A few years ago, a colleague of mine had great interest in the Celtic youth team and took pleasure in attending their games and reporting back on the young Bhoys’ progress. Around 2013 he was waxing lyrical about one of the young players in the side named Callum McGregor. Joe assured me that this young man was extremely talented and that he would be the next big thing to break into the Celtic first team.
In 2013 Callum joined Notts County on loan, where it is said he outshone an even younger Jack Grealish, who was on loan to County from Aston Villa for that season in English League One. Callum finished the season as County’s top scorer with 14 goals, starring in an attacking midfield role. Neil Lennon had been Celtic manager when Callum had gone on loan but by the time he arrived back at Parkhead, Lennon had been replaced by Ronny Deila.
Lennon was not known for giving youth a chance when he was in control at Celtic, so Callum’s arrival as Deila took over the reins proved to be extremely good fortune. Deila clearly saw something in the young Celt, who at the age of 21 was now ready to make the step up to first team football. He made an immediate impact, making his debut against Reykjavik in Iceland, where he scored the only goal of the game. From that moment on, Callum McGregor became a regular first team squad player at Celtic.
I have to confess that Callum wasn’t what I’d imagined him to be. He was smaller in build than I’d anticipated from reading about his style of play. I had imagined someone in the Phil O’Donnell mould, and although at 5 feet 10 inches, Callum was not exactly small, he tended to be placed on the periphery of the side in the early days, out in the wide midfield areas.
Fate again was kind in the summer of 2016 when Brendan Rodgers was appointed as Celtic manager. Rodgers brought a level of professionalism to Celtic which had clearly been missing for a considerable period, and Callum immediately bought into Rodgers’ new ways of working. Rodgers was an admirer of the Welsh midfielder, Joe Allen, who he had at Swansea and Liverpool, and often compared Callum in style to Allen. The improvement was noticeable. The wee slight wide player was transformed into a mobile central midfielder who was capable of scoring vital goals in derby games, cup finals and European ties. And not just ordinary goals but often spectacular efforts which would live long in the memory.
Rodgers had plenty of options in Celtic’s midfield with Brown, Armstrong, Biton, Rogic, Roberts, Forrest and Henderson all vying for places in the middle of the park, but during his spell as Celtic boss, Callum McGregor was an integral part of all the success and the medal haul which came with it. Neil Lennon returned in early 2019 after Rodgers’ abdication and by this time Callum was an essential part of a highly successful Celtic set up. By 2020 Celtic had not only clinched 9 league titles in a row, but also an unprecedented 4 consecutive domestic trebles with Callum now a real fans favourite – ‘He’s like me and you, he loves Celtic too.’ McGregor was a hugely influential part of the 12 consecutive trophies which Celtic won – an unparalleled period of success within the Scottish game which will only be truly appreciated in the years to come.
The Covid lockdown season of 2020-21 is perhaps best forgotten. Games were really no more than training sessions in front of empty stadia, a soulless and miserable experience for everyone concerned. When crowds returned for season 2021-22 Celtic were in turmoil. Ange Postecoglou was appointed manager in late summer and had inherited a shambles with Celtic’s biggest assets, Edouard, Ajer, and Christie, all wanting away and influential captain Scott Brown retiring. Many expected Callum to move on too, Rogers being said to be extremely keen to take him to Leicester, but Ange persuaded him to stay, it’s said with the promise of the captaincy. And so Callum remained a Celt after a very troublesome period.
Many had reservations about him being appointed as Celtic captain. He was not in the Scott Brown mould as a leader, the aggressive, physical type on the field of play. Callum was more reminiscent of Paul McStay from times gone by, someone who would lead by example rather than physicality. Things hadn’t gone well for Paul as Celtic captain but that was a period in the past when the club had enormous problems at every level.
We need not have worried. After a transitional period when Ange’s new signings were still bedding in, the new Celts under captain Callum, found their form. I have to admit to feeling very emotional when Callum McGregor lifted the league cup in Decemeber2021. He had not only blossomed into a wonderful footballer but now also showed he was a great captain. The league title followed in May as the ‘masked crusader’ in the hoops led his side to further success. After injuring his jaw badly in January he showed immense courage in returning for the crucial Glasgow Derby victory in February, with a mask as facial protection. If anything, this gave Callum a great deal of added character as the fans took to seeing him with the mask on for a considerable period. Celtic won 3-0 on the night and went top of the table and there would be no looking back.
In my time, the truly great Celtic players for me have been Dalglish, McGrain, McStay, Lambert, Moravcik, and Larsson. What made them exceptional was not only the fact that they were wonderfully talented footballers, but they achieved a level of consistency of performance that few others could match. There may have been equally talented players throughout the years but what set those players apart was their high standards on the field of play on a regular basis. They rarely had a bad game.
I now genuinely believe that Callum McGregor is worthy of a place in that bracket. That’s how highly I rate him. For club and country he continues to display a tremendous level of consistency and performance, and has done for many seasons. He reads a game superbly and his range of passing is exceptional. It’s one of life’s great puzzles that the Scottish media continually rave about John McGinn and Billy Gilmour at international level when more astute observers know that Callum is Scotland’s best midfielder.
Callum McGregor has come a long way from the inexperienced youth on the fringes of the first team to being an essential part of a very impressive Celtic side. It is the great hope of every Celtic fan that our captain will lead us to further success in the weeks, months, and years, to come. Remember, not all heroes wear capes but some will occasionally wear a mask.