Aidan Smith: ‘Complacent Celtic wanted to have their biscuit and eat it’

H is head’s not right. Mentally, he’s not in the best place. He’s distracted. Often, these are the things a football manager is required to say when another club’s courting of the star player is having the desired effect. But the excuses weren’t needed in the case of John McGinn, which seems like yet more evidence of his worth.

Right after Celtic’s interest in the Hibernian midfielder became known, McGinn declared himself up for the challenge of a pre-season friendly at Linlithgow Rose. As the Scottish champions increased their original offer, he was scoring for his team in the Faroe Islands. In the next round of Europa League qualifiers, at home to Asteras Tripolis, he was even more all-action than usual: crashing into tackles,
pumping up the volume of the crowd, cajoling struggling teammates and engaging in a full and frank exchange of views with the Greeks’ crafty and melodramatic
Argentine playmaker. Then, as Celtic made what was claimed to be their third and final bid before the frenetic away leg, McGinn ran his socks off again, netted again and declared his love for the Hibees before continuing his terrific early-season form against Motherwell in Sunday’s Premiership opener.

Midfield maestro John McGinn shows off his new playing kit after Aston Villa took advantage of Celtic's dithering.

Midfield maestro John McGinn shows off his new playing kit after Aston Villa took advantage of Celtic's dithering.

This doesn’t make McGinn unique but there are plenty in his position who don’t act in this way. They agitate. They feel a thigh strain coming on. They down tools. They’re doing this right now at other clubs, with Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois going absent without leave on the eve of the English season in an attempt to force a move to 
Real Madrid.

McGinn is not some saintly being – although Hibs fans would indeed try to persuade you that he is just that – but simply a good guy and a proper professional to go with being a fine footballer. He had no intention of swinging the lead these past few weeks, by purposefully not swinging that left leg of his, because that he said would have been “disrespectful”.

As Hibs legend Pat Stanton remarked the other day, some footballers are content playing “on the fringes”; McGinn isn’t one of them. Even at a time such as this which will shape the rest of his career. There were occasions at Easter Road when he seemed to be doing the work of two, maybe three men. That’s what older fans used to say about Des Bremner when he was the electricity substation of the 1970s Hibs midfield. Bremner left Leith for Aston Villa, which it turns out is McGinn’s destination.

How did that happen? There seemed an inevitability he would move to Celtic, certainly among the Parkhead faithful on social media. “He comes from a Celtic family, his grandad used to be our chairman, if he doesn’t sign now then a pre-contract in January, no problem.” Well, big problem in the end. Celtic’s complacency let in Villa, leaving manager Brendan Rodgers severely dischuffed.

The champions dithered. Their bids were too low. They may have baulked at Neil Lennon’s £5 million valuation of his hot property, but the opening gambit was derisory. “Ah, but McGinn was in the final year of his current Hibs deal.” Well, so was Stuart Armstrong who had just earned Celtic £7 million from his transfer to Southampton. Celtic seemed to want to have their biscuit and eat it. Early on their fans continued to trust this approach.

McGinn was a talent, the logic
went, but one which required finessing. The man to do this was Rodgers. Hibs supporters reckoned this insulting to Alan Stubbs, to Lennon and to McGinn himself. Hadn’t the player become one of the most exciting in the Scottish game, forced his way into the national team from the second tier, without this special tuition? Villa obviously
thought so. And by the end some who follow Celtic were critical of their club’s sense of entitlement, the belief that the Parkhead pull 
was irresistible.

McGinn has been the transfer saga of a long hot summer. He leaves a hole in the Scottish game which will no longer witness his famous charge – “Like I’m trying to chase a helicopter,” he told Villa’s TV channel on Wednesday night. The biggest hole, though, is in the Easter Road midfield.

McGinn gave good quote from the off at Hibs, revealing that for the momentous journey to Edinburgh to live on his own for the first time his mum had bought him an ironing board. It wasn’t too long before he was flattening opposition midfields, and as soon as he started doing that the fans knew he was destined for bigger things.

Today the gap in the midfield might seem like Edinburgh’s most notorious hole in the ground, the long-mooted site for an opera house. That crater was eventually filled by – wait for it – a multi-storey car park and so, for Hibs, the post-Super John McGinn era begins.

It’s the biggest challenge of 
Lennon’s reign thus far. But with McGinn’s bigger things not including Celtic, there are challenges for Brendan Rodgers, too.