Charlie Mulgrew on blowing his first chance at Celtic, seizing the second and why he's not given up on Scotland after Tannadice return
“I don’t think so,” says the man I’ve come to St Andrews to meet, when the fuss dies down. “I’m pretty sure it was ‘Mulgrew, Mulgrew’. I was peekin’ out of the clubhouse’s top window and they spotted me.”
Well, who’s to say otherwise? Who’s to say, at the university playing fields where the veteran’s Dundee United always train, and where Paul Pogba’s Manchester United are visitors today, that the chant got lost on the breeze and had in fact listed half the Tangerines’ team: “Pugh, Pugh, Charlie Mulgrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub”?
Who’s to say that the pop-star adulation wasn’t for the man with the pop-star haircut, Mulgrew’s long flowing locks requiring regular attention during our chat and dabs from a tub of styling cream? And who’s to say the giants from “the Prem” aren’t here to spy on Mulgrew’s free-kick technique, the most recent example of which was the audacious 35-yarder against Arbroath after spotting a near-post gap?
“That’s what the screens are for,” he says, pointing to the dividers separating the clubs’ respective portions of the lovely lush Fife turf to keep the joke going a little bit longer. “They’re not to stop us from going on their patch; it’s the other way round. I’ve just had to ask Darren Fletcher to leave. We don’t mind Man U coming up here but we don’t want them staring at us.”
It’s obvious that Mulgrew - long and successful spell at boyhood heroes Celtic and 44 caps for Scotland - has settled in well as an Arab. But then Dundee United were where he began to find his feet as a player so there’s a symmetry to his return.
“I was here on loan for half a season [2005-06] and I thought it would be a nice story for me to finish my career here.” Then he checks himself; he doesn’t like thinking about the boots tied together on the metaphorical hook.
“Football institutionalises you,” says the 35-year-old. “Competing, winning and losing - it’s all you know. The endorphins the game releases in your brain become addictive. I guess the minute I stop feeling the passion, stop enjoying football, stop wanting to win will be when I’ll quit, but this has been my life since I was 16 and I still love it.”
Mulgrew’s contract with United will take him past his 37th birthday. Everyone tells him: best days of your life, play for as long as you can. “I like hearing about guys who go on and on,” he says. One such is Gordon Strachan and Mulgrew quizzed his old Celtic and Scotland boss on playing until 40. “Two bananas a day and two hours’ kip - that was his secret. I told Jamesie Forrest and he said: ‘What, two bananas, that’s all he ate?’ I’d love to get a couple of hours on the sofa but that’s impossible with three kids. So to compensate I’m on 12 bananas a day.”
Mulgrew likes a joke and is a regular on his old Parkhead mucker Simon Ferry’s Open Goal podcast where the pair might recall youth coach Willie McStay’s valiant efforts to ennoble his charges (eg, by asking the bus driver to play the Champions League theme, just before the team disembarked for a cup-tie on a dog poo-strewn park in Auchenshoogle).
Another daft story concerns the young prospect being called up for end-of-season testimonials for Roy Keane and Alan Shearer, allowing him to lord it over the other reserves. There were gifts and Mulgrew was like a kid at Christmas. Later, at a team meeting, Tommy Burns asked him: “Did you get your Omega watch, Charlie?” “Oh aye Tommy.” “And your 32ins plasma TV?” “Oh aye Tommy.” “It’s Zinedine Zidane’s testimonial next, do you fancy playing in that?” “Oh aye Tommy - any word on what we’ll get?” Sparking great guffawing, Burns said: “Three-piece suites.”
But our man has serious ambitions: “I’m really interested in becoming a manager. Sure, it’s a merry-go-round but I think without even realising, I’ve learned a lot about the game from my time playing. I’d like to try and put that to some use.”
His own bosses have thrown up some interesting character studies: Mick McCarthy at Wolves, Jimmy Calderwood at Aberdeen, Tony Mowbray at Blackburn Rovers and the Celtic quintet of Martin O’Neill, Strachan, Neil Lennon, Ronny Deila and, however briefly, Brendan Rodgers.
In the case of Lennon, “thrown” was occasionally a good word. “If Lenny wasn’t happy about something he could turn the changing-room upside down. Tables could go flying and one time a plate of prawn sandwiches ended up on top of Jamesie. The prawns were sliding down his cheeks but he didn’t dare move a muscle while Lenny was ranting.” But - and he stresses this - a great man-manager, the best he’s known.
It was only going to be football for Kirkintilloch-born Mulgrew. “Where I’m from when I was growing up, there were only two teams in the world and you wanted to play for one half of the Old Firm or you wanted to play for the other lot. It seemed like a dream but a local lad, Stephen Crainey, had made it to Celtic. I was like: ‘Maybe I could get there from here.’”
He did but the teenaged Mulgrew was “miles off it”. Despite five titles at Parkhead and the 2011-12 hat trick of player-of-the-year awards - league, football writers and fellow pros - he’s most revealing about his years of underachievement. He says: “You come to Celtic and get given things: the best facilities, the best food, the best travel, the lot. Then all of a sudden you make the squad. Half a win bonus. Outside the stadium folk want photos.
“It’s a false sense of security and of achievement. At least it was for me. You think you’ve made it big but you haven’t, far from it. You’ve done nothing.”
That’s when he was sent out on loan to Dundee United where he remembers there was a different manager for each of his first three games - Gordon Chisholm, Billy Dodds, Craig Brewster - but clearly this hasn’t dimmed his aspirations for joining this precarious profession. His “car club”, setting off for Tayside from the Little Chef at Cumbernauld, were all future bosses: Derek McInnes, Jim McIntyre, Mark Kerr and Alan Archibald. “They called me ‘The Big Baby’ for always falling asleep - not when it was my turn to drive, obviously. One day, though, we’d come back down the road after a double session from Brewster and I was scrabbling around for my keys. ‘Guys,’ I said, ‘I must have left them at the gym.’ They all burst out laughing, of course, and then I noticed smoke coming out of my exhaust. I’d left the engine running at the Little Chef from 8.30 in the morning until five o’clock. None of them has ever allowed me to forget that.”
That hasn’t been Mulgrew’s only car park mishap. In 2010 he and wife Alana were confronted by bra tycoon Michelle Mone who spotted two-year-old son Josh in the babyseat while the couple were shopping. Mulgrew has laughed off the incident during TV punditry but admits he won’t be allowed to forget it, not least by the boy, now playing for Celtic’s Under-14s. “Josh Googled it. ‘Did you actually leave me?’ It’s a family joke now, whenever he isn’t feeling the love.”
Back at Parkhead after the loan Mulgrew was soon heading out of the door again, this time permanently, the dream seemingly over. “I thought I was ready but I wasn’t. I thought I’d grown up but I hadn’t. And my attitude was: ‘I’ve been at Celtic - who are Wolves?’ It’s quite embarrassing to admit that now.
“I thought I was going down there to play. I didn’t realise there would be guys in the team who’d really grafted to be there. But Mick McCarthy showed me how to train properly, how to live my life properly. I knew nothing about diet and was too heavy.”
Another spell out on loan, at Southend United, seemed to flick a switch. “That definitely made me grow up.” Next stop: Aberdeen. “I didn’t miss a game there for two years.” Pittodrie was good while it lasted but Mulgrew decided not to renew his contract. “My eye was elsewhere,” he says, and Lennon took him back to Celtic as the new manager’s first signing. That may have slightly underwhelmed the Parkhead faithful anticipating a procession of star names, but it enraged Dons fans who booed their ex-player throughout on his first return north. He scored the winner that day, with a celebration that esteemed human-behaviour expert Desmond Morris might have labelled “Get it right up yez”. “I wasn’t proud of that,” says Mulgrew, “but folk have to understand the emotion of football.”
Lennon played him just about everywhere: left-back, centre-back, left midfield, centre midfield. Usually he wouldn’t be informed of his role until the day of the game. Unnerving? “No, I loved that, it was exciting. It also meant I had four opportunities to make the team. The season I won the player-of-the-year awards I didn’t start but then Emilio Izaguirre broke his leg. All those players now who get petted lips when they don’t play - it’s a long campaign and it can flip.
“What Lenny did brilliantly was recruit guys from lesser teams who were at exactly the right stage in their careers. I was buzzing to be back at Celtic. That was my opportunity and I had to make things happen. I knew there would be pressure and didn’t get off to the best of starts. But by then I had the tools to cope.
“Lenny chose players who would respond well to his management and be able to take a bollocking.” (And the occasional flying prawn). “There were a lot of tough things said in that changing-room but there had to be. This was the cutting edge of sport and a club that can’t be beat; losing wasn’t allowed. The truth, however hard to hear, had to be accepted - by the leaders in the team as much as anyone. There was a fear factor, too. The last thing you wanted after a Lenny bollocking was another one any time soon. The guy’s passionate. He knew what we could do and wanted us to be better.”
Mulgrew has one regret about his standout season - his father Charlie, a joiner to trade, died just as he was getting into his stride and so missed him collecting all his individual silverware. He’s remembered in a tattoo on Mulgrew’s right arm: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
“My dad was a big influence on my career. He always believed in me and I was always aware of that. He couldn’t watch me play, though - too nervous! If one of my games was on the telly, he’d leave it recording and only turned it on later if he’d managed to find out if we’d won. He did come to a Scotland Under-21 international at Rugby Park but had to hang round the back at the pie stand.”
A YouTube compilation of Mulgrew’s best moments in green and white includes cup final rockets, championship clinchers and popping the ball on Victor Wanyama’s head in the vanquishing of brilliant Barcelona. Studying them, it seems strange that he might have been under-appreciated in the stands, but Celtic fans concede this.
In 2016 he left the club. “They’d offered me a new contract but I wanted something different.” Wanyama, Virgil van Dijk and Gary Hooper had all moved to England and he decided to follow suit. Blackburn Rovers slid into the third tier but Mulgrew helped them come straight back up to the Championship. Mowbray installed him as captain - also encouraging him to try and score direct from corners, resulting in three goals in rapid succession - and it is this relationship as much as any other which is prompting him to contemplate management.
Before then, though, there are still games to be played, beginning today for United against Rangers. “Everyone will need to be at their best but we think we can rattle them,” says Mulgrew, who loved the Old Firm battles, a diving header in one victory being especially memorable. And he isn’t done with Scotland either. “My first cap was a proud day for me and so was my most recent during qualification for the Euros. Hopefully there could still be more and I’m here if they need me.”
But right now that’s no longer on this green and pleasant sports field. Our chat ends abruptly when he’s reminded he’s due over in Glasgow in a TV studio to commentate on Celtic. Grabbing his kit including the trusty hair gel, at least he hasn’t forgotten a child, or to turn off an engine.
A message from the Editor:
Get a year of unlimited access to all of The Scotsman's sport coverage without the need for a full subscription. Expert analysis of the biggest games, exclusive interviews, live blogs, transfer news and 70 per cent fewer ads on Scotsman.com - all for less than £1 a week. Subscribe to us today
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.