As the rarest of breeds, a Scottish Cup-winning former manager of Hibernian, Alan Stubbs can do no wrong in the eyes of the club’s support. So he can be comfortable in the knowledge he won’t be accused of flogging the club’s prize asset when claiming John McGinn is Scott Brown’s successor- in-waiting at Celtic.
Indeed, Hibs fans have another reason to adore Stubbs, not that they need it. Their one-time manager has advised McGinn to stay put already this season.
Stubbs, pictured, is the reason the much-admired midfielder is at Easter Road. When the new manager arrived in the summer of 2014, McGinn, then at St Mirren, seemed bound for Houston Dynamo in the United States.
“He was really close to going with Owen Coyle over to America and we seemed to speed it up when we came in,” recalled Stubbs, speaking at an event to promote this weekend’s Betfred Cup semi-final between Hibs and Celtic.
“We knew that he had been out there. We knew his mind was more or less geared towards actually going. We just had to change it quickly and act quickly.”
Stubbs promised McGinn he would do everything he could to help him improve. The player and his family liked what they heard. McGinn has gone on to outlast Stubbs, who, after leading Hibs to a historic Scottish Cup victory, left Easter Road for an ill-fated – and very short – stint at Rotherham United.
Still based in England as he waits for an opportunity to return to the game, Stubbs says he feels like McGinn’s agent at times, since he is an obvious point of contact for interested clubs.
McGinn himself keeps in touch, most recently asking for Stubbs’ advice after Nottingham Forest made approaches to sign him in the last transfer window. “I told him not to go because I think he will get a better move than that, if I am being really honest,” said Stubbs. Hibs rejected Forest’s bids in any case.
“I have had a couple of phone calls about him,” said Stubbs. “I would always relay that back to Leeann [Dempster, Hibs’ chief executive] because I don’t want to be talking out of school. I give my opinion when they [clubs] ask me what I think about him.”
What he thinks is McGinn has what it takes to fill Brown’s boots in midfield for Celtic as well as Scotland, which is likely to be the vacancy that opens first. “Scott Brown has re-ignited his career at Celtic but in the next couple of years, if Celtic decided to go for John, then I think he would be a ready-made replacement,” said Stubbs. “I really do think that John is a player who is on an upward spiral. He has not got to the end of his potential. He is still growing and maturing as a player.”
McGinn provided ample evidence of this when he shone in Hibs’ 2-2 draw at Celtic last month, scoring both his side’s goals.
“We all know his family background and he is a huge Celtic fan,” said Stubbs. “There wouldn’t have been a prouder person than his grandad [Jack McGinn, the former Celtic chairman and SFA president] and his parents that day. John would have [had] mixed emotions and all but when you play against the big teams you need to put in the big performances and that wouldn’t have done him any harm. To go and play under that pressure and to perform the way he did will have been good for him.”
It can’t fail to have impressed Celtic – and, most importantly, manager Brendan Rodgers – either. But Hibs might prefer to sell to an English club, meaning they can expect a higher fee while also avoiding strengthening a rival. Stubbs believes the 23-year-old could cope with the step up into the English Premier League.
“Right now it is a big jump but it wouldn’t faze John,” he said. “To throw him in is a big ask but maybe to drip feed him into it. I have no doubt that he could perform at Premier League level. When I watch the Premier League and look at the attributes of midfield players in there I don’t see why John can’t play at that level, I really don’t.”
But there’s still much else for McGinn to achieve with Hibs, including an opportunity to showcase his talents again against Celtic on Saturday for the chance to secure a League Cup winner’s medal next month. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Hibs won,” said Stubbs. “They’ll take confidence from the performance – if not the result – at Parkhead.” But even another 2-2 draw could see Hibs progress on penalties. Who would bet against McGinn slamming home the decisive kick?
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