CHRIS SUTTON has poured lavish and unstinting and lavish praise on the leadership qualities of Callum McGregor.
The 28-year-old midfield anchorman found himself as the team’s onfield leader when Scott Brown announced his departure from Parkhead after 14 years and 22 honours to join Aberdeen as player-coach in the summer.
McGregor inherited the carnage of a campaign that had gone so disastrously wrong with a Champions League exit at the first hurdle against unseeded Ferencvaros in Glasgow while dropping two points in the second league game in a draw with Kilmarnock, later relegated, at Rugby Park.
At the completion of the team’s first trophyless campaign in 11 years, Brown was joined through the Parkhead exit by Odsonne Edouard, Kristoffer Ajer and Ryan Christie while four loan players – Shane Duffy, Jonjoe Kenny, Diego Laxalt and Mohamed Elyounoussi – returned to their parent clubs.
Even bit-part player Olivier Ntcham left the building as pressure grew during the summer.
FANFARE…Callum McGregor leads his Celtic players to the travelling support after the 3-0 Scottish Cup win over Dundee United at Tannadice in March.
McGregor stepped up to the plate – but former Hoops goal hero Sutton doesn’t reckon the Scotland international was the country’s Player of the Year.
He bestowed that honour upon the central defender known as The Fridge to his team-mates.
Sutton said: “Cameron Carter-Vickers has been Scotland’s Player of the Year.
“When Celtic run out against Hearts tomorrow, the home side will be led by Callum McGregor, who was the recipient of the PFA Scotland award.
“The visitors will be headed onto the park by Craig Gordon, who got the vote from the SFWA.
A BIG HAND…Cameron Carter-Vickers and keeper Joe Hart, who both arrived from Spurs in the summer, applaud the Celtic fans.
Both have been outstanding this season. Both have made major contributions to the successful seasons of their respective clubs.
“But I have not seen anyone around the country who has played a more important role in the fortunes of their team than Carter-Vickers.
“From the moment he arrived at Parkhead just a few minutes before the close of last summer’s transfer window from Spurs, he has been terrific.
“Carter-Vickers has grown into his role week on week to such an extent that, if his name is missing from a team sheet, it would cause the fans as much panic as the removal of anyone else within the entire squad. That’s a sign of his importance.”
Sutton, speaking to the Daily Record, continued: “Of course, this is a game all about opinions and I wouldn’t quibble too much with the professionals who handed their accolade to McGregor.
“Given what he has done this season, you have to take your hat off to him.
“McGregor grew up with success at Celtic being part of the Quadruple Treble gang, but it has been his response in adversity which has really shone through.
CAPTAIN’S PART…Callum McGregor issues instructions from his midfield beat.
“It’s easy to look the part when everything is going well and you are sailing along.
“But McGregor had to go through plenty last season. As vice-captain last term, I lost count of the amount of times he stood in front of a camera and spoke with clarity and honesty about the problems and the issues that were around Celtic.
“It was natural that when Scott Brown left, he was going to step up into the role and it was a mighty task.
“The guy walked straight out of Scotland’s Euro 2020 camp having scored in the last game against Croatia and onto a training pitch to meet a new manager and start a pre-season in Wales when the club were in complete disarray.”
The one-time England international forward admitted: “Postecoglou needed McGregor. He needed that senior voice to drag the rest along because any new manager will tell you that, if the senior players don’t buy into what you are doing, you are shot.
“McGregor did it. He led by example. It’s one thing to talk a good game, but it’s another to be the figurehead with your play.
SINKING FEELING…a pensive Ange Postecoglou watches as Celtic lose 2-1 to Hearts at Tynecastle in July last year – his first Premiership game.
“It didn’t start well for Postecoglou, but McGregor continued to speak properly. To do the right things, to keep preaching the mantra.
“To stick with the process and, not only believe in it, but to make the rest of the boys in the dressing room believe in it, as well.
“McGregor’s performances have been out of the top drawer. Everyone knows his skills and his ability on the ball, but the way he can make an entire game tick is superb.
“Some of the displays, such as on one wet day in Motherwell last October, were simply sensational.
“In big moments, you need your skipper to step forward and for him to go out and lead the troops with a broken cheekbone against Rangers wearing a protective mask and yet still set the tempo in the biggest game spoke volumes for him.
“A couple of months later at Ibrox, he took another by the scruff of the neck after Celtic had made a nervous and dodgy start and trailed to Rangers. He bulldozed his way into the home box and set up an equaliser for Tom Rogic and the title was destined for Parkhead from that exact point.
“McGregor has been outstanding, but the thing is, you sort of knew he would be because that’s the standards he has set.”
HIGH AND MIGHTY…Cameron Carter-Vickers wins an aerial challenge against St Johnstone.
Sutton added: “Celtic’s defence, however, had set a very different set of standards during last season. The constant concession of dismal goals did for Neil Lennon.
“Postecoglou could instil as many exciting players and signings with as much attacking intent as he wanted, but if the backline was going to keep giving things away, it would be work wasted.
“Carter-Vickers stepped up to the mark. Gave Celtic a dominant presence. And a calming influence.
“I’m not going to sit here and say he didn’t get exposed at times in Europe, but so did the whole team and they will get better.
“Domestically, though, Carter-Vickers has shone. He has lifted the levels of the likes of Carl Starfelt and gelled together a new backline.
“Postecoglou has had outstanding contributors. The attacking side of the game has been electric at times and boys like Jota, Kyogo Furuhashi, Liel Abada and Giorgis Giakoumakis have been brilliant in their first seasons at the club.
SAVIOUR…Joe Hart denies Hibs’ Joe Newell from close range as Celtic win 3-1 at Easter Road in October.
“Joe Hart has proven many wrong, including myself. I wasn’t sure he could hit the heights again, but he has done so in style and is in a different league to the likes of Vasilis Barkas, Scott Bain and Conor Hazard, who were the previous custodians.
“But Carter-Vickers has been a shield in front of him. He has always been available to his manager. He has rarely missed a match and that robust nature is vitally important for a centre-back.
“Teams have to know they have a rock they can depend on week on week to give the platform for them to have success.
“Carter-Vickers has been that guy. For that reason, he is my Player of the Year.”