Callum McGregor was considered surplus to requirements at international level until a year ago. Now, 12 months on, as players drop like flies all around him, he is viewed as utterly indispensable to Scotland’s prospects of success.
It’s hard to believe that McGregor only made his international debut on 9 November last year in the 1-0 defeat to the Netherlands, under caretaker manager Malky Mackay.
Gordon Strachan stubbornly refused to yield to those who had by then begun to petition for his inclusion in the starting XI. The then national manager could argue he wasn’t needed. After all, Scotland were on an unbeaten streak going into the last two qualifiers for this summer’s World Cup, when they defeated Slovakia before drawing, ruinously, in Slovenia.
Had McGregor played that evening in Ljubljana, had Scotland enjoyed the benefit of his passing capabilities, non-stop energy and ability to grab a goal when it matters, then who knows whether he might have at least helped secure a play-off spot?
Alex McLeish is utilising him now and he’ll feel it’s just as well. McGregor is needed just about everywhere on the park – in the deeper, Scott Brown role, which is how he’s been used recently by Celtic, and in the advanced role just behind the strikers, which is where McLeish has sometimes chosen to deploy him.
He’s rarely been so badly needed as a raft of midfield colleagues drop out of contention, with the latest being John McGinn. Hopes are pinned on McGregor to help lead Scotland through an arduous couple of fixtures against Albania tomorrow night and then Israel on Tuesday.
Fortunately, he sounds as up for the challenge as ever. The distinguishing marks of the modern day footballer are refreshingly absent from McGregor; there’s not a tattoo, Instagram account or petted lip to be seen. He plays with a smile on his face. He’s happy to fill in anywhere – and has.
“When I was younger, I had a season at centre-back, then one at left-back, then I was back in midfield, off the front – I’ve played every position,” he said. “At Notts County [where he spent a spell on loan from Celtic in 2013-14] I was off the right.”
McGregor missed the summer trip to Chile and Mexico but has amassed seven caps already. He’s now a firmly established international player. It’s a few years later than many, himself included, might have preferred, but at least he is there to take the strain now.
And he harbours no hard feelings towards Strachan, or, indeed, anyone it seems.
McGregor accepts there were others doing a perfectly reasonable job. Still, it must have hurt to go to training at his club knowing so many of his teammates were making up the core of Strachan’s team.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “I was desperate to play. I was doing well at club level and scoring goals and sometimes football has a funny way of working in that you can chuck a player in there and he can do something.
“You know when you are doing well and there was a bit of talk about it at the time, but managers have got the players they trust and the team were doing well at that point. They were right up towards qualifying.
“You don’t have an argument when that’s the case and the boys are doing well. It was just a case of me biding my time.
“I had just burst onto the Celtic scene again at that time, scoring goals and playing well in big games, so to go straight into the internationals might have been a jump too much. You just never know in football. For me, it was just getting to that stage and really building on my Celtic career first.
“Now I have 200 games for Celtic and feel established, so I try to kick on and be a part of the Scotland stuff.
“It wasn’t to be for me on that occasion. But that will drive me on to try and get Scotland success in the future.”
One thing’s for sure, he will keep a level head.
McGregor is ready to play a captain’s role in the style of Scott Brown, even if Andy Robertson is the one wearing the armband. Rewind to just a year ago and he was only just in the door at full international level.
“It is crazy how quickly football changes,” he said. “You just never know what’s going to happen. The November squad last year was the one I made my debut in. It has come full cycle in just a year.
“I am the type of player and the type of guy that I want people to say that he is the type of player who is going to drive the team forward or he is going to go in there and make the play.
“When you play at a big club like Celtic that is expected of you and I am the type of boy who wants to take the responsibility.”