It isn’t only when he is wearing the dark blue that John McGinn feels as if he is representing Scotland. Now ensconced at Aston Villa following a £3m summer move from Hibernian, the challenges he is facing in the EFL Championship, and handling with aplomb, come not just from opponents but from English perceptions.
“When a Scottish player goes down the road you’re always going to get doubters. You always get people saying you’re from a pub league,” said the 23-year-old midfielder. “I think you’re always fighting a losing battle when you’re Scottish and I don’t think that’s right. I think the way that people look at Scottish football is wrong, but at the same time, we have to start proving it on the park and start showing it again.
“So, it was important that I proved that I could cut it at that level, and thankfully so far I’ve managed to do that. It’s early days, it’s a long season, but hopefully I can carry that on.”
McGinn has earned rave notices for his early displays for Steve Bruce’s men. He has started every game, just as Bruce said he would as he sought to convince him to make a home in Birmingham instead of ending a summer saga by joining boyhood club Celtic, where Brendan Rodgers cautioned he could not give him any guarantees about game time. The Villa manager has shown himself to be a believer in Scottish players, having given a platform to such as Andrew Robertson, Robert Snodgrass and Allan McGregor while at Hull City.
“I was so used to playing at St Mirren and then Hibs all the time, so it was really important that the next place I was going I was going to play,” McGinn said. “Thankfully, the manager so far has shown faith in me to go and play. It’s a massive club with great aspirations.
“They are in a similar situation to Hibs when I joined them, the fans are sort of distant and slightly fed up with what has gone on and it’s up to us to change that. The only way we can do that is by getting results and getting the club back to the Premier League.
“That’s the aim. The new owners have come in and backed the manager, albeit late on in the window, but when you are at a club like Aston Villa it belongs in the Premier League. Everyone in the world is trying to get into that, so you have that challenge every week.
“I didn’t realise the scale of the club until I got my teeth into it. They crave success the same way that the Hibs fans did, and thankfully we’ve managed to put a smile back on their faces. They’re getting sell-outs now every week, and that’s the aim down there, to try and get bums back on seats and to try and get the club into the top-flight and competing in the top half of the table. I hope we can do that.”
McGinn remains grateful over what Hibernian did for him during a testing period of to-and-fro as it seemed Celtic would acquire his signature after pursuing him from early in the window. To his great credit he never allowed the uncertainty to affect him as he gave his all through two successful Europa League qualifying rounds.
“To be honest, I had a brilliant group of players at Hibs and the support were very fair with me. They didn’t make it difficult,” he said. “The Europa League was a great distraction. I was disappointed to see the lads go out, but they were so supportive. They understood that it was a tough time, but at the same time, I could just go out and concentrate on my football and I actually loved that period.”
McGinn is entitled to have a love-hate relationship with events over last week’s international involvement. He was mugged and gifted a goal to the Belgians in the 4-0 friendly thumping they handed out at Hampden a week past on Friday before getting away with two poor defensive passes as Alex McLeish’s men recovered to record a 2-0 win at home to Albania three days later, a victory that made for the perfect start to the Nations League which offers a route to a first major finals in two decades for the country.
“It was tough,” the nine-times capped McGinn said of his error that he was honest enough to confess followed his demanding the ball from keeper Craig Gordon against Belgium. “It was definitely the lowest point of my Scotland career. In the games I’ve experienced everything has gone OK apart from the other night, but you learn from it. A couple of times on Monday night I didn’t, but I can only try.
“I just remember somebody from the side shouting ‘back to the goalie’, but the grass was a wee bit longer on Monday night, so I’ll use that excuse. Greegsy [McGregor] was in a great starting position, and helped me out massively. I feel as if I contributed a lot more, and the team as whole did as well.”