Callum McGregor failed to make a single first-team appearance for Celtic during Neil Lennon’s tenure as Parkhead manager.
But he will always remain indebted to Lennon for the decision to ship him out on loan to the third tier of English football, a move McGregor has come to reflect was the making of him as the key player he has now become for the Scottish champions.
It was in Lennon’s last year in charge of Celtic that the then 20-year-old McGregor, unable to force his way into contention for a midfield slot at Parkhead, joined Notts County on a season-long loan. He duly scored 14 goals in 41 games in a League One relegation battle, returning to Celtic in the summer of 2014 to be immediately promoted into the first-team squad by Lennon’s successor Ronny Deila.
McGregor has gradually emerged as one of Celtic’s most influential performers, a player capable of rising to the big occasions as he proved again with his goal and performance in last Sunday’s 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final rout of Rangers at Hampden.
As he looks to help Celtic wrap up another league title triumph today with victory over Lennon’s Hibernian side at Easter Road, McGregor is appreciative of the lessons he learned at a time when it appeared he might be surplus to requirements.
“I’ve definitely got to be grateful to Neil for giving me the chance to play at Notts County on loan,” he said.
“The more games you play, the more you realise how big a club Celtic is. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for it four or five years ago. Neil authorised that move to Notts County. He let me go and play down south, experience first-team football.
“I went away, grew up a bit and came back a better player because of that. A lot of the time up here it’s glamour football, you’re on the telly every week and everybody loves it.
“But when you go down to the lower leagues in England, it’s more of a scrap, you find yourself in a relegation battle and you’re pretty much fighting for your team-mates’ livelihoods. You learn a different side to the game. I think it was also important in my development to do that, actually learn the game, come back to Celtic and do well. I came back to Celtic with belief. Sometimes a lot of players go away on loan and don’t really come back from that. They end up leaving Celtic. But I went down to Notts County and it was always my intention to return to Celtic and prove that I could play here. That spell at Notts County did that for me. I’ve now had four years at Celtic and I think I’ve grown in stature as a player. I’ve certainly proved I’m good enough to play at this level.”
McGregor’s development has accelerated over the past two seasons under the management of Brendan Rodgers but he insists he will never regard himself as having ‘made it’ as a Celtic player.
“You’ve just always got to prove yourself to everybody when you are at this club,” he added. “Everybody’s got an opinion on football, on you as a player, whether it’s right or wrong. You’ve just got to accept it.
“For me, every time I play for Celtic I try to prove to people I can play here. But you can have two or three great games and score goals but then have a couple of off games – suddenly people question you again.
“That just comes from the mentality of being at Celtic, a big club, they are always demanding the best of you. The more games I play, the more experience I get, you can understand why there’s a pressure.
“It’s vitally important every time you put on that jersey that you’re 100 per cent correct and ready to go and play for the cause. As soon as you take the eye off the ball, then there’s only way – and it’s down. So, you have to prepare every single day for when you wear that jersey on a match day. You’ve got to be at it. If you’re not, then there’s people judging you and saying you’re not good enough.”
McGregor is hopeful Celtic will clinch their seventh consecutive title at the first opportunity today but admits it won’t be regarded as a calamity in their dressing room if it is delayed until the visit of Rangers to Parkhead next weekend.
“It’s not going to be a disaster if we don’t win it this Saturday,” he said. “But, coming off the back of a good result last weekend, everyone’s feeling good and ready to play against Hibs and get the title finished as soon as possible. As footballers, you want to win things and achieve success as soon as possible. That will be the main focus for the team.
“That first chance is against Hibs. We’ll be desperate to do it. But if it doesn’t happen for us then we’ve got four more games to win it.”