He may have swapped the prospect of Champions League football with Celtic for a scrap for Championship survival with Blackburn Rovers but Charlie Mulgrew believes he has never been better prepared to play for Scotland.
After six trophy-laden seasons with the Scottish champions, Mulgrew decided his club career required a change of direction when he was out of contract last summer. As it stands, that direction could yet lead him to the third tier of English football with a Blackburn side currently occupying one of the relegation places in the Championship.
Mulgrew, however, has no doubts he made the correct choice. His recent form for Rovers, unbeaten in their last seven games since Tony Mowbray replaced Owen Coyle as manager last month, earned him a place in Gordon Strachan’s squad for tomorrow night’s friendly against Canada at Easter Road and Sunday’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Slovenia at Hampden.
“At the time a lot of people looked and thought it wasn’t the right move but it was me who wanted to do it,” said the 31-year-old. “I wanted to experience something different at this stage of my career it was probably my last chance to go down south again and I wanted that.
“Off the field everything has been great, on the field it’s been difficult with picking up results but I’ve never regretted my decision. I’m enjoying the challenge, I’m enjoying playing different teams at big stadiums and a whole new challenge. We’ve also picked up recently, so I’m enjoying it.
“A lot is made of the problems Blackburn have off the field, but it doesn’t really affect us. Our main focus is the football side of things, the manager being right, training being right and preparation for games is top notch. The facilities are great and everything is fine.
“It’s a more demanding league (than the Scottish Premiership). Every game is genuinely 50-50. Even when we played Newcastle, who are top of the Championship, we made them defend a lot. The games are more even and that was part of the challenge why I wanted to go down there.
“I feel more prepared now and that I’m a better player, more experienced. I feel it’s improved me. You have a lot of the ball at Celtic, in most games you’ve got at least 60-70 per cent possession. So it’s different games, there’s more defending to be done. It’s opened my eyes a bit. While I was down south before (with Wolves and Southend), I hadn’t played as much in the Championship as I have this season.”
Mulgrew, capped 24 times for his country, has not featured in a competitive fixture for Scotland since the agonising 3-2 defeat by Germany in a Euro 2016 qualifier at Hampden 18 months ago. While versatility has always been one of Mulgrew’s greatest assets, operating for both club and country at left-back, in central defence or in midfield, he feels the best chance of extending his international career is at the heart of the back four.
“People have always asked me about my favourite position throughout my career,” he added.
“I do prefer centre-half or midfield, but I’d like to play as long as I can and defence is probably my best chance to do that.
“I’m still young enough at 31 but I just want to play, be happy and help the team. It doesn’t matter what position I prefer or anyone else. It’s about what helps the team.
“I’ve played maybe twice in midfield for Blackburn, one of them against Manchester United in the FA Cup, but I’ve played mostly in the centre of defence this season. I spoke to Tony Mowbray about that when he came in because he likes to play football from the back and that suits me. But I said to him, the same way I’ve said a thousand times before, that I’m happy wherever I’m needed. He’s happy with me at centre-back at the moment.
“I’ve played in different positions for Scotland. I’ve been down on the squad list as a defender and played midfield. I’m just looking to do my best in training and will be happy wherever the manager wants to put me in. I feel like I can play in a couple of positions but the main thing is the team wins.”
Mulgrew has joined up with a Scotland squad which is hardly operating in the midst of a feelgood factor. He is determined, however, to ignore the narrative which has seen the chances of World Cup qualification all but written off completely just four games into the campaign.
“That’s typical, people just want to be negative,” he said. “They build it up and then they just want to focus on the negative. That’s something we need to deal with. We just need to win our next game and that’s Wednesday against Canada. After that, we’ll deal with the game coming on Sunday.
“The most important thing is the game on Sunday. We’re looking to win on Wednesday with a good performance to take us into Sunday.
“We realise it’s important but if we can win it we’ll still be in a good position in the group and that is our main focus.”