It will hardly be what Celtic supporters want to hear but John Collins, instrumental in Callum McGregor carving out a senior career at the club, believes the midfielder would be an absolutely natural fit among the glitterati of the English Premier League.
The enticement of that set-up is set to be dangled in front of the 26-year-old as Celtic brace themselves for a £10 million bid from Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City. Celtic are chock-full of central midfielders and McGregor is known to be in thrall to Rodgers’ coaching methods following his development in two and a half years under him at Parkhead.
Collins, pictured inset, was assistant manager to Ronny Deila when McGregor was given his senior opportunity in the summer of 2014 on his return from a loan period at Notts County sanctioned by Neil Lennon, now back at the helm permanently.
The former Monaco playmaker knew then that Celtic had a gem. It is one he believes would require no buffing up whatsoever to sparkle in what has become the most illustrious football environment in the global game. Collins maintains, indeed, that certain of his attributes would be the equal of the very best of the stellar performers down south.
“Without a shadow of a doubt – it’s not a probable at all – he is good enough for Leicester City. Callum McGregor could play in any company,” said the 51-year-old. “He is a football player who can control and pass the ball, has good stamina, is intelligent, very rarely gives the ball away, penetrates, a killer pass. The physicality would not be a problem but he would need to be in a team that plays football. He has a first touch as good as anybody in England. His first touch is sensational.
“Go and watch him, look at his head during a match, looking, looking. He rarely bumps into people. The ball comes to him in between opponents which is the sign of a good player. He avoids contact. That’s key for any top-class player in the middle of the pitch. It’s a congested area. Certain players always bump into others – I’m not going to mention names – but that’s because they have no awareness.
“Sometimes they get away with it because they are strong but the best players on the best teams receive the ball between opponents. And their team-mates give them it at the right time. Watch PSG and Man City, their players receive the ball in space, in Scottish football it’s man for man and everyone is smashing into each other.”
It appeared that McGregor wasn’t even considered good enough to keep company with the Celtic senior squad when Collins and Deila took charge five years ago this month. Initially, the pair were questioned when they instantly formed a very different opinion.
“When he came back from Notts County we had no hesitation putting him in the team,” said Collins. “Callum is my type of player, he is left-footed so I could relate to him. He likes one-twos, he likes scoring goals and he never hides on the football pitch. The very first day we had him for training I saw a lot that I liked. We gave him his opportunity and don’t forget he played in numerous positions. He scored massive goals for Celtic from the minute he went in. He was a Champions League goalscorer from the off, it wasn’t something he turned into.
“He produced the moment he was given that first-team jersey and Celtic fans didn’t appreciate him enough. They were the first to moan when he had one bad pass. I always spoke to Callum during that period. I told him he was a top, top player, I was always reassuring him and urging him to keep doing what he was doing. He’s humble, he hasn’t changed and I knew he would go on to have a great career.
“He trains correctly every day, he’s a coach’s dream and I told Brendan that when he phoned to ask about the job and players. I told Brendan he would enjoy working with Callum and he was a fixture in Brendan’s team. He scores goals, he makes goals, he works hard for the team.”
His work ethic and vision was lauded by a Rodgers who described him as a dream player. His efforts this season entered the fantasy variety when his outing for Scotland in the 3-0 defeat away to Belgium on Tuesday made for a 69th appearance in the ultimate marathon season. “To play 69 games in one season is a phenomenal achievement,” said Collins. “It’s a sign of someone who is looking after his body and playing at the top level. It’s also a sign of someone being successful.”
Celtic will likely have another busy fixture list next season and on Tuesday they will discover their Champions League first qualifying round opponents. But whether McGregor is still around for next month’s fixtures remains to be seen.
l John Collins was speaking as ticket arrangements for Hampden Park’s hosting of four Euro 2020 on 15, 19, 23, and 30 June of next year was launched. Applications are now open at euro2020.com/tickets.