Callum McGregor: Burgeoning Celtic midfielder poised for Scotland landmark

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Callum McGregor reflects on some key moments in Celtic's record unbeaten domestic run

Callum McGregor laughs when you ask if he swapped his jersey with one of Bayern Munich's behemoths after their Champions League game at Celtic Park last week. Arturo Vidal, perhaps? Arjen Robben or James Rodriguez? He wasn't short of options.

"No, no," he says, before explaining the way of things in the McGregor family. "My mother would have killed me. She always keeps the ones I score in. I'm not allowed to swap them. She's the boss. They're all in her cupboard. I'll never see it again."

It's got to be a fair old cupboard given that McGregor has scored in 24 different games for Celtic including two pivotal ones on the road to history.

The 63-match unbeaten run hasn't had a lot of scary moments, but it's had a few. It was McGregor's equaliser that kept the wheels on the bike against St Johnstone in August and it was his leveller that averted defeat against Hibs in late September.

When the story of Celtic's season is written, others will get mentioned ahead of McGregor, but he's been excellent all the same. His energy, his ability, his mentality make him a high-quality part of this.

'Everything was about technique with Tommy'

For a little while now there's been calls for Scotland to recognise what he's got, but that never came under Gordon Strachan. The wrong genetics, perhaps.

"I was lucky because I came through at Celtic and it was all about technique and being a good footballer," McGregor says. "When Tommy Burns was here, God bless him, he was at our training sessions all the time. He was first-team coach, but he was there. He'd come jogging down and I remember thinking, 'Does this guy ever rest?'

Tommy Burns and Gordon Strachan oversee a Celtic training session in 2005
The late Tommy Burns (left) was an early influence on McGregor during his time as Celtic's first-team coach under Gordon Strachan

"He'd be there for hours and everything was about technique. It was never a question of height or strength, it was more important that we got that technical work. Genetics? Modern football is getting that way, but you need a mixture of everything in your team - height, strength, ability, pace. You need a balance."

International recognition is set to arrive this week with a friendly against Holland at Pittodrie under the interim management of Malky Mackay, who has indicated McGregor will get his first cap.

A goal or not, that'll be another jersey that will find a loving home in Mrs McGregor's cupboard.

Sitting with him at Lennoxtown, McGregor comes across as far more mature than his 24 years. His deep appreciation of what he's got at Celtic is blatantly obvious, but it's only when he starts to tell his back story do you understand what it's all about.

'I was in real man's football and I had to stand up'

A Celtic player since childhood, he was put out on loan to Notts County for the 2013-14 season, still not having played a first-team game. He'd just turned 20. "In the back of your head you're thinking maybe they don't fancy me. That was a hard 24 hours trying to get my head around that. I was straight down the road.

"It was a massive part of my learning. I'll never forget it, having to go down there, living away from friends and family and pretty much starting again. You quickly learn that it's people's livelihoods that you're playing for. These guys in the changing room have mortgages, they have kids and I'd come from an environment where everything was handed to you on a plate and it's almost too easy. Down there you're having to fight for your life. You're having to grind it out. I was in real man's football and I had to stand up."

Callum McGregor (right) celebrates scoring on his Notts County debut against Fleetwood Town in the Capital One Cup
McGregor (right) scored on his Nott County debut, one of 14 he notched in the 2013-14 season

In a sense, it was the making of him. McGregor was only a boy, but he became a huge part of that Notts County team in what turned out to be a desperate struggle to avoid relegation from League One, England's third tier.

He was in the team that shipped four against Peterborough, that lost 5-1 at Leyton Orient and 5-1 again against Walsall. In particular he remembers a trip to Rotherham and the dressing room pleading with the manager, Shaun Derry, to shift his tactics from long ball to something more adventurous. Derry acquiesced and Rotherham did them 6-0.

"I remember them all. I remember thinking I've come from playing in the Celtic youth team and beating teams five and six every week and it's a total flip. In the Rotherham game we went out to play what we thought was proper football, but I learned that there are times when you just have to dig deep. Since the age of eight, nine and 10, I was playing passing football with Celtic but I saw the other side that season. We had to fight."

McGregor scored 12 times in that League One campaign. He scored the decisive goal in wins against Fleetwood, Burton, Crewe, Oldham and Gillingham. County stayed in the league with just three points to spare. The following season, with McGregor now back in Glasgow, they were relegated.

He says what drove him, in part, down in Nottingham was a determination to prove to people back in Glasgow that he was good enough. He did - and he was. Ronny Deila gave him his debut. "He flipped over the chart and my name was there. 'Oh my God, here we go...'"

'I keep saying to KT, 'You're a freak!''

He scored four times in his first seven games and he learned some valuable lessons. "You realise that you can't have one good game at Celtic and then be quiet for two or three, then score again and everything is forgotten about. You have to be on it every single game. I was flying, then I dropped out of the team, through tiredness and things like that. That's when you understand that, yeah, you've played 25 or 26 games but you could be away (on loan) again.

"That's what's incredible about KT (Kieran Tierney). I remember him coming through. I still sit up the back of the bus with him. I'd been through that 25-game dip and you have to build yourself back up again. I was saying to him, 'You'll start, you'll be on fire, everybody will love you, then you might hit that 25-30 game mark and you might take a dip. You'll need confidence to come back'.

Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor console each other after Celtic's defeat by Bayern Munich
McGregor (right) is full of admiration for his "unbelievable" young team-mate Kieran Tierney

"I think he's played about 97 games and he's not had a bad game yet. It's unbelievable. I keep saying, 'You're a freak!' He just seems to be defying all the odds every single week. I don't think we've seen a player like that for many, many years. We've had some great left-backs at Celtic but KT seems to be blowing everybody out of the water every time he's putting on that jersey."

Brendan Rodgers' management has helped, but in praising the Northern Irishman, McGregor doesn't just limit it to his tactical acumen. He speaks about psychology and clever man-management and tells a story from last season to illustrate it.

"When Brendan came in we were obviously winning things but he wanted us to win in a better way. My mindset was just to work hard and try to stay in the manager's thoughts. He took me into his office one day and said I was doing really well, that he rated me and trusted me and thought that I had another level within me. I think he was trying to give me the confidence to kick on. It was an important conversation because I knew then I had his approval."

McGregor has won the trust of his manager, the admiration of the fans and trophies in torrents. On Thursday night he might well win his first international cap, another big landmark in the burgeoning career of a very fine footballer.