HAD things turned out a little differently, Gary Mackay-Steven would still have been counting down the days until he became a Celtic player on 1 July.
So it’s fair to say the pacy wide man has made the most of his initial pre-contract agreement with the Scottish champions being advanced into a transfer from Dundee United in the closing hours of the winter window three months ago.
It took Mackay-Steven just 37 seconds of his debut against Partick Thistle to score his first goal for his new club.
Since then, he has established himself as a first pick in Ronny Deila’s side and is now looking forward to collecting the first major winners’ medal of his career after helping Celtic retain the Scottish Premiership title.
In all, Mackay-Steven has scored four goals in his 14 appearances for the club so far to lay the foundations for what he hopes will be a long and successful career in the green and white hooped shirt.
“I have obviously been delighted with how it has turned out,” reflected the 24-year-old. “My main aim was to hit the ground running, get to know what the manager wants, get in the team and get to know the boys and their style of play.
“We know we can compete with the likes of Inter Milan or anyone like that”Gary Mackay-Steven
“I feel I’ve done all of that. I wanted to contribute, so it’s been nice, I’m delighted to be here and now I can’t wait for next season.
“It was important to make an instant impact. When there is so much competition for places then any chance you get, you want to grab it with both hands and that’s what I tried to do. I got my chance quite early and also played in the two Europa League games against Inter Milan in February which was a great experience.
“It gave me a little taste of that and I now want more. That’s the goal for next season, to get more European football back here.”
Having failed to make the breakthrough at Liverpool as a youngster, Mackay-Steven did have the option of a return to English football where there was plenty of interest in him as his contract at United ran down. But the Thurso-born player has no regrets about his decision to remain in Scotland and commit himself to the Parkhead club.
“When I knew there was definite interest from Celtic, this was the only place I wanted to come,” he added. “The draw of Celtic as a whole is so big, it’s a massive club, something I have realised now. To play in front of the fans and see just how many there are is massive, not just in Scotland but around the world. I know I made the right decision.
“When I am at the supermarket or in town clothes shopping now, I have realised how big a club it is and what it means to so many people. I get recognised a lot more now but that’s part and parcel of it and to be fair everyone has been so friendly. I’ve made the transition so well because everyone at the club and outside have been so welcoming.
“England is obviously a place where a lot of people want to play their football. There is a lot to look forward to down there, a lot of big clubs, but Celtic is such a draw. For example, the atmosphere in the two Inter Milan games is something I don’t think could be replicated at too many other clubs in the world, not just in Scotland or England.
“It’s been a strange journey for me to get here after my time in England before and then coming back to Airdrie. Celtic is such a big club and there is so much to achieve here, it’s a great platform and everything that comes is a bonus. I’ve got to roll with it and keep a smile on my face.
“I never really look back at what I’ve done or not done. I am just really excited. I wanted to win the league, establish myself in the team and do even better next season.
“Winning trophies is what I’ve wanted to do. I’ve got my first one now and I want more next season. The mentality here is that second best is not good enough. You have to win every time you step out on to that pitch. I’m happy to buy into that. The first aim was to win the league and get into Europe. But looking forward now, the Champions League group stage is the pinnacle and we know that is achievable if we come back and do well in the qualifiers. That is what everyone wants to do. We want to bring the Champions League back to the club.
“The Inter Milan games were an unbelievable experience for me. We did really well in the first leg, the atmosphere was incredible. I felt we had a chance going over there but circumstances meant the match changed when we went down to ten men.
“But the boys still came so close to pulling it off. We could hold our heads up now and we know we can compete with the likes of Inter Milan or anyone like that. Hopefully, we can get to the Champions League and show that we can do well.”
There was a sense of irony for Mackay-Steven when his first success as a Celtic player was confirmed last Saturday by a victory for his former club as United defeated Aberdeen 1-0 to end the Pittodrie side’s title challenge.
“I was seeing my sister in Edinburgh when I heard we were champions,” he said. “I was watching the scores come in and we also have a group chat online between all the boys at Celtic, so it was a nice feeling to know we had won the league.
“I think it was Craig Gordon who first said we were the champions when the final whistle had gone and it was a strange feeling.
“It was nice that my old club did us a turn. For United to get the three points was a big thing and, hopefully, they can kick on until the end of the season.
“I think the party for us will wait until the end of the season when we get the actual trophy after the last game at home to Inverness. We have three games to come and want to show why we are champions and keep doing well.
“I have to go back to school for the last time I got a winners’ medal. Yeah, I think it’s that far back. It was at Thurso High School in second year in something like the North Highland Cup, I think.
“I got a runners-up medal in the Scottish Cup with United last year. So to get a league medal is so important for me. I have a big chance at Celtic to get more of them.”