“It was a brilliant moment personally but bitter-sweet,” Callum McGregor

When Celtic captain Callum McGregor scored against Croatia last summer, he became the first Scottish player to score at a major final for 23 years. Sadly, for McGregor and Scotland that goal wasn’t enough to see Scotland progress beyond the group stage, but now the appetite having been whetted, McGregor, as quoted in Scottish Daily Express, is using that experience as motivation as Scotland head into a World Cup play-off with Ukraine on Wednesday night.

Photo: Luka Stanzl

“It was a brilliant moment personally but bitter-sweet as we never got through the group,” the Celtic captain said. “To see the build-up and feeling around the country going into that tournament, that’s what we want to have.

“We want all eyes on us going into the tournament, the hype around it, the magnitude of the games, the players you’ll face. The Euros were really special and I can only think if you get to a World Cup it will be magnified even more. So the motivation is 100 per cent there for us.”

This will be a strange occasion for Scotland. So often framed as the plucky underdog and often other nation’s second team, Scotland now head into a game with a team whom the rest of the world will be backing to defeat Scotland, and give those in war-torn Ukraine a morale boosting lift during the most desperate of times.

But McGregor doesn’t believe that will mean Ukraine will have any more motivation than he and his Scotland teammates, and whilst sympathetic to his opponent’s situation and that of their country McGregor is focused solely on progressing Scotland into a final play-off match with Wales.

Photo: Goran Stanzi

“They can’t have more motivation than us. We’ve waited a really long time to have that opportunity to get back to a World Cup. We just have to approach the game professionally.

“We’ve sympathy for the situation over there and it’s sad to see. But we still have a job to do. When the game starts, we have to be just as motivated, if not more so, to win the game. That’s our full focus. When we cross that white line, we have to be ready to go.”

“When the game kicks off, we have to go. If anybody expects us to do anything other than that, they’re wrong. We appreciate the situation. It’s really tough to see. We flick on the news and something else has happened. It’s horrific.

“But we have a game of football to play and they will be just as motivated as us to win. That’s sport. When the game comes, you have to put everything to one side and do everything to win.”

Photo: Goran Stanzl/PIXSELL

It’s difficult to judge just what the atmosphere will be like inside Hampden on Wednesday night. Will it be more subdued, more respectful? Will players be able to block out the back-story and perform like any other game?

You’d have to admit it may be a game like nothing any of us have experienced before, yet Scotland will need to stay focused on the end game – qualification for the World Cup – and shut out any background noise for 90 minutes of a vital game for Scotland as a footballing nation.

For Callum McGregor it’s been an incredible season. In his first season as club captain, he’s lifted the League Trophy alongside the League Cup, he’s become player of the year and done all this while helping bed in almost an entire new Celtic team. Now as teammates rest McGregor faces up to another four, and hopefully five, international matches in June.

You’d have been forgiven for thinking McGregor would be desperate for rest, instead he doesn’t believe there is any risk of burnout, instead he looks to Ronaldo, still performing at the top level for club and country at 37 years of age, and believes the answers to fatigue and tiredness lie in solutions offered through Sports science, rather than any need for a rest.

“These guys are the phenomenon’s of the sport,” Calmac said. “You’re always looking at them and how can you try and maximise your ability and do what you can within the game and the sport.

“Now, sports science is so vital to the players, everybody leans on it in some way or another. Some people like to go right in depth, others will skim on the outside of it. All this science is available to you to live your life properly and rest up when you need to. You do the right things and hopefully that will give you that longevity in your career.”

Callum McGregor may well have the right answers when it comes to manoeuvring himself around the difficult questions of facing Ukraine and topical concerns surrounding player burnout, but diplomacy aside, these extra games for World -Cup play offs and Nation League games are a big ask especially for players who have been playing competitive football since last July and it really is something the governing bodies have to look to find a solution to.

For now though, Callum McGregor alongside his Scotland teammates, will have to put the shoulder to the wheel yet again, and World Cup qualification appears to be all the motivation that will be required.

But when it comes to the Nations League matches, perhaps it would be good if Steve Clarke could spread the load around the squad and not ask the likes of McGregor to play every game – no matter how much he may want to.

Niall J


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About Author

As a Bellshill Bhoy I was taken to my first Celtic game in the summer of 1987. It was Billy McNeill’s return to Celtic Park as manager and Celtic lost 5-1 to Arsenal . I thought I was a jinx, I think my Grandfather might have thought the same. It was the finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parkhead's gates.

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