Contest? There was no contest.” Brendan Rodgers’ put down to a journalist was brief and to the point following the 2-2 draw between Hibs and Celtic in December.
In the Celtic manager’s view Scott Brown had eclipsed John McGinn, no debate. The apprentice would have to wait a little longer to get one over on the sorcerer. Around 17 weeks longer it turned out. By anyone’s estimation, surely, McGinn put in a superb performance in Saturday’s 2-1 win for his side over Celtic.
Brown’s continued excellence was underlined on Sunday evening when he won a string of player-of-the-year titles at his own club’s awards night. His worth to Celtic, even now when well into his 30s, is clear to anyone.
However, he failed to reach his own high standards on Saturday. It later emerged he was suffering with illness. Nevertheless, debate raged over who had been the outstanding midfielder. McGinn? Dylan McGeouch? One thing’s for sure, under the weather or otherwise, it wasn’t Brown. There were some who judged McGinn as responsible for this.
Rodgers, pictured, was not required to give his view on who reigned supreme in midfield this time round. Questions regarding the Celtic manager’s own future following the news Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal is nearing an end took precedence. Had he been asked, however, Rodgers would have had a harder time claiming Brown outshone McGinn on this occasion.
The Hibs player was at the heart of everything that was positive about his side’s play. A sign that this was a performance exceeding even his usual high levels of industry came five minutes before end. A Hibs player collapsed near the main stand touchline with cramp. It took a number of confirmed identifications before occupants of the press- box seats felt confident enough to report that yes, it was McGinn, the seemingly indestructible McGinn, lying stricken on the turf with one boot pointing high in the air.
Even referee Steven McLean seemed to lose himself briefly amid the surprise and started to administer attention before a team-mate took over. “It was the heat,” grinned McGinn yesterday. The Hibs midfielder, despite being physically impeded in these final few minutes, took full advantage of the occasion to bolster his credentials while also reinforcing the impression he is a ready-made successor to Brown at Celtic.
Two things potentially stand in the way of this latter scenario. One, Brown’s own form means Celtic are in no rush to replace him. Two, McGinn is adamant he and Brown are very different players.
In fact, he finds the constant references to him being a replacement-in-waiting for the Celtic skipper a little wearying. For a start, comparing his performance to that of Brown’s on Saturday was an irrelevant activity, since they were not directly up against each other.
The task of limiting Brown’s influence was given to Danny Swanson, whose bustling style seemed to unsettle the Celtic player. McGinn, meanwhile, was left to patrol Olivier Ntcham and Tom Rogic. He was also being encouraged to explore his creative side, spraying passes left and right from a deeper lying position.
“It’s something that bugs me a wee bit, getting compared to him (Brown),” said McGinn. “I feel as if we’re different. We’re good pals off the park and we’re different players. He has something different to me and I have something different to him. I just try to focus on my own game. Today I wasn’t directly against him. I was trying to stop Ntcham and Rogic playing. Thankfully, as a three in there, we managed to do that,” he added, with McGeouch a willing accomplice.
On the subject of Brown comparisons, McGinn continued: “Obviously we are both hungry footballers. We work hard, we try to get in people’s faces, but people forget we can both play as well. Obviously for me it’s nice to be compared to someone who’s had such an illustrious career. At the same time I want to make my own name and put my stamp on things.”
They might be different players, with different qualities, but, as McGinn points out, they share a deep desire to better themselves. They both helped drive their first clubs to a perhaps unlikely trophy success – in McGinn’s case at St Mirren, who won the League Cup in 2013, and in Brown’s Hibs, who won their first trophy in 15 years when winning the same tournament in 2007.
It’s natural McGinn, whose contract expires at the end of next season, may be eyeing a step up in level. There have already been failed bids from Nottingham Forest this season. “I’ll just say what I’ve always said,” he said. “The speculation is something that’s always been there since my first season here. I’ve always said the same thing – I’m learning, I’m getting better and I’m loving playing in front of sell-out crowds. I feel as if I’m getting better all the time. At the same time, though, I’m ambitious,” he added. “I want to go and test myself at a higher level. However, it would have to be something better than Hibs. I don’t take it for granted being here. I love it. I’m sure the rest of the boys are the same.”
Similarly to how Rodgers reacted on Saturday in reply to questions about his own future, McGinn stressed it would take something “special” to prise him from Easter Road, where he can sense so much positivity.
“I’ve never changed the fact, or not respected, how good I’ve got it here,” he said. “I love it, I’m getting better. I love playing with the boys here and before such supporters. I think the fans know that.
“I’ve never hidden the fact I’m ambitious at some point. But that doesn’t need to be now.
“I think everyone, all parties, will know when the time’s right.”