The first six months of his Celtic career seemed to be going the same way as his first spell. The sporadic appearances, played mostly at left back, weren’t exactly memorable.
The making of Charlie was his obvious desire to make an impact on the team wherever and whenever called upon. A standout performance at left midfield in a victory at Ibrox gained the trust of Lennon to deploy him out of position after injury problems in the centre of defence. The performances immediately became memorable.
Mulgrew won acclaim for his comfortable on the ball style at the back, necessary for a team that needed to dominate possession and work teams left to right, back to front across all areas of the pitch. This momentum carried over the summer into the new season and despite player arrivals in defence Mulgrew was a man to rely upon.
His best position is undoubtedly at centre back. While positionally aware the majority of the time, he also has a decent pace to recover from split second changes in an attacker’s spontaneous movements. Give him a man running at him and he’s likely to execute the tackle with precision and force for good measure. It’s straightforward stuff for most teams but in recent years a Celtic defender has been more likely to panic and crumble than put the ball into touch.
Mulgrew also adds an effective directness to the way Celtic play. Although not a long ball merchant Charlie is very good at accurately firing the ball beyond the midfield into the final third for a player to run onto or challenge for. In the final third too his left foot is a potent weapon whether in a dead ball scenario or simply delivering from the flank. His free kicks were always a highlight of his time at Aberdeen and at Celtic it has been no different. It’s testament to how much he’s improved as an overall player that we now take the dead ball speciality for granted.
Perhaps though it’s not the ability and skill of Mulgrew which sees him take player of the year on all fronts this year. While obviously comfortable in possession, a physically strong defender and owning a diamond left foot it isn’t quite this that has made him standout. It’s the uncanny attribute of always being the main man when the team needed a main man.
When you look at all the key moments of Celtic’s season in 2011/12 Charlie is right there; setting up Ledley at New Year, equalising against Kilmarnock, scoring vital late goals against Aberdeen at Parkhead, single handedly putting Kilmarnock to the sword on title day. Coupled with consistency in performance it’s this determination to rise above the rest and influence games that sets Charlie apart from every other player in the team in the eyes of critics, fans and the manager himself. The consistency is impressive and suggests that the deeper desire every successful footballer must have to win is burning brightly within him.
He loves every minute of it as well. Every time he scores his face conveys a feeling that every Celtic supporter across the world feels when the ball stretches the net. In an age of modern football when teams, especially Celtic, have a variety of international players with little or no previous connection to the club it’s refreshing to have a big lad from Kirkintilloch fulfil his every dream with aplomb. The goal celebrations themselves are sincere, it’s not badge kissing, it’s just joy usually manifesting itself in a kneeslide missile across the turf.
These three things; ability, determination and a passion for Celtic have made Mulgrew the cult hero he is today with the fans.
While a triumphant triangle of Celtic glory the reason I admire Charlie so much is because he did one of the hardest things in football, he came back to a club and proved everyone wrong. The case is rare and unlikely to be repeated in large numbers.
Lennon deserves credit for the signing but it was Mulgrew who forced his way into the team from a position of fringe activity. How many times have we seen a Celtic player fade away bemoaning lack of opportunity. Mulgrew kept working hard and felt lucky to even back at the club. The rewards of this humble approach to professional football are now rich and deep. Charlie Mulgrew is a blueprint for anyone who looks to ‘make it’ at Celtic.
The future is now laid out in front of him and he can achieve great things with Celtic. It’s perhaps unfair to expect another season from him that reaches such dizzying heights but you wouldn’t rule it out.
His focus will likely be on looking to build a partnership with the quality centre half Celtic need to be looking at in the Summer. Europe too awaits and the true test of his ability away from his Celtic credentials will hopefully be at the highest level in the Champions League group stages.
Whatever the future holds this chapter is now written and this year will forever be known as the one Charles Patrick Mulgrew shone in.