Players come and players go in football and no one stands still for very long. That is, unless they see it as their job to stand still. Shuttling the ball sideways and back. Maybe pointing to where they’d like others to run. Water-carriers, buck-passers, bare-minimum types. They don’t want mud sticking to them so they don’t get any on their shorts.
John McGinn at Hibernian, though, has been a bit more prominent than that. Prominent in the midfield and prominent in our household and in the chatter at the breakfast table every day. “Is he going?” my two daughters, nine and six, will ask, and my 11-year-old son will groan and vow that if McGinn does leave he’s not going back to Easter Road or school or his granny’s because, well, what’s the point of anything anymore?
We’ve all done this, haven’t we? When Pat Stanton was allowed to sign for Jock Stein’s Celtic I wasn’t much older than my son and fired off an angry letter to the “Pink”, Edinburgh’s old sports paper, announcing the immediate withdrawal of my support. What a thrill so see my name in print for the first time, only slightly marred by the “Yours in dusgust” sign-off.
Older and wiser, you understand the desire for footballers to progress, win more trophies (and make more money), and you stop viewing their departures as slights against your club or wounding blows from which the team will never recover. But I think in McGinn my son discerns a special player who’s written his own distinct and vivid chapter in Hibs’ history and I think he’s right.
Human dynamo, midfield rampager, talisman, SPFL’s toughest backside, live meatball, forward-motion freak, most valuable player – McGinn has been all of these things and more in three seasons when Hibs have gone from Dumbarton in front of 1,552 (his debut) to winning the Scottish Cup, returning to the top flight and (quibble all you like, Celts and Dons) playing the best football in the land.
But it’s only been three seasons, my son will say. It’s true that Alex Cropley, comparable in age, talent, guts and left-footedness, gave Hibs six before he moved on to bigger things at Arsenal. But three is quite long by current standards (and what a three they were). Hibs once had a promising player called Didier Agathe, full of running like McGinn, who ran off to Celtic after only six games.
It’s a well-trodden path, the one between Easter Road and the east end of Glasgow. Stanton negotiated the route just fine, winning the double with Celtic, but Derek Riordan and Scott Allan got lost.
Each was the star man of their respective Hibs sides; they were first picks every week and usually topped the player ratings. This is McGinn now, only more so, being the future of the Scotland midfield. He is entitled to say, like Mariah Carey regarding stairs although without her diva-ish bluster: “I don’t do benches.”
Why should he? Why, when he plays every game, crashes into every tackle, and aspires to positivity every time he collects the ball from deep, should he become a squad player or “one for the future”? But these are the roles some see him fulfilling were he to end up at Parkhead: coming on for Tom Rogic after an hour, the long-term replacement for Scott Brown but just not yet, starts at Dundee and Livi to give the Champions League boys a rest.
That’s as far as the SPFL is concerned. Were McGinn to stay in this league he’s entitled to expect his prominence in it to continue. He refused to be intimidated by Brown back when he sported a St Mirren crewcut and in last season’s jousts with the Celtic captain he gave as good as he got, despite Brendan Rodgers’ rather churlish claim of “no contest” after one game, insisting his man had won it no bother. Some Hibs fans might hope that he would broaden his horizons and try England, where if Calum Paterson can reach the top flight then so could he, but it’ll be his choice to make and they’ll wish him well. Reluctantly, they’ll accept he’s probably outgrown their club. Very reluctantly in the case of my son who can’t really understand why his hero doesn’t stay and make Hibs better, maybe win the cup again – for doesn’t he like having his own song about how he’s better than Zidane?
I’ve yet to tell my boy that kind of altruism doesn’t really exist in football. I’ve yet to advise him to maybe not hold his breath re the cup.
He’ll be devastated if McGinn goes. Tearful that Easter Road will no longer thrill to him on the charge, head down, shoulders hunched, opponents bouncing off those sturdy hurdies.
He did this often but never more crucially than when the 114-year hoodoo was finally smashed. The McGinn vignette the supporters most cherish came when three Rangers players ganged up on him near the Hampden halfway line and he somehow emerged with the ball. This sent a power-surge of belief through the rest of the team that day, turning it into the day of days.
Whoever gets Super John McGinn, from the perspective of right now, it’s extremely doubtful they could love him more.