CALLUM McGregor’s goal against Legia Warsaw in Poland netted him the first away goal in European football that has ended up counting not double, but quadruple, writes Andrew Smith.
As the 21-year-old spoke to reporters in the bowels of Murrayfield on Wednesday night, the Celtic midfielder was embarrassed at the suggestion he alone could take a scintilla of credit from the Champions League qualifiers against Legia Warsaw because he was responsible for the one in the 6-1 aggregate trouncing. The goal that he had scored in the away leg of the tie then seemed utterly irrelevant. Around 36 hours later, it was anything but.
The outcome of Legia Warsaw’s oversight in failing to name Bartosz Bereszynski as suspended for their second round qualifiers against St Patrick’s was heartbreakingly cruel. Yet, the fact the defender technically had not served a three-match suspension when coming on as an 86th-minute substitute as his team ran out 2-0 second-leg winners at Murrayfield did not see Legia “thrown out of the Champions League”, as has been reported. It resulted in UEFA imposing its standard penalty in such circumstances, the team at fault forfeiting the game and a 3-0 win being awarded to the other team, in this case Celtic.
Were it therefore not for McGregor’s strike seven minutes into the Polish first leg, Legia still would have gone forward to face Slovenian side NK Maribor in the play-off round. “We’ve been given a lifeline and now we had to take it,” said McGregor of an utterly ill-deserved but by-the-book-correct reprieve.
The chance that McGregor has taken to establish himself as a senior Celtic performer provided just about the only life witnessed in the teams sent out by new manager Ronny Deila against Warsaw. “They are a good side but I don’t think we did ourselves any favours over the two legs,” says the personable Glaswegian, with it left to their opponents to do them an inadvertent, monumental favour.
McGregor did himself a huge favour by showing his promise while on loan at Notts County last season. He scored 16 times for the League One side, who were desperate to make his switch permanent. However, despite the player having had no first team involvement prior to heading south last summer and a new manager awaiting him at his football home, he is that rarest of commodities – a Celtic player who has returned from a development spell with prospects enhanced.
McGregor admits to surprise at just how enhanced. He himself has had much to do with that, scoring on his debut – in the Champions League qualifier away to Reykjavik – before his crucial Warsaw strike from a wide left berth in which he has looked comfortable. Deila seems to think so, and McGregor is convinced the 38-year-old will move through the period of intense discomfort with which he has opened up his management career in Scotland.
“The manager has been good for me. He’s given me my chance and I’ve performed well so I’m hoping I can stay in the team. He’s come in and he’s implementing his ideas quickly. Everyone knows what their job is and how they should go about it. Of course, he needs time. He’s only been here for six weeks or so and, at Celtic, the pressure is always on. I think he needs time for the team to gel and I’m sure it will come good.”
For Celtic to prove any more competitive against Maribor than they were against Legia, good players will have to come good. McGregor’s hope that those in that bracket within the squad would be kept “to keep the team spirit going and develop as a group as there’s nothing better to see than everyone coming together as mates” has been dashed with the sale of Fraser Forster to Southampton for £10 million.
Yet, with Celtic bereft of pace, the return of James Forrest after his latest fitness issues could more than offset the England keeper’s loss. Forrest appeared for the final 20 minutes in midweek, and engineered the one occasion where the home side drove in behind the visitors’ backline.
“James is a great player and he always brings that explosion on to the pitch,” McGregor says. “He’s had his share of injuries in the last few seasons, but when he’s fully fit he’s a real handful for anyone.”