SOME years ago, when I used to shuffle through amateur football games trying to look industrious, I occasionally encountered players who had actually earned money in the game.

Within minutes you knew who they were, even though their experience might only have been limited to the lower reaches of the senior leagues. I say ‘lower reaches’ but this was still about 20 divisions in ability above me.

It’s not that their touch and control were necessarily much greater than those around them, just that they did everything much quicker … and they were always running. Pass and then run to be in position for another pass. Could they not just play by the rules I usually observed at this level: pass … and then hang around for a little while until the ball was next in your vicinity? My old school team coach always used to tell us to “let the ball do the work” by which I think he meant “don’t take too many touches; pass it to your team-mates.”

I, however, felt it was simply an invitation to take a breather from time to time during a match. Football, after all, had 22 players: surely I wouldn’t be missed on these occasions (which became more frequent as I entered my veteran 20s). This became the guiding principle of an amateur football career that was less than stalwart: “let the ball do the work … and all the other players too".

There was a moment during Scotland’s game against Austria when a low-level, pitch-side camera caught Celtic captain Callum McGregor in real-time, as it were, going about his business. The ball was coming to him rapidly and he was hemmed in near the touchline surrounded by Austrians. It was one of those moments you see often in football when a player will attempt to shield the ball from pressing opponents while desperately seeking to play it back from whence it came and let someone else have the problem. Either that or he’ll wait for the first contact and then tumble hoping for a free-kick, or at least a throw-in.

McGregor knew exactly what was required to maintain momentum and turn a half-hearted attack into something more meaningful. As soon as the ball reached him he was re-directing it quickly into the path of Billy Gilmour. In the process, he’d probably taken out two or three Austrian players, all of whom were rendered as impotent as I was when playing against real footballers. This, I think, is what the professionals and the pundits mean by “taking responsibility”. What’s more, I think McGregor’s team-mates knew that this would be the likely outcome. They trusted him to take the ball under pressure and make something happen. The ultimate peer-review.

Occasionally, too, you hear coaches referring to some players as “a good team-mate”. At first this seems to have damned them with faint praise. “Is that all you’ve got to say about me, boss?” I think, though, in that under-stated argot real football people use, it’s a high accolade: this player can be relied upon, he doesn’t hide.

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You can say that about McGregor and a lot more besides. Last season as the team were toiling there were ripples of discontent with some of his performances. I’ve heard some nonsense talked about football by supporters but this seemed outrageous. McGregor, it seemed to me, had begun to carry this team. He’d chosen not to hide or to take shelter in the general torpor which afflicted that side.

Others seemed to think that they could take refuge behind all the flak that Neil Lennon was getting weekly. McGregor always turned up. He was always available to take the ball in dark places and always seeking to play those little passes which can turn the geometry of an attack decisively in your favour: those little threaded diagonals and reverses that require pinpoint precision.

I love watching McGregor playing football. And I especially love the way he strikes a ball. There doesn’t appear to be any back-lift, yet he still finds power. It’s as though he knows he can find more accuracy in a shot or pass by minimising his body movement coming on to it.

Two of his goals in big Celtic games have a special aesthetic that give you a sense of satisfaction bordering on therapeutic when you watch them back. One was against Rangers – the first in a 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final rout – when the ball comes rebounding out to him near the corner of the penalty box. McGregor buried that shot with what seemed a mere flick of his boot. Yet, if the net hadn’t caught it the convenor of the Thornliebank True Blues sitting halfway up Hampden’s Mount Florida end was getting it.     

The other was Celtic’s opener in the 2-0, 2018 Scottish Cup final win against Motherwell. McGregor’s taken it on the half-volley and drilled it. Except that terms like “half-volley” and “drilled” don’t really do it justice. The ball was travelling at warp speed as it left his foot so that even when observed in slow-motion it still looked in normal time. When I watched the highlights later on Andy Walker, co-commenting, lost control of his voice trying to describe the sweetness of that strike.

Callum McGregor was born to be captain of Celtic and I’m just thankful that I’ve been able to witness his entire professional career at Parkhead. The men of my dad’s generation used to speak in hushed tones about Bobby Murdoch. With Jimmy Johnstone it was always with glee and affectionate, but with Murdoch there was a degree of veneration; that they were lucky to have seen him in his pomp and that with him on the park there would always be a chance. My dad always said that Murdoch made you feel serene and a little less anxious.

I feel the same when Callum McGregor runs out to play for Celtic.