Callum McGregor mustn’t hurry, says Celtic boss

Callum McGregor has forced his way back into the Celtic side recently. Picture: SNS
Callum McGregor has forced his way back into the Celtic side recently. Picture: SNS
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Celtic have made a number of signings this year, including three from just one club, Dundee United. But the recent addition to the starting XI whose re-emergence is generating possibly the most excitement is Callum McGregor, a Celtic youth graduate.

Now 22, he is not the callow youngster one might suppose. And in truth, he is only re-asserting his presence after breaking through last season. McGregor’s promotion to the first-team has been hard-earned, and has come via a stint on loan with Notts County. But it is reasonable to wonder whether the attacking midfielder’s moment has now come.

McGregor, inset right, suffered a distressing ankle break earlier this year, thwarting his attempts to continue his progress of last season, after a sustained run in the team in the first half of the campaign. But he has now made the most of Scott Brown’s own injury misfortune, stepping in for the skipper against Ajax last month, and scoring after only three minutes. He then scored in the 3-1 win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle the following weekend.

There are others, too, who will understandably regard 2016 as the year when they have the opportunity to make their mark. Indeed, McGregor has fierce competition to retain his place in the side when Brown returns to fitness.

Also relishing the thought of establishing themselves are the likes of Scott Allan and Tom Rogic, as well as Gary Mackay-Steven, one of those aforementioned captures from United and whose contribution to date has not been what was hoped. The reported interest in Nir Bitton from down south could yet lead to the freeing up of another midfield berth.

But manager Ronny Deila has warned McGregor, and all players like him, against making too many goals for themselves. He has identified this as a problem for those around whom some hype has built.

Since coming in against Ajax, McGregor has started Celtic’s last five games. He made 31 appearances last season, 41 the season before that, for Notts County. He looks set to be a pivotal figure in Celtic’s festive schedule, which continues at Tynecastle against Hearts next Sunday.

“It’s important that he doesn’t think about what he can achieve but focuses on what he can improve and keep working the same way and then he will get even better,” said Deila. “Your goals will come true, that is important. There are too many thinking about what they can achieve and not thinking about how they will achieve it.”

In many ways 2014 was the player’s annus mirabilis since it was then that he first broke into the Celtic first team while also earning a call-up to the Scotland squad, for the Euro 2016 qualifier against the recently crowned world champions Germany.

But Deila has cautioned against expecting too much too soon. He believes those players on the cusp of doing something of note in the game should concentrate on one thing at a time. This is his advice as McGregor prepares to make the great leap forward in the coming 12 months. Thoughts of returning to the Scotland squad, for example, should be put on hold as he concentrates on what he can do with Celtic.

“It is about taking your chance when you get it,” said the manager.

“He had a hard spring,” Deila added, with reference to the player’s ankle break. “But he has done everything right and he has never been more fit than he is now. You can see his ability.

“You talk about playing X amount of games. But you don’t really have that time at Celtic, you have to perform at once and take the chance when it comes. Against Ajax he played very well and in the next game he scored so it’s important to keep the standard up.”

“It’s difficult in an environment where everything is about results,” added Deila. “You have people around you – family, agents, friends, everybody – talking about how you are playing, why you are not playing, if you are good or bad. So you get into a habit of thinking ‘I have to be in the national team, I have to be in first team, I have to win trophies, I have to do this and this’.

“He [McGregor] has to think now about ‘how do I get to the highest level’. You can’t do anything about the demands or the goals. But you can do something about how you get there. The goals take care of themselves. Everybody has dreams but you have to enjoy the road to the goals because every day is a fight. It is small details that have to be improved. If you do that you will improve.”

Deila also expects a significant year ahead for 21-year-old centre-half Jozo Simunovic, another whose progress so far has not been as hoped, although he has been badly hampered by injury. The Croatian has recently made a return to the starting line-up, and, again, looks set to make an impact over the upcoming busy schedule.

“I’m looking forward to working with him,” said Deila. “He’s a talented boy, physically he’s unbelievable. But he’s young and there’s a lot of technical things he has to improve on.”

Of course, Deila’s greatest wish for 2016 will be that he is given time to continue improving these fledgling talents at his disposal.