They do say that the best way to get the better of bullies is to stand up to them. But John McGinn says that sometimes the best course of action is simply to ignore them or, better still, laugh at their antics.
The Hibernian midfielder will not balk at the challenge of going head to head with Celtic’s Scott Brown, when Hibs welcome the reigning league champions to Easter Road this afternoon. He is well aware of the ability and the mind tricks played by the Scotland captain but claims he finds the gnarly, snarling onfield persona amusing.
That was not always the case but he says he has played him often enough to know that it is best just to leave him to get on with it.
“It is quite funny,” said McGinn. “He has a bit of banter but you have to try to let that pass you by. I remember my first game against him, when I was at St Mirren, he was shouting ‘leave him on it, he’s mine!’ I was just looking at him!
“I have reminded him of that a few times, while we have been away with Scotland. I know him well enough now to know his game but that doesn’t take away from the quality of player he is. He is a good player and you can’t let yourself get distracted by him. I will try to focus on my game and try to prevent him from making Celtic tick, which he has been doing.”
That first meeting at Celtic Park, in December 2012, was one that afforded a teenage McGinn some freedom to impress – before Brown intervened.
“He got me a couple of times! I was up against Adam Matthews down the right-hand side and I was having a bit of joy and he didn’t like it so he came across to try to sort me out,” recalled McGinn. “I think they won 2-0 that day but I have reminded him of it a few times and told him he’s a bully!”
But that Jekyll and Hyde personality, that sees him fume with intensity during matches before reverting back to the kind of character who can effortlessly inject laughter into a room is what makes the Celtic midfielder tick, according to McGinn.
“That is why he has achieved so much in his career because he has a switch. Before games he is that focused but off the park he is a bubbly person, full of energy and life. As soon as you go on the park, though, you are not his friend and that is the way it has got to be and that is why he has achieved so much in his career and why he has won so many medals. He treats every player like the other and full credit to him for that but if I can wind him up and put him off his game, I will do it.”
McGinn simply laughs when asked if that is possible these days. “Nah! If you try it I think it just winds him up and makes him better. I have not really tried. I usually just leave him alone because he makes my afternoon worse so I just try to concentrate on my game and let him shout at everyone else.”
McGinn was the guy everyone was shouting about after the clubs’ last league encounter. That was back in September, when two goals from the 23-year-old put Hibs ahead and gave them the opportunity to halt Celtic’s unbeaten run that has since been extended to 67 games. In the end they had to settle for a draw but that performance has given them confidence ahead of this afternoon’s head to head at Easter Road.
“I was just trying to concentrate on winning it,” said McGinn. “It was not until after the game that you think ‘that could have been us’. That’s when you realise that you were close to stopping them and their record.
“I think every team that plays Celtic now wants to be the ones who take the record from them. But it is a credit to them. You hear things from down south and people dissing it and saying it is not a good achievement because it is in Scotland but we know, from playing in the Championship, how difficult it is when you are the big team and everyone wants to come and take points off you.”
That day a lot of thought, as well as a lot of effort, went into Hibs’ performance, with the Leith side opting to switch formations just before kick-off.
“It was mad,” said McGinn. “We had a set formation lined up and the manager came in 5-10 minutes before the game and said we were changing formation and it seemed to work. We lost the first goal but we stuck with that formation and we were doing well, limiting Celtic and I think we won a lot of the ball high up the park. You have to try to do that because they have so many good players. We had to try to prevent them getting high up the park. It is easier said than done because they are very patient with the ball and try to drag you out of position so it is a good test for every player who plays against them. You need to be switched on. If you break your line or give the ball away cheaply, you will be punished.
“Sometimes a manager will assess the other team through the warm-up and try to get an inkling as to what way they are going to be playing. It doesn’t happen very often that they will come in and change formations but it does happen and the boys knew that during the game we could have changed to that formation at any time. It suited us fine and seemed to work.”
But McGinn knows that if he is to instigate a reshuffle in the Scotland side and force his way into the new national manager’s thinking, it is games like these where he has to stand out against his main competitors, who, he recognises have set the standards.
“I am aware how good they are but the better the opposition, the better I play. Hopefully, on Sunday, I can go and prove that again,” he said. “We know it won’t be easy but hopefully I can keep playing my normal game. I feel as if I come into my own in these games. The big games really get me going and I am looking forward to it.
“They are already doing it. They are winning medals and delivering every week so that is the benchmark. I have been doing a lot better this season and have been more consistent. I am improving in that regard but the Celtic players are still the benchmark and I hope I can match them this weekend.”
Just one part of a Hibs midfield that is functioning well, in flat-mate Dylan McGeouch, McGinn has an ideal foil, at home and on the pitch.
At home, McGinn enjoys the benefits of his pal’s fastidiousness, claiming that OCD tendencies mean that McGeouch cleans up behind his laidback housemate, but on the park the roles are reversed.
“He is a top player and it is good to see him fit. It is good because he will come and take the ball from the centre-half and it lets me play higher up the park. My best games for Hibs this season have been when Dylan has been playing. He has been one of our best players and it’s good to see him having a run of games and it is clear to see how good a player he is. I like to play with a bit more energy and I’m up and at ‘em whereas Dylan is just chilled all the time. He gets the ball and puts his foot on it and makes us tick. The three of us in there, with Marvin [Bartley] doing really well to break play up, is a very good midfield and we complement each other really well.” It is just one more reason why Brown will not be allowed to intimidate.