At just 28, Callum McGregor has amassed in excess of 370 appearances for Celtic. That’s more than Henrik Larsson. More than Kenny Dalglish.
The Scotland midfielder also has 16 major honours to his name after captaining Ange Postecoglou’s side to the Scottish Premiership title.
McGregor’s journey has been eight years in the making, from the Celtic academy, via orchestrating Notts County’s League One survival alongside a teenage Jack Grealish, to becoming predecessor Scott Brown’s “natural successor”.
“Seeing where Callum is now, it all makes sense,” Shaun Derry, McGregor’s manager at Notts County, tells BBC Scotland. “I knew how much Celtic meant to him. I knew how much he meant to Celtic.
“Now he’s the leader at that incredible, almighty football club. Brown was unbelievable for Celtic, but even though Callum is a different type of player and person, he will also go down with legendary status.”
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‘Without Callum, we would’ve gone down’
Before McGregor made the first of his many appearances for Celtic’s first team, he was shipped out on loan to Notts County for an initial six-month stint at the age of 20.
He got off to a fine start in England’s League One, scoring six goals from midfield in his first 13 games, but that form was not mirrored by his team. Manager Chris Kiwomya was sacked in November – three months into the 2013-14 season – and replaced by Derry.
The new boss was immediately made aware of two particular players who had “a different level of technique”. One was McGregor, the other was Manchester City’s £100m signing, Grealish, who was on loan from Aston Villa.
“I can remember the first training session really clearly,” recalls Derry, who is now first-team coach at Crystal Palace. “What stood out with Callum was his drive. He was always the one that would stay behind and do extra.
“Even at that young age, away from his usual surroundings, he showed a great maturity to handle the situation in Nottingham and he showed that in the way he trained and conducted himself.”
Celtic gave the green light for McGregor to stay for the second half of the campaign and he went on to finish as top scorer with 14 goals in all competitions, helping the side win six of their last nine games to stay in the third tier.
“If Callum wasn’t at the club that season, we wouldn’t be talking about the great escape,” Derry says. “It took him out his comfort zone. But, at such a young age, he took responsibility for his career. We were lucky to have him.
“Coming south and fighting in a team who were trying to stay in the league is completely different to the scenarios he’s been involved in since he went back to Celtic. It made him realise what struggle looked like.
“But I had absolutely no doubt in my mind he was going to go back and play for Celtic – it was a foregone conclusion. He’s stood the test of time up there and taken his levels on to play in Europe and win trophies.”
Rodgers influence & Brown’s ‘natural successor’
McGregor’s season-long spell with County – “the perfect loan”, Derry says – ended in May 2014. Two months later, a goalscoring debut for Celtic followed against KR Reykjavik in Champions League qualifying.
A further 29 first-team appearances followed as Celtic strolled to a fourth consecutive league title under Ronny Delia, then another 34 the next term as the league flag was retained.
Then came Brendan Rodgers. He elevated McGregor’s game – as he did with many others – with the midfielder appearing in a mammoth 101 matches across back-to-back treble-winning seasons, contributing to 38 goals.
When Brown decided to call time on his Celtic career last summer, current Leicester City manager Rodgers believed there was only one candidate capable of filling the void.
“It was always going to be difficult to replace Scott,” Rodgers said. “Callum has different qualities and strengths, but he loves the club and knows what it takes to play and be successful for Celtic. He’s the guy to naturally take over.”
‘Choked up’ at Wembley & Scotland rise
Flourishing club form brought international recognition in November 2017, when McGregor made his Scotland debut in a friendly against Netherlands under caretaker manager Malky Mackay.
A further 41 Scotland caps have followed, with 10 of those earned under Alex McLeish and assistant James McFadden.
“Callum was always willing to take on instructions,” Sportscene pundit McFadden says. “He never had to be told twice. He’s such an intelligent player and he understands the game brilliantly.
“Even then, you saw his leadership qualities. He wanted to know the roles of those around him so he could make sure they were performing them. He was just such a top professional.”
Since current Scotland head coach Steve Clarke’s appointment in May 2019, McGregor has featured in all but two of 33 games, with his midfield relationship with Billy Gilmour and John McGinn crucial to Scotland booking a World Cup play-off place.
The trio first started together in the Euro 2020 meeting with England. And, while summer rain doused the Wembley pitch, Derry was hit with a wave of emotion in the stands as McGregor and Grealish shared the pitch in a major finals.
“I’ve got to be honest, I was choked up,” Derry says. “For me, their ex-manager watching on, it was just an unbelievably proud moment. I’m very proud to have even played just 0.5% of their development.”
“Callum’s technique is underrated,” former Scotland forward McFadden adds. “In fact, he’s underrated in general. He’s absorbed the Celtic captaincy and is continually growing into it.
“He’s only getting better as a player as well. Maybe he’s now finally getting the recognition he deserves in a Scotland top. He’s made himself a vital part of Clarke’s team.”