All the great teams had one. For Manchester United it was John O’Shea. Chelsea had Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel. Barcelona had Seydou Keita and Adriano. AC Milan had Serginho. The player who can be trusted, perhaps play in three or four different positions. A hardworking shift is a prerequisite and a given. They listen to their manager and carry out the job, tactically, physically, technically, to the precise detail. They ‘do a job’.
Others take the acclaim, the praise, the attention. They don’t win the hearts and minds of the fans. Their names don’t appear be on the back of fans’ strips or on advertisements. Season tickets aren’t sold because of them, fans don’t pay money to watch them. When things aren’t going well they are the ones who often take the flak, the heat. They feature at the top of the list of players who need to be moved on, improved upon.
But within the club, they’re cherished. Managers live and die by them. They get them onside, constantly cajoling them positively. They know these guys aren’t first-choice but at every chance, both publicly and privately, they are talked up. Team-mates adore their dedication; the work they put in, the lack of grandstanding, the trust.
They are the unsung heroes. Versatile and hard-working. They’ve bought into the club’s ethos. They extract 100 per cent of their talent, bringing that attitude to both training, where they spur on team-mates, and to matches, providing energy levels when others have dropped theirs.
Callum McGregor is one of those players. Or at least, under Brendan Rodgers, he’s on the path to becoming Celtic’s John O’Shea, the Scottish Serginho.
Following Celtic’s easy 2-0 victory over Rangers at the weekend, when fourth gear was never even considered, Rodgers was ebullient in his assessment of McGregor’s man-of-the-match-performance.
“I thought young Callum was brilliant,” he told the BBC. “He’s a really, really talented footballer. He doesn’t get headlines but he’s the type of player who’s tactically very, very strong. And if you are going to develop your team and develop to play at the highest possible level you need players who are tactically very good.
“The other aspect of his football is that he’s technically strong. He can manage the ball, look after it in tight situations and he has got that goal in him. He’s a boy who’s improving with confidence all the time; a very, very important player for our squad.”
Hearing that McGregor was likely preparing to be scraped off the ceiling. Until those last three words: For. Our. Squad. That’s what he is, a squad player. But an incredibly productive and effective one at that.
With Nir Bitton edging closer to the exit door, the centre of midfield is an area of the pitch which will likely come under serious consideration for improvement. Not because that’s what is required domestically, but at European level. It is unlikely Rodgers would have been overly enamoured with his team’s efforts at controlling games on the European stage. Rodgers will be striving for perfection. That means bolstering the squad with more quality. Quality which will likely supplant McGregor.
It is an interesting dilemma for McGregor. Can he realistically believe he will become a key member of the first-team squad? A player likely to start on a regular basis? He would no doubt have a number of options down south, with a good-word from Rodgers, but would those options be an upgrade on being an important squad member at Celtic? Playing regularly for an Ipswich Town for example, a team in Championship perdition, or semi-regularly for his boyhood team, winning trophies, playing in Europe.
While Rodgers used the terms ‘young’ and ‘boy’ when describing McGregor, he turns 24 before Celtic will reconvene for their European odyssey, a time where players in similar situations would take stock. McGregor only needs to look at his stats this season to give him encouragement to stay.
He has played 2,299 minutes across 40 games - the 11th most in the squad - scoring four goals and providing eight assists. With six games remaining he has already played more than any of his previous Celtic seasons - only his loan spell at Notts County brought about greater playing time. He has seen off the intermittent quality of Bitton and kept Eboue Kouassi kicking his heels since his January move.
Sunday’s performance was the apex of his season, outshining Stuart Armstrong and even Scott Brown who had an afternoon stroll at the base of the midfield. His energy and positional understanding were crucial in aiding Celtic’s press, while also picking up the space and reading the game to latch on to Moussa Dembele’s lay-off to pass the ball into the net from the edge of the box.
For a manager like Rodgers, McGregor’s versatility, and this tactical nous, is a massive fillip. He’s popped up at wing-back as well as a variety of roles in the centre of midfield, as well as further up the flank. Usually, it is said, being flexible and versatile goes against players. But at Celtic it works for McGregor, giving him more opportunities.
What may go against him, strangely, is that he does everything well, but there is not a particular area which he excels in. For example, he doesn’t possess the power and drive of Armstrong, the exuberant confidence and fiery will of Brown, the technical grace and vision of Tom Rogic. He is energetic, neat and tidy, but should score more.
He will always have detractors, praise will always likely be followed by a conjunction. But, however, although are all words he may tire of hearing. He should ignore it and continue to develop under Rodgers. Who knows where it may take him.
At the moment, however, he is Celtic’s unsung hero, Mr Reliable. John O’Shea.