How football won tug of war for Aberdeen's Niall McGinn

Space is at a premium so it's understandable he can't give every team he plays and played for a mention on his Twitter profile. But as well as Aberdeen, Celtic, Brentford, Derry City and Dungannon Swifts, Niall McGinn counts two others: Donaghmore and Tyrone.

Niall McGinn played a key role in Northern Irelands Euro 2016 qualification but is unlikely to start their first match against Slovakia. Picture: Getty

Neither feature in his Twitter biography, but they played significant parts in McGinn’s sporting life. Significantly, neither are football clubs. Rather, they are Gaelic football clubs.

Such was their pull on McGinn he seriously considered quitting football in favour of what is sometimes referred to as “the original beautiful game”.

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McGinn is one of those whose inclusion in the Northern Ireland squad is the most dynamic representation of the Irish Football Association’s “Football for All” project. His background being Dungannon, in the GAA heartland of County Tyrone, means he might well have felt inclined to choose Gaelic football over football, particularly when it meant potentially featuring in a showpiece occasion.

This was the incentive used by legendary Tyrone manager Mickey Harte – stick with Gaelic football, son, and get to play in a historic match to christen Dublin’s Croke Park floodlights, in 2007.

“I played Tyrone minors and Tyrone under-21s. I was part of the Tyrone seniors set-up and I just reached a stage where I had to make a decision to go with Derry City,” McGinn recalled yesterday.

“When I was coming to the decision between Tyrone seniors and Derry City, Mickey was constantly phoning me to play for Tyrone. It was actually the opening of the lights at Croke Park – Tyrone, my county, played Dublin.

“At the end of most of the conversations he was saying ‘just remember here, you’ve a chance to play in front of 80,000 people’,” he added. “That was biting me in the ear a little bit. To get that opportunity, 80,000 at Croke Park, under the lights, that would have been unbelievable for me.”

It was the first ever Gaelic football match to be played under lights and Harte was right – 81,678 fans turned up, the largest attendance for any sporting event in the world that weekend.

So McGinn was presented with quite a dilemma. He knew some would give their right arm to play in such a hugely anticipated fixture. He was constantly veering between football – or soccer, as it’s termed in the Gaelic football community – and Gaelic football in any case, sometimes participating in both sports on the same day.

“I was training five times a week,” he said. “I remember playing for Dungannon [Swifts] at Linfield on Saturday at 3pm, then at 6pm I played for Donaghmore against Errigal Ciaran.”

One minute he was operating as a midfielder/striker, the next he was what is called a corner forward. “I was goal-scorer, points scorer, nice and nippy,” he said, referring to his Gaelic football role.

But when it came to the crunch, he chose football, persuaded to by then Derry City manager Stephen Kenny, who later took over at Dunfermline for a spell. Derry City’s crowds couldn’t hope to compare with 80,000 of course. But shortly afterwards, Celtic came calling.

So McGinn is satisfied he chose the right road. After all, yesterday saw him sitting at a press conference table in a pleasant corner of the Beaujolais wine region, contemplating playing a part for Northern Ireland in Sunday’s Euro 2016 Group C fixture against Poland.

Tyrone? They play a Celtic Challenge Division Play-Off Round fixture v Laois in Dundalk tomorrow morning. A big match for the Ulster county of course, but nothing, in terms of profile, compared to a clash against Robert Lewandowski and friends at the Allianz Riviera, capacity 35,000.

Despite his decision to stick solely with football, McGinn has been bowled over by the goodwill from a Gaelic football community not normally known for their interest in the affairs of the Northern Irish football team. His local club, Donaghmore GAA, tweeted him good luck yesterday morning. He has also received messages of support from his former team-mates at Tyrone.

“The support I’ve got from my GAA background has been pretty incredible,” he said. “Back when I played a lot of Gaelic football, people wanted me to go down that route. But to become a professional footballer was a dream for me.”

There have already been plenty of reasons to support his decision. But few can match the feeling of scoring his first goal for his country. This came four years ago against Portugal in Porto on the occasion of Ronaldo’s 100th cap, with over 50,000 present. He has also won trophies with Celtic and Aberdeen, where he has become such an integral player. But all this counts for little as he battles to secure a starting slot in Sunday’s team.

McGinn, who can claim the equal highest number of assists in Northern Ireland’s successful qualifying campaign, is a victim of circumstance. If not for an injury to left back Chris Baird, ruling him out of the finals, it is very likely McGinn would have started on Sunday.

But to compensate for Baird’s loss and the fact he has few options at left-back, manager Michael O’Neill, pictured, has started employing a wing-back system, meaning there is less need for a player like McGinn, who plays wide on the left. He has not started any of the five games since qualification.

“I’ll keep working hard in training and if called upon, I’ll be more than ready,” said McGinn.

One of Northern Ireland’s strengths is the absence of prima donnas. O’Neill has made sure he has a group of players with him in France that are all pulling in the same direction, whatever their own disappointments. “Michael’s very good, he’s always hands on with the players,” said McGinn. “He’s seen a lot of my games at Aberdeen, Jimmy Nicholl [assistant manager] sees a lot too. Even if it’s frustrating at times I’ve got to be happy that I’m part of a brilliant squad.”