The circumstances may be altogether different but Callum McGregor crossing paths with a man he affectionately calls Stevie G at Parkhead this afternoon can only invoke memories for the Celtic midfielder of having done so precisely five years ago this week.
Back then Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers were on the same side. And the fact they were ranged against McGregor was assumed to indicate that the boyhood Celtic supporter would never perform in the domestic fixture that dwarves all others in the Scottish game. Never mind doing so in a team managed by Rodgers against opponents helmed by Gerrard.
McGregor has become one of the Irishman’s go-to men for a game of this magnitude that will be played out in the east end of Glasgow this lunchtime. Gerrard was that for the Irishman when he managed him at Liverpool, which on 27 August, 2013 led to a Carling Cup tie at Anfield against Notts County – the League One club McGregor had gone on loan to three weeks earlier because, at the age of 20, the then winger wasn’t getting a sniff of first-team football at Celtic under Neil Lennon.
That night in the Merseyside amphitheatre, the efforts of No 8 McGregor and his Notts team-mates against his fellow No 8 Gerrard and co had the denizens of the Kop almost requiring to sniff smelling salts. The underdogs fought back from two goals down to force the tie into extra-time before eventually losing 4-2 – with Rodgers and his assistant Chris Davies recalling McGregor’s performance positively when they pitched up at Celtic in June 2016. The 25-year-old is never likely to forget what was his first taste of the sort of big-time occasion that now consistently seems to have him licking his lips – he has three goals in Europe already this season and is on a run of four goals in six derby starts going into Gerrard’s managerial debut in a derby like few others. “Sometimes football has a funny way of throwing these things up. It seems to go round in circles,” he said. “It was a good experience, to go and play against Liverpool at Anfield. It’s always good to test yourself against the best players in the world and Stevie G was definitely up there at the time. It was good for me to test myself against him and he was excellent that night, and with our manager now at Liverpool then a good learning curve. I didn’t get the chance to speak to him [Gerrard]. He was just focussed on his own team.”
The former England captain may have embarked on a new chapter in his football life since then. So too has McGregor in taking his game to “a new level” since. The arrival of Ronny Deila at Celtic Park the following summer paved the way for him to grab the opportunity to become one of those rare loanees – whose temporary exit from their parent club does not prove the gateway to a permanent parting.
“I was just thankful to come back [after the year at County],” the Scotland international said. “The club changed manager at the time and that gave me an opportunity under the fresh eyes of Ronny. I did well when I was out on loan and I was desperate to prove I could play here when I came back. I’ve racked up a fair number of games.”
Fast approaching the 200 mark, indeed.
McGregor has experienced a career’s worth of landmark moments in that span of matches – his sublime Scottish Cup final strike in May being central to the club sealing an unprecedented double-treble – while regularly conjuring up special scoring moments in continental competition courtesy of goals against such as Bayern Munich, Zenit St Petersburg and Ajax. And then there’s the damage he has inflicted on Rangers, scoring in the past two derbies as Celtic helped themselves to nine goals without reply.
Equally significant is what McGregor hasn’t experienced. He has never been on the losing side in the seven starts he has made against an Ibrox club currently on an 11-game winless sequence in the fixture. The playmaker hopes that this, and the fact that Rangers will have only 500 supporters in the stadium today, can work to Celtic’s advantage. Yet he recognises that what he hasn’t faced up to is a Rangers side with the gumption of the team that Gerrard has rapidly constructed, expressing admiration for the manner in which Rangers won through four Europa League qualifying rounds to join the Scottish champions in the group stages of that competition.
“We have to try and take confidence from what we have done over the past few seasons,” he said. “But it is a totally different Rangers side with a new manager. They have their tails up and rightly so with their start to the season. They will be coming here with confidence so that will be a new test for us.
“When you watch them now you can tell they have a real team spirit and have good quality all around the pitch. They have signed a lot of players, they almost have two for each position now. That competition for places drives the standard up and I’ve always said that has been important here. They have come through the qualification process too ,which is tough to do, so you have to give them credit for negotiating those games.”
McGregor welcomes the presence of Gerrard, and the edge his past relationship with Rodgers provides for an encounter that fascinates even without subtexts.
“We have spoken about this over the last few seasons: the more big names we get into Scottish football the better,” he said. “That’s what we have this season. Some real good teams – Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts are all pushing too and have made good signings. Rangers are the same and we have to keep pushing to try to be the best. That drives the standard of the league up too.
“I was slightly surprised [at the Gerrard appointment] but when he was offered the chance to manage a massive club he took it. That’s what he wanted to do so it’s good for the Scottish game to get as many big names as we can.
“Down south there will probably be more people tuning in. That’s good for Scottish football so we have to relish that as a nation and a league to try and promote the game.”
On the sort of stage provided today, McGregor has become adept at self-promotion.