Interview: Celtic’s Callum McGregor on having Jack Grealish as a team-mate

Loan spells at Notts County in 2013 proved making of both stars
Callum McGregor celebrates scoring for Notts County in a  Capital One Cup match in 2013Callum McGregor celebrates scoring for Notts County in a  Capital One Cup match in 2013
Callum McGregor celebrates scoring for Notts County in a Capital One Cup match in 2013

Avoiding relegation to the fourth tier of English football on the final day of a season may not stand out as a particular highlight on the respective CVs of Callum McGregor and Jack Grealish.

But their campaign playing alongside each other in the Notts County midfield seven years ago has proved to be the making of one of Celtic’s most consistent and influential performers and the Aston Villa playmaker currently being linked with a £60 million move to Manchester United.

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McGregor was 20 and struggling to make an impact at Celtic when Neil Lennon, during his first spell as manager, loaned him out to County at the start of the 2013-14 season.

Jack Grealish (left) during his loan spell with Notts County when he had Celtic's Callum McGregor as a team-mate. Picture: PAJack Grealish (left) during his loan spell with Notts County when he had Celtic's Callum McGregor as a team-mate. Picture: PA
Jack Grealish (left) during his loan spell with Notts County when he had Celtic's Callum McGregor as a team-mate. Picture: PA

He was joined at Meadow Lane by an 18-year-old Grealish and both loanees went on to make the most of the development opportunity offered to them.

“I got to County just before Jack,” recalls McGregor. “The manager at the time, Chris Kiwomya, had a really good, technical team.

“He liked to play Jack and I as inside No 10s and I would cut in from the right. From day one, you could see that Jack had a lot of potential. He would dribble past people as if he was just jogging.

“He has that God-given talent where he just glides beyond defenders and we all expected him to have a great career.

“I felt he would become a top player and you can see him maturing for Villa now and becoming a real talisman. It was about Jack progressing as a player and a character, but I’m not surprised at his success.”

McGregor was the star performer for County, finishing as their top scorer with 14 goals from 40 appearances, while Grealish contributed five goals and seven assists in 39 outings. It was a difficult season for County, however, prompting a change of management midway through when Shaun Derry replaced Kiwomya and League One survival was not secured until a final day 1-1 draw at Oldham Athletic.

“We were a really good football team and we scored a lot of goals,” added McGregor. “The problem was that we could score four and lose five in games.

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“We just couldn’t defend but I loved the experience. I was a kid and early on you feel like you have no responsibility on the pitch. I would get the ball, shoot and try to score.

“But you soon learn you are playing with men and scoring two goals in a 4-2 defeat isn’t 90 minutes’ work.

“You have to go through all those building processes to come of age as a player and realise what is really important.”

McGregor benefited immediately from the County experience. On his return to Celtic, he was promoted to the first-team squad by Lennon’s successor Ronny Deila. Since scoring on his first-team debut in a Champions League qualifier against KR Reykjavik in Iceland at the start of the 2014-15 season, he has flourished spectacularly.

“Ronny was the one who gave me my chance to go and perform in the first team,” reflects McGregor. “I will always be grateful to him for showing that faith in me.

“When he took over, he could have gone in a safe direction but he liked to develop young players. He always wanted to give you a chance and you have to give him credit for that. Ronny was willing to throw younger boys like myself and Kieran Tierney in and let us play.

“Without that, I might not be sitting here today playing for Celtic. It’s something I will always thank him for. I’m grateful to him for setting me on my journey.

“He set me on my way to becoming a Celtic first-team player when I was at a real crossroads in my career. Ronny helped me achieve a dream and I will always be thankful to him.

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“That game in Iceland and that goal seems such a long time ago now. It was my first start and the first time I’d scored competitively for Celtic, so it’s vivid in my memory.

“It was six years ago but I remember the game, I remember starting and I remember thinking I was being subbed before my goal.

“Ronny played me off one of the sides and there were guys like Kris Commons and Derk Boerrigter for those positions. After about 70-odd minutes in Iceland that day I remember seeing Derk warm up on the side.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve done okay, nothing brilliant but nothing bad’. I expected my number to go up on the board but he took off Leigh Griffiths instead.

“Ronny switched me to the right wing and five minutes later, I cut inside and scored. That felt like I’d vindicated his decision and it worked out well that night.

“Since then, I feel like I have gone from strength to strength but it all started in Iceland when Ronny gave me that chance.”

McGregor, who has now won 14 major honours with Celtic after last week’s confirmation of their latest Premiership title success, is now among the elder statesmen in the Scottish champions’ squad. As vice-captain to Scott Brown, it’s a status he relishes.

“Some of the senior boys moved on last summer and everyone was looking at Broony,” he added. “We had lost a couple of older heads and people probably felt he needed a bit of a hand.

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“Guys like Mikael Lustig were senior figures in the dressing-room and I’d looked at them over the previous five years.

“There is also the vocal side of things and with the more games you play and the more you achieve, you feel you are well respected in the dressing room.

“Younger boys will look at who is performing every week and is trying to set the standards. When I was breaking in, I would look at Broony and Mika and think, ‘That’s what I need to do to have a successful career’.

“I feel as I have stepped into that role quite well over the last few years as I picked up more experience.

“I have always been driven to win since I was younger and when you start achieving a lot for Celtic, you take on that extra responsibility in the dressing-room. Senior boys need to set the right standards and markers for those coming through.”

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