CALLUM McGregor will forever recall 2014 as one of the most enjoyable and significant years of his life, having broken into the Celtic first team and earned a call-up to the senior Scotland squad.
But the 21-year-old midfielder admits his annus mirabilis ended on something of a sour and perplexing note when he suffered a fate which is a source of embarrassment for any professional footballer.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
The indignity of being substituted after coming on as a substitute happened to McGregor during Celtic’s 0-0 draw with Ross County last Saturday. Having replaced the injured Anthony Stokes after nine minutes, McGregor was withdrawn himself in the 67th minute to make way for Kris Commons.
He has inevitably faced some less than sympathetic ribbing from his team-mates in training this week and the level-headed McGregor admits he is seeking clarification of manager Ronny Deila’s course of action last weekend.
“I was a bit surprised when the board went up with my number on it,” said McGregor. “I was playing well in the game, I’d just hit the bar and was growing into it. So I was surprised.
“I haven’t spoken to the manager yet but I will in the next day or so to clear it up. But it is his decision. He is the manager and obviously thought it was the best thing for the team at the time. That’s fine by me.
“I’ve tried to take it in my stride. I have to try and not be too disappointed and to learn from it.
“A few of the boys have been noising me up about it, though. But it’s just banter and it’s been quite funny.”
McGregor enjoyed an eye-catching start to the season, scoring on his first-team debut in a Champions League qualifier against KR Reykjavik in Iceland. He netted further European goals against Legia Warsaw and Maribor, his early campaign displays so impressive he was called into Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad for the Euro 2016 qualifier in Germany in September.
But he has not started a league game for Celtic since October, which was also the month he last scored, and admits he has struggled to maintain his initial standards.
“I have had a wee dip in form,” added McGregor. “I was playing really well, probably playing the best football of my career, and it is hard to sustain that.
“It is a good learning curve for me to try and get back to that level and stay on it. That is the key to sustaining a long career at Celtic.
“I look at someone like Scott Brown, who has been here for a number of years and who gives you a seven or eight out of ten performance every time he steps on to the pitch. That is the reason he is the captain and driving force of our team. You have to learn from guys like him and try to put what you learn from him into your own game. His example is excellent and I talk to him a lot. He tries to keep me right as much as he can and is definitely a good player to learn from.”
McGregor has mostly been used as a wide midfielder by Deila but revealed he hopes to command a different role as his career at the club progresses.
“I prefer to play more centrally,” he said. “As long as I’m in the team and in the plans, though, I’ll play anywhere. I set myself short-term and long-term goals to try to make sure I am always bang at it and that I am trying to improve all the time.
“Right now, I just want to get back into the team, start every week and lift my performances back to where they were at the start of the season. In my early career with Celtic, I scored a lot of goals as a central midfielder and I managed to score a few for the first team at the start of the season. Goalscoring midfielders are hard to come by, so I want to keep that in my game.
“It was a great year for me in 2014. I came back from my loan spell at Notts County, got into the Celtic first team, scored in the Champions League, got a Scotland call-up and then signed a new five-year contract. So hopefully I can continue to progress in 2015.”
That ambition begins with today’s Premiership fixture against Partick Thistle at Firhill when Celtic will seek to return to winning ways after dropping five points in their last two games against Dundee United and Ross County.
“It’s been disappointing in the last couple of weeks,” added McGregor. “But the boys have dominated both games and done enough that we should have won both of them. We are still making chances, dominating games and playing good football.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before we give a team a heavy defeat again. We were clinical in the games when we beat Dundee United 6-1 and Partick Thistle 5-0 earlier in the season. I feel we are on the cusp of clicking and gelling, getting a right few goals again and then going on another unbeaten run.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS