mackay-Steven, the ultimate confidence player, is having one of those purple patches since his unexpected return in the 8-1 slaughter of Hamilton in midweek. He pounced on hesitant defending to find the net with a rebound from a Griffiths drive Alan Mannus blocked for a ninth-minute opener, cancelled out by Steven MacLean capitalising on Michael O’Halloran’s ability to burrow his way down the right and deliver a measured near-post cross. A brilliant volley from Armstrong on the stroke of half-time set Celtic up for a win sealed by Mackay-Steven’s awareness and anticipation to run on to a pass meant for Griffiths and supply a clinical finish.
Griffiths, for once, missed a clutch of chances, which come along with the frequency of stock market runs these days. McGregor said the feeling was always that the goals would start coming, with the “nice stuff” imbued by a “killer instinct”. It didn’t seem that way to those watching the home defeat by Motherwell and the scrambled win against Partick Thistle at the turn of the year. Now the killer instinct must be applied to pursuit of a treble with the club’s next three games in the three competitions they crave, courtesy of the League Cup semi-final against Ross County, then the Aberdeen trip, before facing East Kilbride Thistle in the Scottish Cup. “We are comfortable with the treble talk,” added McGregor. “When you are at a big club there are big expectations. We have to try to win every game and see where that takes us. That has to be the focus. The cup ties are one-offs so you have to be at your best. But we have the players who are capable of and doing it.”
St Johnstone’s O’Halloran certainly looked good on his return from a weekend off after the rejection of two bids for around £200,000 from Rangers for a player the Perth club rate in the £500,000 bracket. Without a win in five games and only Saturday’s strike for a goal in that period, the club’s defender Tam Scobbie has no problem with Championship Hibernian being perceived as favourites in the pair’s League Cup semi-final on Saturday. Or any concerns over the O’Halloran transfer saga being a distraction in the lead-up.
“At a club like St Johnstone we’re always billed as the underdogs. Nobody expected us to win the Scottish Cup and nobody expected us to get into Europe four seasons in a row. We’re happy to be the underdog again if that’s the way people want to see it. We’ll just go about our business and see what happens.
“I don’t think it [O’Halloran’s situation] will affect us at all as a team. We’ll prepare properly. It’s up to the clubs and the gaffer to sort that out. But for us, as players, he’s had some performances that have been extraordinary. If we can keep a hold of him for the semi that would be great but, if not, we’ll wish him all the best.”