While it remains unlikely that Bournemouth will see the Scottish international as the kind of signing to charge their EPL relegation fight/Championship promotion push - due to his receding athletic ability being somewhat at odds with Eddie Howe’s up-and-at-them style - it does bring to the fore the possibility that Mulgrew might no longer be a Celtic player next season.
When Mulgrew returned to his first club in the summer of 2010, most Celtic fans weren’t too enamoured with the move, and with good reason. He’d been cast off by the club as a young player in the deal that brought Lee Naylor to Parkhead, only to re-emerge a couple of years later with Aberdeen.
His new supporters quickly became exasperated with his lack of defensive positioning and concentration at left-back. This cloud followed him throughout his stint in Pittodrie before Neil Lennon put in the call and asked if he’d return home.
Taking back a player whom Aberdeen fans didn’t highly rate - and remember, this wasn’t even a particularly good Aberdeen side - didn’t exactly scream title challenge. After four months, it seemed the pessimists would be proved right. Mulgrew wasn’t dreadful, he just wasn’t contributing much of note, as he generally flitted in and out of the side.
Then came an injury crisis. When Daniel Majstorović went down, it made an thin centre-back corps almost threadbare. Glenn Loovens was also out, while Jos Hooiveld had recently moved away on loan. It encouraged Lennon to turn to Mulgrew as a temporary solution.
Now, before we go any further, I’d just like to mention that in preparation for this article, I did some digging on an Aberdeen forum to find out what Dons fans thought of their former player and came across a debate of this exact topic: would Mulgrew be any good at centre-back? The responses were not in the affirmative. “He would be a nightmare” said one. “Can’t head, can’t tackle and a *****bag” said another. Just as well for the player and Celtic that Lennon didn’t agree with such observations, as Mulgrew would become a revelation in the new position.
In the centre, Mulgrew took responsibility of his defensive duties in a manner he’d never fully mastered while stationed on the left. He was excellent for the remainder of the season as his team came within a point of the title. And while that campaign may have ended in disappointment, there were individual and team triumphs just waiting around the corner as Celtic took the championship the following season and Mulgrew was awarded Player of the Year, including a starring role in a 6-0 win at Rugby Park that confirmed the SPL crown.
By that time, Mulgrew had moved into the centre of midfield. He helped protect the back four while displaying a tremendous range of passing and built up a great relationship with Scott Brown that even translated to the national side. This writer will always fondly remember his performance in a 2-1 win in Macedonia, where he and Ikechi Anya looked more like quarterback and wide receiver than centre midfielder and winger, such was the ease with which Mulgrew found his lightning quick team-mate with the football.
Two good years followed his Player of the Year campaign, but then the injuries began to pile up. They are the reason why his future at Parkhead looks in serious doubt, and why this article may soon read like a eulogy to his Celtic career. He’s been limited to only 15 league appearances since the beginning of last season and his performances have not been to his previous high standards. At 29, he may put this tough stretch behind him and recapture his previous form, lengthening his career by another four, five, six years, but history would indicate that’s unlikely to be the case.
He’s recently returned to the first-team. If he breaks down once more and misses the rest of this season, it’ll likely make up Celtic’s mind for them. On the other hand, if he can prove his fitness they should look to keep him. Brown and Nir Bitton are the first choice partnership in the centre now and it’s difficult to see anywhere else he’d be a regular starter, but if he is willing to accept becoming a utility man and embrace his role as a leader of the dressing room, then he can remain an asset for the club.
There’s a lot of young players in a team that, under Ronny Deila, has often been criticised for its lack of mental strength in the big games. That failing isn’t going to get better if they let their vice-captain go without a fight.
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