Celtic captaincy: Callum McGregor is natural successor to Scott Brown, says Neil Lennon
Comparing the midfielder to Champions League winner Paul Lambert – whom Lennon played alongside in Martin O’Neill’s Celtic side – the Parkhead manager, right, was gushing in his enthusiasm for the 26-year-old. Had circumstances been different this summer McGregor would have joined former manager Brendan Rodgers at Leicester – Celtic were reluctant to allow the player to join the former manager – but Lennon was thankful to retain the services of the midfielder.
“A lot of the players look up to him, the coaches love him and his performance on Wednesday was simply breathtaking at times,” said Lennon. “His goal was great but his all-round game, his footwork, his reading of the game, his positional sense was just top class.
“You don’t expect anything in football, but I’d say he’d be a leading contender [to take over from Brown]. He looks like a natural successor. The relationship they have on and off the pitch is telepathic now almost. I’d compare him to Paul Lambert maybe as a midfielder in terms of consistency, reliability. He’s adding goals to his game and he’s just so clever, whatever you ask him to do tactically he understands it more or less straightaway.
“He’s such an important player for us, we’re delighted to get him tied down on a long-term contract. He’s playing out of his skin, he’s been absolutely outstanding this season again. He is a little bit underrated because other people seem to hog the headlines but I know that role very well and I know how well he does it. He’s so reliable.”
McGregor, like James Forrest, has clocked up between 50 and 60 games a season as a matter of course over recent years. And while the unrelenting nature of that will ultimately take its toll, Lennon has conceded that giving the midfielder a break is difficult because of how important he is.
“He is still young enough to be able to do it but there will be times when he might have to come off it a little bit and recover,” he said. “We tried to do that with one of the games – we left him out of the Estonia trip but I think that is the only one he has missed. Going forward, with the amount of big games coming up, it will be difficult to do because he is so important for us.”
If that schedule feels exacting, it afforded Lennon some empathy as he looked across the Border this week. The pull of a break was too enticing for Jurgen Klopp to take his place in the dug-out for an FA Cup replay against Shrewsbury. If Lennon can understand why, it is unlikely that he will tear up his own side too much.
“I can [understand it] with the amount of football that they have played,” said the Celtic manager. “It is working for him. I don’t know that he will do it again against Chelsea. We won’t be making wholesale changes like that.”
Ahead of this afternoon’s fifth round Scottish Cup tie against Clyde, Celtic have played three games more than Liverpool. The Parkhead side put their 44th game on the clock on Wednesday night with a comprehensive win over Motherwell but there is no easing off any time soon. There has been a relentlessness to Celtic domestically since 2016, with the Parkhead side sweeping all before them as they have dominated the domestic landscape, as 31 cup ties without defeat would underline.
“I think sometimes you are born with a winning mentality but also that if you get a taste of it then you always want more,” said Lennon.
“I think that is where these players are at the minute. They know what is at stake and they know the incentives and it is good that we have players in there who have been over the course before.”
The re-emergence of Leigh Griffiths has been notable since Celtic’s return from Dubai.
Lennon is keen to forge a partnership between the 29-year-old and Odsonne Edouard with the initial indications encouraging; 11 of the 19 goals Celtic have scored in their past six games have come from the duo. Griffiths’ form will have drawn interest from Scotland manager Steve Clarke ahead of next month’s Euro 2020 play-off against Israel.
“If he stays at the level he’s at, yes [he could be influential for Scotland], but that’s not my decision, that will be down to Steve,” offered Lennon. “He’s just got to continue in the same vein and keep his form and consistency going. I’ve always liked his intelligence as a player and his goal record is fantastic. He just needed a bit of time to get up to a level of fitness.”