One of John McGinn’s favourite tales about playing youth football as a teenager concerns an encounter with a team of 12-year-olds - who had supplies of lager at the side of the pitch. “It taught me how to avoid drunk tackles,” said the Hibs midfielder, now 23 years old and a key element in the side who won promotion last summer and is now challenging Rangers and Aberdeen for second place in the Premiership.
McGinn had not only to overcome flailing challenges from pubescent drinkers on a public park, but also hold his own against older brothers, Stephen, who plays for St Mirren, and Paul, now with Partick Thistle. The habits acquired in those circumstances were on display on Saturday, when McGinn produced a superb performance in Hibs’ 2-1 defeat of Celtic.
The game was played in front of yet another full house at Easter Road, where Neil Lennon’s team have attracted average crowds of 18,000 – 88 per cent of capacity at the ground. If Hibs are to sustain the surge in attendances, however, they must address vital contractual issues during the close season.
The front pair of Jamie Maclaren and Florian Kamberi are on loan from Darmstadt and Grasshoppers respectively, while McGinn has one year left on his contract and his midfield partner, Dylan McGeouch, will be free to move at the end of the season. McGinn is a fans’ favourite, but he measured his response carefully when asked what the future might hold.
“Speculation is something that’s been there since my first season here,” he said. “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.
“At the same time, though, I’m ambitious. 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.
“It’s a club that should be getting crowds like this, watching players that are looking to express themselves and enjoy it. That’s what they’ve got here.
“Saturday was probably the loudest I’ve heard, with the exception of derbies. We could see the appreciation the fans were giving us because they were enjoying what they were watching. That adds an extra two, three per cent to your game.
“It brings the best out of you. You can see the real progression in the football club by how many people come through the gates and if it keeps going at this rate then they’re going to have to put more seats in.”
Although he has spent six years playing for clubs with limited resources, McGinn has already savoured success. He was a League Cup winner with St Mirren in 2013 and a member of the Hibs side who ended the infamous 114-year Scottish Cup hoodoo with victory over Rangers in 2016.
He was also man of the match for Scotland when he made his debut in a 1-0 friendly win over Denmark in March 2016.
This campaign has seen tangible progress in the league – Hibs have lost only one of their 15 most recent games – and has been based on an impressive work rate, which took its toll on McGinn late in the victory over Celtic.
“Even if your game plan does work it doesn’t mean you’re going to beat Celtic, that’s how good they are. You’ve got to be focused for 90 minutes. I’ve never had cramp in my life and I got it on Saturday. That shows how hard we had to work to get the three points.”
And what of comparisons – frequently made – between McGinn and Scott Brown, the combative Celtic captain?
“It bugs me a wee bit,” McGinn said. “He has something different to me and I have something different to him. I just try to focus on my own game.
“On Saturday I wasn’t directly against him. I was trying to stop Ntcham and Rogic playing.”
It seems safe to say that, whether at Easter Road or elsewhere next season, nobody is about to stop John McGinn playing.