Ever-present Callum McGregor insists Scots will be full of confidence whoever they face in play-offs

The music blaring from the home dressing room in the bowels of Hampden is an unusual enough occurrence following an international match to be considered worth noting.

Callum McGregor featured in all ten of Scotland's European Championship Group I qualifiers (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Callum McGregor featured in all ten of Scotland's European Championship Group I qualifiers (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

The Scotland players were not partying – there’s too much work still to be done for that to be the case. But they were clearly in good heart after a third successive victory meant they had finished third in their group after a trying qualifying campaign.

Callum McGregor is the only player to have experienced it all. From that bleak outing in the middle of a Steppe that effectively sunk Scotland’s hopes from the off to these recent hints of a revival, he has played in every game.

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He’s the only ever present of the Steve Clarke era and will doubtless prove vital if Scotland are to prevail in the play-offs next spring. Winning three matches in a row is nothing to write home about at Celtic. But, for the first time since making his Scotland bow under interim manager Malky Mackayin a 1-0 friendly defeat by the Netherlands two years ago, McGregor has reached this moderate target with his country.

Now the challenge for him and his teammates is to tap back into the upbeat mood when they return to the fold in March, with their eyes, initially at least, on a play-off semi-final against either Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria or old foes Israel.

The draw is tomorrow and McGregor will break away from preparing for Celtic’s clash with Livingston the following day to learn the identity of Scotland’s opponents. A sense of anticipation has belatedly returned to the international scene. “Whoever we get, we should be full of confidence,” he said. “If we play like we did against Kazakhstan and play with that intensity and press the way we did, then we fancy ourselves against 

“It’s about trying to bank this feeling,” McGregor added. “We will go away and obviously club stuff will take care of itself between now and March. But when we come back, we will all be in a better place. The manager will feel good about himself, the players will feel good and we can go about trying to fill the stadium and make sure we get there.”

It’s been a while since Hampden was full for a Scotland match. Not even the visit of Belgium, the second-best team in the world and full of attractive names, was able to attract a capacity crowd.

But the knowledge of what’s at stake will surely see the 
Tartan Army return en masse on 26 March.

McGregor is convinced Clarke’s influence on the team is now being felt. As recently as last week he felt a corner was being turned when Scotland recovered quickly after losing an equaliser to Cyprus. Then they battled back to win 3-1 after going in 1-0 down at the break against Kazakhstan. It has helped erode the memory of an unhelpful schedule that saw an ever more dispirited Scotland lose four games in a row against top seeds Belgium and Russia.

“There is probably that bit of belief now in the squad and in the team that, if we do go behind, we can still win games,” he said. “That’s because we are pressing and we have good players in the team who can unlock defences and, with John (McGinn) scoring goals at will, everyone just feels a bit better about themselves. The confidence is there.

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“Slowly but surely, we are getting there,” he added. “It is a new group of players and we changed manager halfway through the campaign which is always difficult as well. Straight away the gaffer is under pressure to turn it around. I think it has been a positive end to the campaign. Obviously it is disappointing we did not quality but the work we did last November got us to a place where we can try to qualify.”

The most compelling argument that Scotland are now finally on the up again are the results. Three wins, eleven goals and a play-off to look forward to – things haven’t looked as rosy for a long time.

“You can talk a good game but you have to go and show it on the pitch and you have to get results,” said McGregor. “Once you start to get one or two results everyone starts to think, alright, maybe we have changed’.

“I think that’s why it is important to get these two wins together. We had four really tough back to back games in the group as well, which almost killed the group for us.

“Everyone’s mentality from the outside looking in was like: ‘oh no, here we go again’. But it’s four difficult games. We have to try and learn from that and when we go into March we take that experience plus the good week we have here and everyone should feel good about it.

There’s now some light at the end of the tunnel, which wasn’t the case even a few weeks ago. A 6-0 win over San Marino provided some relief last month and Scotland have begun to find their feet again.

“It’s been a long time coming round and obviously with the four bad games in a row, everyone probably thought it is miles away. But now it has come round, we probably could not be in a better place confidence-wise leading into the (first play-off) game.”