As he reflects on an eminently fruitful two years at Hibs, John McGinn is grateful for the way things panned out for him during the uncertain summer of 2015.
At that point, he was out of contract at St Mirren, where he had just had an underwhelming season by his own standards as they were relegated from the Premiership. In addition, he was recovering from being accidentally speared in the leg by team-mate Steven Thompson during training-ground high-jinks. Although his talent was widely acknowledged, given his exploits since breaking into the Saints team as a teenager, McGinn didn’t exactly have an array of alluring options when he decided to let his contract run down in Paisley and become a free agent at the age of 20.
The prospect of having to pay the Paisley club a compensation fee effectively ruled most Scottish Premiership teams out of the equation, while his stock wasn’t high enough at that point to attract Celtic or Rangers. Some English clubs were keen but viewed him primarily as a development player not ready for first-team action. For most of the summer, the possibility of moving to Hibs wasn’t prominent in McGinn’s thinking.
With no genuinely tempting offers forthcoming by the time British clubs were heading back for pre-season, McGinn was on the brink of committing his future to Major League Soccer side Houston Dynamo, where Scottish pair Owen Coyle and Sandy Stewart formed the management team. He spent ten days with the American club in mid-July and was close to signing before the move stalled. “Everything happens for a reason,” said McGinn, who has since become the fulcrum of an upwardly-mobile Hibs team, a full Scotland internationalist and one of the most highly-regarded young players in the country. “It must have been fate that that move to America didn’t happen and I ended up going to Hibs instead.
“It was always going to be a risk if I went to America. A big factor in me thinking about going was Owen and Sandy being over there. I didn’t have many options at the time because Hibs weren’t in for me at that point. There was nothing screaming out at me so I had to go over to Houston and see what it was like. When I was over there, I loved it. The facilities were great and the standard of football was much better than I expected. I adjusted quite well in the ten days I was there but there were a few complications.
“It was probably a blessing in disguise because I could have gone over there and never thought about international football at any level. That could have been me over there for the duration of my career. I think it has been a blessing that it didn’t work out because six months later Owen and Sandy were back here. Everything’s worked out well, so I need to keep building on it.”
When the Houston move fell through, Hibs, who had already been rebuffed by St Mirren in their attempts to offer a couple of fringe players in exchange for McGinn, stepped up their efforts and eventually came up with a package that suited the Paisley club. They then had to persuade the player himself that signing for a club about to spend their second season in the Championship was the right move to make. This is where his family and his agent stepped in and played a vital part in his decision, at the end of July, to sign a four-year contract with Hibs, who were then under the charge of Alan Stubbs. McGinn hasn’t looked back since.
“I had the opportunity to go down south to a few teams but it was to play under-23 football and it didn’t really interest me,” he explained. “That’s where you need your family and your agent to be strong and help you choose the right option. My agent said at the time ‘I think you should go to Hibs’ but I had my doubts. I didn’t know if I wanted to drop down a division. I had an offer from Dundee United and another couple of Premiership teams were interested, but he said ‘no, I think you should go to Hibs, they’re a big club and you’ll be playing in cups and really important games’.
“It was when I went into East Mains [training ground] for the first time that I made the decision. I knew it was a good facility but I was blown away when I saw how good it was. Alan Stubbs showed me about and introduced me to all the players and there was just a really good feeling about the place. I remember my mum and dad were sitting waiting for a cup of tea and my dad said ‘there’s something just right about this’. He’s really taken a shine to the club. My whole family have – they’ve been made to feel really welcome. Alan Stubbs said at the time he’d make me a better player and I feel he did that. I feel I’ve been improving again this season, so all in all, it’s been a really good decision. All the credit goes to my agent. I wasn’t sure at the time but I’m thankful that he made me make that decision. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
McGinn, one of four players shortlisted for the PFA Scotland Championship Player of the Year, is relishing his return to the top flight after a two-year absence. The 22-year-old spent the first three years of his senior career in the Premiership with St Mirren and is determined to show how much he has improved in the intervening period. “Over the time I was in the Premiership, I felt I performed well,” he said. “The last season was a car crash for a number of reasons so I feel there is unfinished business there.”
McGinn and his Hibs colleagues are relishing the chance to party on Saturday when they receive the Championship trophy after their home match against St Mirren. It will mark the end of a three-year period of top-flight exile for a club still in a buoyant state following last May’s historic Scottish Cup triumph. The only fly in the ointment for McGinn is that, in trying to ensure his team sign off from life in the second tier on a high note, he could effectively be bidding to plunge his brother, Stephen, towards relegation. “It crossed my mind the day Stephen signed for St Mirren, but you just need to try and focus on yourself,” he said. “It’s trophy day at Easter Road and it should be a brilliant occasion. It’s only fair from our point of view to be professional as everyone is fighting for their lives down there. We’ll be doing all we can to get the three points.”
McGinn’s future is sure to be the subject of speculation over the summer. As an established member of the Scotland squad still operating in his homeland and not playing for Celtic, the midfielder is a rarity. It seems inevitable that there will come a point when he naturally outgrows Hibs and heads for more illustrious pastures, although, with St Mirren due 33 per cent of any sell-on fee, it would clearly take a significant bid to tempt the Easter Road club into parting with their main man. “I’m still under contract for the next two seasons so unless someone tells me otherwise I’ll be a Hibs player,” said McGinn. “I do have ambitions at some point down the line to go and challenge myself at a higher level. I think that’s only natural. But, like the Hibs move, it would have to be the right one for me. I won’t jump two-footed into something without thinking about it. Hibs have been great for me and I realise how much I’m still developing as a player. If I did happen to go anywhere, either now or a few years down the line, it would have to be somewhere I could go and improve.”