Callum McGregor sees Champions League possibility, not pitfalls for inexperienced Celtic defenders

No-one needs tell Callum McGregor that Champions League qualifiers can make rather than break young players. There is a growing fear that the latter fate awaits the central defensive duo of Stephen Welsh and Dane Murray in the assignment away to FC Midtjylland.

The newly-appointed Celtic captain draws on his own experience to consider otherwise.

The needs-must pairing of the 18-year-old Murray - who will be handed his first competitive start in the return leg of second round qualifier in club’s football’s most prestigious tournament - with a Welsh three years older but boasting only 20 senior starts, has placed Ange Postecolgou in an invidious position. A mere month into his Celtic tenure, and for an encounter in which a win must be fashioned for progress following the 1-1 with the Danes in last week’s Glasgow first leg. Postecoglou’s back is up against the wall, and especially so when he has to flank the twosome with the hardly seasoned-veteran full-backs that will see 22-year-old Anthony Ralston on the right and 23-year-old Greg Taylor on the left.

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This unit was torn apart in the excruciating 6-2 friendly defeat by West Ham, when their inexperience and unfamiliarity were laid bare against an, admittedly, leading English Premier League side.

Stephen Welsh during a Celtic training session at Lennoxtown, on July 16, 2021. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Unquestionably, the quartet will form the youngest backline fielded from the first whistle by Celtic in a Champions League tie. That betrays desperately poor planning and lack of agility in the transfer market from the club in the past month...whatever difficulties created by global Covid-19 restrictions. As well as, it should be acknowledged, hellish fortune – Nir Bitton lost to a wholly needless red card in that his synapses, never mind his manager or team, could legislate for.

McGregor knows that young players can seize such moments. He did so by scoring in his debut to earn Celtic a Champions League qualifying win away at Reykjavik seven years ago this month. His breakthrough proved the bright spot of an ultimately failed campaign and he wants Celtic’s unfancied young defence to see possibility, not pitfall, in the opportunity circumstances have presented them. And for him and other older heads to assist in ensuring they prosper as opposed to perish.

“In terms of the squad we are pretty light in depth,” he said. “We are also a bit short in experience right now. But that has to be a challenge for both the young players and for the more experienced players. We have to find a solution that continues to make us successful until we get the squad we feel we need. I certainly think that the players we have are good enough. Welshy has come in and done great. Young Dane came in last week [as a substitute following Bitton’s dismissal] and was excellent in the second half, really showing his potential.

“We have to go with what we’ve got now and in no way is that a negative for us. We can turn that into a positive and show how good the young players coming through the academy are. I think these games can be the making of young players. Guys like Welshy and Dane will have had the same schooling as myself.

Celtic captain Callum McGregor during a Champions League qualifier between Celtic and FC Midtjylland at Celtic Park on July 20, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

“You never know when your moment is going to come and you just have to be prepared for it and be ready to take it. You can’t plan it and say, ‘I’m going to make my debut in six months.’ You are just thrown in and it’s sink or swim. These young guys will understand that when their chance comes they have to be ready to take it. So far Welshy has been great and Dane showed his potential when he came in for his first [competitive] game.”

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In some ways, the horrified reaction to the expected defensive selections in Midtjylland from the club’s support speaks of a disconnect. There is angst over the possibility 17-year-old academy players Leo Hjelde and Matthew Anderson may have their heads turned by the interest that Leeds United are understood to be stepping up in them. The harshest critics of Celtic’s governance blame that on the absence of a first-team pathway at the club. Yet, those same naysayers are apoplectic over actually ever daring to blood such prospects in a game that matters.

Celtic were compact in protecting their defence in the Champions League opener last Tuesday. McGregor acknowledges they must be so again. ‘You don’t want to leave them exposed too much,” he said. “It’s their first few games [together], but we have to play the way the manager wants us to set up. And if these guys are in the team it’s because the manager trusts them. You put your trust in the guys playing beside you. That’s the only way football can work; if the 22 players in the squad trust each other and the manager.”

Celtic Manager Ange Postecoglou with Dane Murray during the Champions League qualifier between Celtic and FC Midtjylland at Celtic Park. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

For all the embracing of Postecoglou’s fluid, attacking ethos by the club’s fanbase - which has certainly supplied them with a thrust greater than they conjured up for much of last season - an openness at times will inevitably accompany the desire to play incessantly in a progressive fashion. That suggests Celtic under him won’t look to nick European away wins with the sort of counter-attacking football that can often appear best suited to such occasions.

“One of the things he has been big on since he came in is he wants to give us the freedom to play. And in return he asks us to have the courage to play,” said McGregor. “He wants to be on the front foot, attacking and playing with freedom in the final third. He is not the type of manager who will change or abandon his beliefs. He trusts the system he wants to play and in return we have to show the courage that system demands.”

A joy, or joyless, ride awaits.

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