FOOTBALL doesn’t conform to pat solutions. It is a quirk that, after the universal slaughtering of Celtic’s Champions League strategy, a player who cost nothing, and came from nowhere, could deliver everything for the club in the competition.
Callum McGregor was this week labelled, potentially, the £20 million man. The tag is the result of a scoring moment that could prove key to unlocking group-stage riches. To which the 21-year-old could petition: “Which goal?”
McGregor’s strike in Maribor, which earned a 1-1 draw, has set Celtic up snugly for Tuesday’s home decider in the quest to bring a successful conclusion to a bonkers qualifying campaign.
Yet, were it not for his goal in Warsaw, even Legia’s little paperwork error would have prevented their 3-0 forfeit defeat costing them progress. Meanwhile, what eased Celtic through a tricky tie in Reykjavik, one which opened the Ronny Deila’s era, was full debutant McGregor giving a first indication of his happy knack for netting away in Europe.
The player’s Slovenian strike has earned no more than a platform for Celtic to get the job done. But the personable and humble youngster isn’t out to build up his own part if the required result is achieved in two days’ time.
“I know its massive for Celtic to be in the Champions League. It means everything,” he said. “The goal was going to be important whoever scored it. I’m glad we got it. “We got the result as a team. It wasn’t just about the one goal. It was important also we played how the manager had told us. We were delighted to get the draw. It was a tough test for us out there. And it will be the same here.”
McGregor has risen to every test since his return from a season on loan at Notts County. And even if the Norwegian was unaware of what the youth product had to offer, he has become an identikit performer within his philosophy. Deila desires players who deliver on development, drive and diet. McGregor ticks all those boxes.
“I just love playing football and I have done it ever since I could walk basically. To be here and be part of such a big club is unbelievable. I am loving it.
“I’ve just mainly tried to be myself with the new manager. I’ve always had a good work ethic, since I was eight or nine. I’ve always worked hard and the coaches have told me that. The routine hasn’t changed for me with the managers. Every time I’ve made the step up, with different coaches, it’s been the same routine for me. You just look to do everything you can to ensure you impress and that he likes you. The manager puts a lot of emphasis on fitness and working hard. You have got to do that or you won’t play. It has always been a pretty decent part of my game, even when I was down there in Nottingham. You can see the boys are working harder, they are getting fitter and stronger, so it is a good regime. The fitness side is a big part of the game and also the body fat element as well. Mine is good.”
For Deila, McGregor’s nationality is also good. “I think it is so important to have a Scottish core, so people recognise the players and feel that they are theirs,” the Norwegian said. “Good Scottish players are always welcome to Celtic, so I hope we get more. With Callum now coming up, it’s important. I believe in him. If I could choose between a Scottish talent and a German talent, and they are equal, I’ll take the Scottish.
“I’m glad we have a lot of Scottish players, that is the culture. Kris [Commons] and Charlie [Mulgrew], and of course Scott [Brown] are unbelievably important. They make the environment very well and they really love Celtic. That is important. And you have [Mikael] Lustig, Stefan Johansen, those sort of guys, [Anthony] Stokesy, a central line. And you also have Craig [Gordon] coming in, a big personality in the team. I think they are growing as not just leaders on the pitch, but off the pitch also. When they go to training they want to get better, and that’s the player I want to have.”
McGregor will always be such a type. A talent that the club did not exile to County as the first step to engineering his exit, as so often appears the basis of loan spells.
“When you go away you want to do well for the club that you are at,” McGregor said. “The main focus, though, was getting myself back up the road and getting in the team. Stevie Frail and John Kennedy were down every three weeks or so and they were always watching and putting in reports to the manager. So it wasn’t as if I was put out the way and told ‘just you deal with that’. They were always on the phone asking how I was doing and stuff like that.”
Now they only need to review footage of Celtic’s recent foreign sorties to appreciate the journey McGregor has embarked on.