Celtic's Callum McGregor: I wanted to come back and show people that was a one-off

There are numerous ways in which this Scottish football season has entirely confounded expectations.

Celtic captain Callum McGregor.
Celtic captain Callum McGregor.

None has been more profound than the influence exerted by Callum McGregor as Celtic captain in his club’s title charge. It was considered an impossibility that the 28-year-old could fill the void created by the departure of Scott Brown’s following 12 years as the armband-wearing, belligerent-general driving force who underpinned a glittering era for the club. Yet, remarkably, McGregor’s importance to Celtic already seems on a par with his predecessor. He has been the soldering iron as Ange Postecoglou and a new team have been fused together, both in how he has directed operations on the pitch and how he has unified the new arrivals off it. His shortlisting in for the PFA Scotland and Scottish Football Writers’ player of the year awards is reflective of this monumental contribution.

Hurt is a powerful motivator, and the personable, considered nature of McGregor perhaps caused the inner turmoil he has been able to channel to propel Celtic’s rehabilitation this season to be under-appreciated. Last season was the first in his seven years in the club’s senior set-up that he hadn’t earned a league winners’ medal. The spectacular collapse in the pursuit of a record tenth title that allowed Rangers to walk away with the title by a massive 25 points provided McGregor with a cause. And one he was determined would not be forlorn, even as the squad was shorn of a raft of mainstays from the quadruple treble era and Ange Postecoglou arrived with the invidious task of comprehensively remaking the squad.

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“When boys leave and it's the end of an era, a successful team, everybody then says ‘can they go again, can he do it again?’” said the Scotland international. “That's the question, certainly off the back of a poor season. I took it personally – what we went through as a club last season, all the press surrounding it and everything else. But not at all [did I ever think of jumping]. I love the club, I have committed my future here and I take it personally. If we win I am the happiest guy in the world, and if we lose then I don’t speak for three days.

“I wanted to come back and show people that was a one-off and we can go again. That was the biggest thing, so many players leaving, so many new players coming in. I wanted us to be a successful team in our right. Not just that was Brendan [Rodgers]'s team or that was [Neil] Lennon's team or Broony's [Scott Brown’s] team, or whatever. We had to create our own history within that as a new group of players. That was the biggest challenge when we came back from the summer. When the players and manager came through the door, I thought, 'they fancy this'. You could see it in their eyes and they have been brilliant so far, and it's just about us staying calm and trying to finish it off in the right manner. The beauty of this group is there's still more to come, more development in the players with the way the manager wants to play to try and take us to the next level.”

Postecoglou and McGregor, as with Rodgers and Brown, have seemed a match made in heaven as Celtic have worked themselves into a position where essentially they can make sure of the title with victory at home to Rangers in their final cinch Premiership meeting. The Australian and his newbies have restored a sense of joie de vive to Celtic’s play. Postecoglou had McGregor on-side over that aim from his earliest addresses. “He always talks about when you are a young kid playing football at seven, eight years-old: ‘What did you want to do, you wanted to get loads of touches on the ball, you wanted to be attacking, you wanted to play forward. This is why I want to play this type of football, I want to take you back to that seven, eight, nine-year-old kid that's just desperate to play and touch the ball and feel good about playing about football’. That's his whole philosophy and he's implemented that to a really high standard.

“It naturally suits the way I want to play. He's always talking about playing two-touch, playing quickly, playing forward, playing between the lines and he wants his whole team to do that. When he heard he was being appointed, we knew what his style was, we spoke to Tom [Rogic] and he said: 'You'll really enjoy this, really good football, loads of rotation and interchanging of position'. And from day one he was dead set on this is the way he wants to play. That was music to my ears, we were going to enjoy it. Then it was just whether we could be successful doing that. Very quickly you could see he was a top manager, he was going to get his players in and the whole thing has taken off from there.”

Landing the league championship as first up to hold aloft the trophy would be the pinnacle for a player whose Celtic career seemed as if it would be aborted before it had left the runway when he was packed off on loan to Notts County at the age of 20. “It absolutely would be,” McGregor said. “To captain the club anyway is such a massive honour. Every time I go on the pitch I give everything: for the club, for the supporters, for my teammates, and if we can go and finish it off and make it a successful season and potentially lift the trophy that would be a dream come true.”