It takes a certain type of footballer to disassociate himself from a strong pronouncement by his club’s leading powerbroker. A captain, dare it be said. The general consensus is that Callum McGregor is armband-wearer-in-waiting for Celtic. And the midfielder certainly exuded such a status in his reaction to eye-catch comments made by Dermot Desmond in an interview with the Athletic this week.
In that, the club’s largest shareholder made a damning claim. Celtic’s inability to negotiate winnable European knock-out ties in recent years – the shoddy exit to Ferencvaros last month leaving them without Champions League group stage for a third straight season – was specifically down to a “psychological barrier,” and a “fear factor” over such losses. Pointing to their successful use in his beloved golf, and in tennis, Desmond, inset, intimated Celtic would employ sports psychologists to remedy the situation.
McGregor respectfully demurs when asked if he considers there is a mental problem with Celtic in European knock-out ties, the club squandering promising positions in such occasions against Cluj, Copenhagen and AEK Athens in the past 25 months.
“I don’t think so,” said the 27-year-old, knocking the club cannot afford to mess up in their Latvian Europa League qualifier against Riga on Thursday. “Obviously you get games like Ferencvaros where you control large parts of the game and they go up the pitch and score a counter-attack with ten minutes to go. You can be unlucky. I look back at the Cluj game the year before, crazy game at Celtic Park when they go up the pitch four times and score all four.
“These games, you make mistakes you get punished, but if you actually look at the performances they have probably been worthy of getting something. We have to be positive and if you go back to the group stage games last season, Rennes at home, Lazio home and away. You get over the line there [to top a European group for the first time] so I don’t think there’s a psychological thing.
“It’s easy to say you get unlucky but when you actually look at performances and results you can probably think we have been a bit unlucky. Hopefully we can take that element of luck out of it when we go to Riga. Try to do all the right things. Nine times out ten you win when you do the right things.”
McGregor isn’t averse to working with a psychologist, but he thinks it isn’t simply a case of replicating what works in other sports, or addressing any perceived mental weakness in the squad.
“It’s about each individual and what you think you need,” he said. “For golfers, it’s an individual sport so it depends on the human being you’re dealing with, superstition and lots of other things. But if you look at this team’s record in the last five or six years, it’s pretty good in terms of winning things. We seem to have a system here that works for us. We win big games, we win trophies when they’re on the line.
“So personally, I think the group’s in a good place. Of course, you’re always trying to get a one percent edge that can make the difference. And no-one will ever shut the door on anything that might make us better. There’s always room for those types of conversations in sport. But in the main, this group is pretty strong mentally.”
McGregor is in the perfect place to follow on from Scott Brown as captain when time does eventually catch-up with Celtic’s 35-year-old warrior. That is the belief of both Brown himself, and Neil Lennon.
“To hear the manager and Scott – two brilliant captains who have led this club so well – say nice things about me, I take a lot of pride in that,” the Scotland international said. “If the club ever took the decision to make me captain, I’d be delighted with that. It would be a hugely proud moment for myself.”
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