GORDON Strachan was the manager who deemed Charlie Mulgrew surplus to requirements during the defender’s first stint at Parkhead but the new Scotland coach believes he did the player a favour.
“He’s made a wonderful career for himself,” Strachan said as he announced his first squad as national boss, a group of 28 players that included Mulgrew. “The best thing he did was get away from Celtic, become a man, come back and get on with it. So he’s done well.”
He stressed there had never been a falling out with the deadball specialist, who went on to be named Scotland’s Player of the Year last season. Strachan simply didn’t want Mulgrew to stagnate at Celtic when he was so far down the pecking order.
“If you look at a lot of the Celtic lads, they can either go away and kind of grow up – or go away and die. They’ve been protected by Celtic and actually look good because they’re playing with really good players. Then they have to get into the real world.
“Because of the under-21 rule, you had to keep a certain number of under-21s. And you were actually putting them on the bench and leaving some really good players out because of this rule. Because of that, the young ones weren’t really getting games yet were living in a fantasy world of picking up bonuses, thinking ‘I’m getting a lot of money, my team is winning here, I’ve picked up a bonus’ but they weren’t even getting off their backside.
“So you have to get out into the real world. I said that to the people at the time. Get these boys out of here at 18, 19, I don’t want them sitting around here at 21. By that time you can nearly miss out.”
But, while some youngsters have left the Glasgow side and failed to make the grade elsewhere, Strachan believes the shift away from Parkhead helped Mulgrew. “Charlie just moved at the right time because, if he’d stayed another year or year and a half, then I think his whole drive would have collapsed. What he did was get out there, take a few knocks at Wolves, Southend, then get to Aberdeen and play better and eventually make his way back to Celtic as a real mature man.
“I never had a cross word with Charlie in my life. I think he’s actually said that since then. I just think there were a group of players at Celtic who needed to get out. Some have flourished like Charlie, some have collapsed.”
Strachan travelled to the Celtic match against Kilmarnock last Wednesday to cast a final glance over several of the men he will rely on to help get his international management career off to a bright start against Estonia at Pittodrie on Wednesday.
“I watched Celtic and it was comfortable for them but I wonder if Charlie was suffering a bit of a hangover from his penalty miss [against St Mirren in the league cup semi-final the previous Sunday]. That happens. The best of us miss penalties.” In other set-piece situations, though, Strachan, knows the threat Mulgrew’s deliveries can pose.
“Set plays, crosses – if you look at Celtic’s goals in the Champions League, the number of times Charlie has crossed it.
“Someone keeps telling players how to defend corner kicks and free kicks but, if someone is delivering them like Charlie and people are brave enough to go and attack it, then you don’t have to practise. Charlie has got that. Charlie has played in different positions and that says a lot for him because that means Neil Lennon trusts him.”
In his last international appearance, Mulgrew was used in midfield but it is in defence that Scotland still look uncertain. Mulgrew can play at full-back or centre-back but Strachan says he has not finalised his thinking when it comes to a first-choice central defensive partnership. Having worked with Gary Caldwell in the past, he has also been casting an eye over the other contenders.
“I saw Christophe Berra [last] Saturday, he played well. I saw young [Grant] Hanley last Tuesday and thought he did well, too. The only problem is he’s a bit young but he looked up for the scrap and was quicker than I thought.”
Strachan has a couple of formations in mind and will opt for whichever suits his best players. And, keeping his cards close to his chest, he added that the important thing is to see who comes through this weekend unscathed and assess the training, the attitude and the personalities of those he doesn’t know so well before.
If the goalkeeping situation hadn’t been clear cut, the footage Strachan has been trying to absorb as he studies the players he has at his disposal might have helped. Allan McGregor was a thorn in his new gaffer’s side in Old Firm games, and Strachan says the former Rangers keeper has developed further on the international stage.
“With McGregor, I keep watching games and I saw him against Macedonia and thought it was an eeksy-peeksy type of game. Then I looked at it again and thought: ‘He’s made four absolutely brilliant saves, without being totally demonstrative about it’. They were big saves, you know, and you can’t ignore that. He is a good goalie and they get better when they get to their thirties, I think. It’s a bit like centre halves, that’s them at their best round about that time.”
Age and experience obviously have high value for the Scotland manager. That’s something Mulgrew has realised and the others will soon learn.