Charlie Mulgrew revealed that he feared he had put his international career on the line when he decided not to jump ship as Blackburn Rovers plunged into the third tier of English football.
But tonight he’ll put all such concerns behind him as he leads Scotland out to face Costa Rica at Hampden as captain when Alex McLeish takes charge of the national side for the second time around.
Following the announcement that Scott Brown wouldn’t be pulling on a dark blue jersey again, there’s been plenty of speculation as to who would be handed the armband.
McLeish insisted Mulgrew, capped 31 times, was the “standout” candidate for the job given his experience, someone who could help the younger players in the experimental squad he has named for both tonight’s friendly and Tuesday’s trip to face Hungary in Budapest.
But, even so, Mulgrew admitted it was an honour he never expected, revealing he was only told before yesterday’s training session. The 32-year-old said: “I didn’t have an inkling but when the manager told me I was absolutely delighted. You grow up hoping to get the chance to play for Scotland so to be captain for a game is absolutely massive for myself and my family.
“He maybe looked at the amount of caps I have got, I have quite a lot in comparison to a lot of the other boys.
“There are a lot of captains in the changing room, a lot of leaders and hopefully we can get the right result.”
Mulgrew was something of a latecomer to the international scene, a full four years passing before he made the step-up from Under-21 level to the ‘A’ squad, that lapse in time leading to speculation he may throw in his lot with the United States for whom he qualified thanks to his grandmother.
But, insisted Mulgrew, he never gave up hope and Craig Levein finally realised the former Celtic man’s dream, giving him his international debut in a 1-1 draw with Slovenia. Mulgrew said: “I always tried to keep believing in my ability. I always believed I could play for my country. I played all the way through the age groups and then I didn’t play for the full squad until I was 24.
“You do doubt yourself at times and worry it won’t come, but thankfully it did. That’s why I cherish each time I’m called up and I try to treat every training session as if it is my last. I never take being called up for granted, I always check each squad to make sure I am there and I am always delighted when I am.”
However, with Blackburn dropping into League One, Mulgrew did worry that his time as a Scotland player may be at an end. He said: “Of course I was concerned. There were chances to maybe move on, but I felt I owed Blackburn something.
“I was part of the squad which went down so I wanted to stay and try to get them back to where the club should be. But there are obviously those doubts in your mind that it might not happen.”
With former Hibs boss Tony Mowbray in charge, Blackburn currently sit top of League One, a single point ahead of Shrewsbury Town in the race for the title with Mulgrew facing the classic club v country conundrum next week.
Rovers are due to play Bradford City at Ewood Park barely 48 hours after Scotland are in action in Budapest and, it is understood, McLeish and Mowbray have already been in discussions about the situation.
“You know better than me,” insisted Mulgrew. “I am aware of the fact we (Rovers) play next Thursday night but my full focus coming away is Scotland. I will be doing everything I can for Scotland.
“When Tuesday’s finished and we get back here, then I can deal with Thursday. It’s still a long time – 36 hours before the next game. At centre-back you don’t maybe do as much running as you would elsewhere so we’ll see what happens. My focus is on Scotland.”
Similarly, Mulgrew refused to dwell on the question of whether he might become Scotland captain on a permanent basis, McLeish revealing he “quite likes” having a defender leading the team while insisting the armband won’t be “bandied about”.
“I will take it one game at a time,” said Mulgrew. “The manager just said I would be captain against Costa Rica. That’s as far as it went really.
“I’ve captained Celtic and, growing up as a fan, that was massive for me. It was a proud moment and I was very honoured. This is right up there with that, it’s a massive honour.”
Mulgrew doesn’t expect the fact he’ll skipper the side to swell a Hampden gate which, in line with previous friendlies at the national stadium, looks as if it will fall short of 25,000, claiming: “I think whoever is coming to the game is coming regardless of whether I am captain. I’m playing for my country, if they want to be there they want to be there. There are family members who choose not to be there as they’re too nervous, that’s fine.”
What is clear, however, is that everyone in the Scotland camp regards tonight’s match as a fresh start, the chance to begin preparing for the UEFA Nations League matches later in the year against Israel and Albania which will, hopefully, lead to an appearance at the finals of a major tournament for the first time since France 98 when the European Championships of 2020 come round.
Mulgrew said: “It has felt like the start of something new, there’s a new staff and players. Everyone is eager to impress. We all want to be playing, to get that jersey and to win.”
Scotland have only faced Costa Rica once, suffering a shock 1-0 defeat in their opening game in Italia 90, an unhappy memory for McLeish who was part of Andy Roxburgh’s side that day.
“I remember the headline on a national paper,” he said. “It was the globe on the front paper saying ‘Stop The World We Want To Get off’. I didn’t think it was funny, but I can see the humour in it now.
“It’s that old one when Scotland are expected to win the game; the psyche of the players is that we expect to win here, we should be giving a big display here, the goalie is meant to be hopeless, we’ll bombard him with crosses’ - I think he took 17 out of 20 ...
“Costa Rica are a decent side, they’re going to the World Cup again this summer and that’s our goal, to get to finals.”