The qualifying campaign is yet to start but John McGinn already feels a profound sense of loss.
Scott Brown’s retirement could be interpreted as giving the Hibs player a chance to stake a claim in a new-look Scotland midfield. But McGinn himself was especially saddened by the news, no matter what it might mean for his own prospects.
Brown, he revealed, was an encouraging presence next to McGinn when he made his full Scotland bow in March, in the 1-0 win over Denmark. “He looked after me,” he said. “I’m a Hibee after all!”
While it was clearly a memorable night for McGinn, it was a special occasion for Brown as well. He was making his 50th and, it turned out, last appearance for Scotland. Despite his own emotions, Brown determined to help McGinn through a testing experience. The Hibs midfielder won’t ever forget it.
As remains the case, McGinn was making a considerable step up from playing Championship football with Hibs to the international arena. Having been a former Easter Road stalwart himself, Brown was alert to this as well as the nerves that were likely to hinder McGinn at first.
“He made sure I was under his wing,” said McGinn. “It was brilliant to play alongside him on his 50th cap. It’s disappointing for all of us that he’s not here. But he was a massive influence on me early on in my international career. If I can have half as good a career on international stage as him I’d be delighted.
“He was talking to me throughout the game,” added McGinn.
“Before the game he said just go and do what you normally do. I settled down really quickly. I’ll be forever grateful [to him] for that. It’s disappointing he’s not here now but we need to focus on who is here now.”
While McGinn is stopping short of taking every thing Brown does on board – “I still wear jerseys outside,” he smiled, with reference to the Celtic skipper’s preference to wear short-sleeved shirts whatever the weather – he acknowledged just how large a presence he is.
“Even off the pitch as well as on it he treated everyone the same,” he said. “He was a really big character in the dressing room. On the pitch he gave his all. He would be the first to say that he wasn’t the best technically in the squad. But there was no one in the team that would work harder. That’s the sort of attitude I need to show.”
McGinn is an arch competitor and so realises what Brown’s absence could potentially mean for him and his other midfield compadres. Indeed, when once Scotland seemed more than well served in the middle of the park, now, with James McArthur and Kevin McDonald having withdrawn from the squad to play Malta on Sunday due to injury and Charlie Mulgrew excluded, manager Gordon Strachan’s options are limited.
“It gives me an opportunity,” McGinn agreed. “There are still an awful lot of quality midfielders in the squad, you can see that on the training pitch. It’s just up to myself to prove to the manager and the staff that I’m good enough to give them a dilemma.
“It’s up to me,” he added. “I want to do that [replace Brown] but I’m fully aware of the standard of player we’ve got here. I’m supportive of whatever decision the manager makes.”
It would be a special achievement if McGinn, whose grandfather Jack was once president of the Scottish Football Association, could follow in Brown’s footsteps to the extent that he is named Scotland skipper, as some predict will happen sometime in the future.
Just how long the 20-year-old has to achieve this distinction is illustrated when he reveals one of his early memories of watching Scotland was against Romania in March 2004. It was the friendly when John Kennedy was stretched from the field after sustaining a career-ending knee injury.
“Ever since then I was lucky enough to get all the tickets so I know what to expect on big matchdays at Hampden,” he said. “I am really keen to be involved in the future.”
Clearly McGinn, as well as the Scotland management team, would prefer if he was playing in the top flight this season. “They believe I’m still good enough to be in the squad and that gives me massive confidence,” he reasoned. “When I think of that it means I deserve to be here.”
The way the Easter Road side have started the current league campaign under Neil Lennon, it’s clear they are not intending to stay another season in the Championship. McGinn believes his own performances can only be improved by having a midfielder as manager.
“He [Lennon] takes me aside, he’s really calm behind closed doors,” he said. “He doesn’t hide in highlighting your weakness but he’s very keen for you to improve. He’s improved a lot of the boys already and that will continue for the rest of the season.”