... but McGregor and Jack are bosom buddies with Scotland

By Graeme Croser



dmg media (UK)


THEY’RE midfield lynchpins on opposite sides of Glasgow’s bitter football divide. Yet Celtic captain Callum McGregor has ample reason to value his Scotland partnership with Rangers’ Ryan Jack. The best of enemies at club level, McGregor and Jack have proved an effective midfield pairing for Steve Clarke in the past, most notably on the night Scotland booked a place at Euro 2020 in Serbia. With Jack anchoring and McGregor pressing and probing, Scotland dug deep to qualify for a first major finals in 23 years. As he prepares to pick up his 50th cap, McGregor affords himself the rare indulgence of looking back and pinpoints that night in Belgrade as the highlight of his international career. Yet Jack also features in another prominent memory. Persistently, if not stubbornly, overlooked by Gordon Strachan in the preceding World Cup campaign, McGregor finally debuted for his country on the night Malky Mackay took over as caretaker for a friendly against the Netherlands in 2017. Also making his debut that night, albeit at right-back, was Jack, recently transferred from Aberdeen to Rangers. Both fierce competitors taught never to back down in the ferocity of the Glasgow derby, there may have been some awkwardness in those early days. Not any more. ‘As you get older, you start to realise these things (don’t matter),’ says McGregor. ‘The reason we are playing at a high level is because we are highly competitive. ‘He wants to win for his club and I am desperate to win for mine. But when we turn up for Scotland we are both desperate for Scotland to do well. ‘There are different rivalries throughout the camp but the minute we go through the door as Scotland players, that is the only focus.’ It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the pair selected together again as the bid to make it to the next Euros commences at Hampden on Saturday. Jack’s first competitive start for Scotland actually came against Cyprus and the partnership forged with McGregor that warm afternoon outside Nicosia provided the bedrock for a satisfying 2-1 win in the last set of Euro qualifiers. Of the midfield options available, McGregor and John McGinn are stick-ons to start against the Cypriots next weekend but with a number of Clarke’s preferred starters struggling for game time at club level, there will be places up for grabs. If questions also hang over the shape of the team, it’s likely there will be a further midfield slot remaining, with Jack vying for contention alongside Scott McTominay and Billy Gilmour, who have been regular bench-warmers at Manchester United and Brighton. The squad is full of good players and whoever the manager selects will be trusted to do the job,’ adds McGregor. ‘I’ve played in there with a number of different partners and I have always tried to strike up a nice balance, whether that’s with a two or a three. ‘It’s great to see Ryan back in there. Playing with him was good. We struck up a nice partnership and our games complemented each other. When we go away we are all Scotland players and we are all pulling in the same direction. We all want to be successful. ‘To be honest we are too busy to be talking about anything else! ‘The last few years it’s been three games a week. Recovering, training and playing.’ The reward for that intense schedule has been greater cohesion in the Scotland team and an upturn in the team’s performance. If there remains some regret at failing to handle the occasion in an emotional World Cup play-off against Ukraine last June, it was followed by Nations League promotion that has guaranteed the safety net of another play-off below the high-wire of a tricky Euros section, involving headliners Spain and an undercard featuring star men Erling Haaland of Norway and Georgia’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. ‘When the draw was made it looked a tough group,’ admits McGregor. ‘There are good quality individuals and in international football every team is fit and organised. ‘We start next Saturday against Cyprus and we want to get the best possible start and take it from there. ‘As soon as you get to a tournament and have a taste and a flavour of it you want more.’ Injury saw Jack miss out on Euro 2020 but McGregor was there and emerged as one of Scotland’s best players. Gilmour may have stolen the headlines for his classy midfield play in the draw with England at Wembley but McGregor’s performance in tandem was no less impressive. And in the next game he struck Scotland’s only goal of the tournament against Croatia. When the next tournament kicks off in Germany two years hence he wants to be there. ‘It was great to see what being at a major tournament looked like for the country,’ he says. ‘I think everybody will agree it was a really exciting summer for the nation and we just want to get back there.’ Now 29, and the leader of Ange Postecoglou’s relentless Celtic team, McGregor remains just as committed to the national team as he was when he first took the field at Pittodrie. Patience was a virtue as he built up to his first cap but there is an urgency about him going into this new campaign. ‘Every time you represent the national team is a proud day and to make my 50th appearance is something I’m really happy about. ‘A lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice has gone into that. So it will be a nice little milestone if I’m selected to play. ‘Like any young footballer you have to bide your time and wait your turn. The group in front of me were all really good players and professionals and the manager trusted his squad. ‘You just have to be there, train as hard as you can and force your way in at the right time. ‘I was always desperate to get in and once I did, I wanted to stay there and rack up as many appearances as I could. ‘My debut was great, that stands out. The goal against Croatia is also a nice memory. And obviously the night we qualified in Serbia. ‘There were some difficult times, some real learning experiences but those are the things that make you a better footballer. Getting to a major tournament was great. ‘As a group of players we want to get there again and not be a one-tournament wonder.’