Billy Gilmour praise deserved, but why is Callum McGregor so underappreciated for Celtic and Scotland?

There is no question that Billy Gilmour thoroughly deserves his new-found status as the darling of Scottish football.

Scotland midfielder Callum McGregor holds off England's Kalvin Phillips during the Euro 2020 clash at Wembley. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Scotland midfielder Callum McGregor holds off England's Kalvin Phillips during the Euro 2020 clash at Wembley. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

At the tender age of 20, to have served up such a masterful midfield showing on his full international debut when that was handed him in a must-not-lose Euro 2020 encounter pitting Scotland against a much-fancied England in the crucible of Wembley, truly made his contribution to Friday’s hope-giving draw the stuff of comic-book heroics.

Yet, Gilmour was only one member of a twosome that formed the fulcrum of Steve Clarke’s team whose craft and composure ensured that the home side could not muster any real traction in the Euro 2020 draw. Which begs the question: why have the commendations for Callum McGregor proved so strained compared to those showered on Gilmour?

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For inexplicable reasons, the Celtic man’s measured contributions in the centre of the pitch for his country seem now to elicit grumbles more than gushing. It was incredible that in the player ratings on Sky Sports’ website for the England encounter, McGregor was the only visiting player who did not earn at least a seven out of 10. Unconscious bias might explain that extraordinary slight. That, and perhaps the fact he came into the tournament as the player who faced a public clamour for him to be pushed to the fringes of it. To be replaced by Gilmour, of course. Yet, surely what their dovetailing at Wembley demonstrated is that McGregor possesses the attributes to embellish those of Gilmour, not stunt them.

McGregor was the anchor that allowed his wunderkind partner to float around the pitch serenely. Neither player would have prospered without the other being on their wavelength. For proof of that you need only reflect on the difficulties encountered by Scott McTominay in the 2-0 defeat by the Czech Republic in the Euro 2020 opener when, with no McGregor or Gilmour in the side, he had no natural midfield partner to build the play alongside. That is not the game of the more explosive, forward-charging Stuart Armstrong or John McGinn, who flanked the Manchester United man at Hampden last Monday. The absence of such foils resulted in Scotland becoming skittish and lacking cohesion. It was McGregor, as much as Gilmour, that ensured these issues were rectified against England.

In terms of outputs, there was little to choose between the duo at Wembley, for all that their contributions have been cast in very different lights. The Chelsea youngster made more tackles in his 76-minute appearance than McGregor in the whole 92, with the split 41 to 36. However, that is offset by McGregor’s accuracy being 95%, with Gilmour boasting 91%. Both had two ball recoveries, while Gilmour, with eight tackles, made almost three times as many as McGregor (who had three). But against that, the Celtic midfielder won twice as many as his Scotland compadre, and three interceptions to Gilmour’s one. Essentially, the two players did exactly what was required of them in similar fashion.

The footballing cognesciti continue to appreciate what the cerebral 28-year-old Celtic playmaker brings to Clarke’s team, the other night bringing him his 31st cap. He is immaculate in recycling the ball - and that can be banked upon because he rarely gives away possession cheaply, crucial at the highest level. Key in these attributes is his ability to close down spaces and angles; a comprehensive understanding of the geometry of the game allowing for that. Furthermore, his metronomic industry ensures he displays precisely the discipline to perform in the shape or structure previously worked on in the training pitch.

None of these facets necessarily result in dazzling contributions, and perhaps that accounts for McGregor becoming a player that could be said is now too readily taken for granted. Admittedly, he did exhibit a degree of weariness across the closing stages of his club’s horrendous campaign. However, too much was made of that when it came to assessing the midfield options for the country’s first appearance at a major finals in 23 years. Indeed Clarke himself may have been guilty of becoming fixated on the supposed form issues of McGregor across recent months when electing not to pick him in his starting XI for the Czech game. If he had his time again, the manager surely would have thought better of how he configured his central area for that loss. It is surely a given then that the twosome will be combined again for the Croatian crunch at Hampden on Tuesday, a game that must be won by Scotland if they are to qualify for the knock-out stages of a tournament for the first time in history.

It would be obtuse to meddle with the McGregor-Gilmour axis when the excellence they demonstrated at Wembley was a product of how seamlessly they were able to complement one another. As the senior member of the pairing, and as a man whose humility is another of his winning virtues, the player now expected to assume the Celtic captaincy had no problem in heaping the praise on to Gilmour over what ensued from them starting together in Scotland colours for the first time.

“For such a young kid to come into that environment with the pressure and intensity of the game he was first class, as was everyone,” McGregor said. “Every player was at the top of their game. I am super delighted for Billy. He is a great kid and came in and was first class. Tactically he was very good and showed a great awareness. He has a big future and it is up to us to keep us nursing him along."

Gilmour’s future for the nation will be all the brighter if the beacon of McGregor is in tow to allow his special talent to shine.

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