As his old Hibernian team-mate Martin Boyle remarked only seconds later on Twitter, the header popped into the net “straight off his meatball”.
There have been thousands of goals scored by Scots which have been better. More elegant, more thrilling and more beautiful for sure. But none has been more valuable than John McGinn’s scruffy, sclaffy, brave nearly-header at Wembley.
The goal won Aston Villa the game. It won them promotion to football’s equivalent of the eight-star hotel plus hot-and-cold running orgies and the Rolling Stones as houseband, the English Premier League. And it will ultimately swell club coffers by £170 million. Only if a Scot repeats the feat in next year’s play-off and the monetary worth of elevation has increased, which it almost certainly will, could a more lucrative goal be scored by a son of Caledonia. Unless of course McGinn fancies grabbing the winner for Scotland in the World Cup final. That would top everything.
First things first, though, it’s good that we all love McGinn again. I mean, Hibs fans have always loved him and always will and it’s probably the same with St Mirren fans. But there’s been a bit of wavering elsewhere.
When Alex McLeish quit there was analysis itemising of the player talent which would be available to the new coach, whoever he would be, only more than one pundit omitted McGinn’s name. Instead Kenny McLean’s was included, this being shortly after the Norwich City midfielder had made only his first competitive start, scoring a goal against San Marino, officially the worst team in the world.
There were other articles which said that McGinn wasn’t replicating his club form internationally and this would definitely need to be addressed by the new man. It was probably these comments his brother Stephen had in mind when he said the other day: “I still think John is underrated in our country. They don’t realise how good he is.”
Now, in an ideal world, an international manager would have sufficient time with his squad to attempt to maximise all the disparate qualities but we know that these days this blissful situation doesn’t exist, and especially not for qualifiers during crammed domestic seasons. Pre-World Cup and Euros camps may enable this but we don’t talk about them because we never qualify for anything.
So there’s a bit of winging it and hoping for the best. Hoping that the midfield will gel, that the lone striker will get lucky. Hoping indeed that everyone plays to their club level – and the requirement for that would seem to be team-wide right now, and not only applying to McGinn. No one’s form is so scintillating that his place is guaranteed. We don’t have anyone who can deliver automatic brilliance.
There’s some puzzlement, though, over how far back we go to quibble about McGinn’s performances in dark blue. He certainly didn’t shine in what currently stands as his most recent appearance away to Kazakhstan, but remind me: who in that shocker had a good game?
I thought he was doing fine in the international arena in a less than golden era. He’d begun his Scotland career with two man-of-the-match performances which, although these awards are subjective and don’t arise from exact science, must mean he had played marginally better than his team-mates and in some cases a whole lot better. Personally, though I’m a fan of the player, I was surprised by these nominations. Nine of his 14 caps have been earned in friendlies and I didn’t think of him as an established member of the team and neither did he.
Then we come to the match which the sceptics like to quote and now and again use to biff him about the head: the one at home to Belgium when he was dispossessed in his own box and a goal resulted. I’m not saying that wasn’t a howler moment, but Craig Gordon, who threw the ball to him with a clear view of the potential danger, was partly culpable. What seems to have been forgotten is that the incident didn’t cause him to crawl into his shell that night; he continued to want the ball and contrived a decent showing.
McGinn’s strength can sometimes be his weakness: a desire to be all-action, to try to do too much, to put out a fire, build a wall and make the tea, all in one phase of play. I admire the personal responsibility. I admire the progressive nature of his game, having seen enough safety-first sideways passing. But there’s a time and a place.
I’m a fan but maybe we were in too much of a rush to anoint him as the successor to Scott Brown, this while Brown was still turning out for Scotland. Maybe we were too desperate for him to be our playmaker, to think we had found our own Luka Modric when he’s not that kind of midfielder, rather the power behind the throne, the heavy lifter. He began at Hibs in front of 1,552 at Dumbarton, a second-half substitute when Scott Allan was doing all the sexy reverse-passing, just prior to the latter’s departure. When Allan returned to Easter Road there was McGinn, ever-willing to crash into the opposition and exhaust them for him. It will be interesting to see how Allan gets on back at Hibs again, this time without McGinn to do the ugly stuff.
At Villa, McGinn clears paths for another pretty-boy, Jack Grealish. This is what he does. English observers who cover the Premier League, some seeing him for the first time in the play-off, were mightily impressed, spotting similarities with Andy Robertson in the way the Liverpool man scurries after hopeless causes, and predicting similar top-flight impact.
Though this is what brother Stephen was meaning when he backed up McGinn, we do not know the latter will be a Premier League hit for sure. We do not know Steve Clarke will be a hit but we’re already thinking he will be. The new coach has asked for time, which is reasonable, although you rarely get it in Scotland. Good luck to him, to McGinn, and to Kenny McLean. He’s got an elegance about him that McGinn will never have. They could be the future, you know. Though I never said that.