IN his journey from being Scotland’s raw ‘rabbit in the headlights’ to the Tartan Army’s latest talisman, John McGinn has racked up some impressive numbers.
His goal against Ukraine on Wednesday night was his 14th for the national side, putting him in joint-ninth place in the all-time top scorers list after 49 caps.
As he prepares to enter the Scotland Roll of Honour by winning his 50th cap against the Republic of Ireland tomorrow night though, it is the 14 or so minutes he spent representing his country alongside his brother Paul that mean the most to him.
Right-back McGinn – then of Hibernian and now of Motherwell - came on as a late substitute as Scotland saw off Austria by a goal to nil in the Ernst Happel Stadion last September, and though it may only have been fleeting, those precious minutes meant the world to the brothers, as well as to their entire family.
“I have one clear [highlight] and it’s the Austria game away when Paul came on,” McGinn said.
“No matter how many caps I will be able to get, no matter how many goals I score, playing for your country with your brother is something that is unrivalled. He might mention that as well.
“That night, we knew that it might only have been one [cap that he got]. He was brilliant that night, but we knew it might only be one and it might be the only opportunity for that to happen.
“Qualifying for the Euros is certainly up there, but if I had to choose a moment that stands out, it would be playing with Paul against Austria.”
The choice is typical of McGinn, who for all the adulation, fame and fortune he has enjoyed in his career with Aston Villa and Scotland, remains remarkably unaffected by it all.
He may still be the same person as he was when making his first tentative steps in football at St Mirren, but his development as a footballer in recent years is stark in contrast.
Even when he earned his first call-up to the Scotland set-up for a friendly against Denmark in 2016 while at Hibs, he had a touch of imposter syndrome that - as his modesty is such - you feel has never really left him.
“After my first training session when Shaun Maloney nearly ruined my whole career, I didn’t think I would play [against Denmark]!” he said.
“I felt out of place, to be honest, but the boys were first class. Broony (Scott Brown) took me under his wing, especially since I was at Hibs at the time. Being Scottish, everyone was just a normal guy. They looked after me and didn’t make me feel out of place.
“Certainly, I felt out of place in that first session. It was with the group of boys who didn’t play against the Czech Republic and it was small sided games. Shaun turned me inside out and I’ve told him that a few times.
“It was about adapting, getting used to the level, and thankfully being in and around those players helped me get used to it. There was no settling period, because the manager showed great faith in me, putting me straight in and myself and Kieran Tierney managed to do alright that night and became mainstays in the squad.
“I’ve got so much to thank Gordon Strachan for. The criticism he got when he put me in the squad, I’ll never forget it. But he told me to be myself and that I was in it for a reason and from that point I’ve gone from strength to strength.
“There have been tough times in there, definitely. The Kazakhstan game [a 3-0 loss under Alex McLeish] and sometimes the change of manager.
“The performances haven’t always been the best but there have also been some of the best moments of my career and I just feel at home here now. The group is brilliant and it is amazing to have been part of such a great progress.”
The love-in between McGinn and the Tartan Army looks set to go on for some time yet, a mutual adoration that he self-deprecatingly puts down to his song being ‘a wee bit catchier and easier to learn than some of the others’.
McGinn’s lack of ego though doesn’t equate to a lack of personal ambition, and he is hoping he can one day go on and reach a milestone that only one man – a certain Kenny Dalglish – has managed before; to win 100 caps for Scotland.
“It’s certainly in the back of my head,” he said.
“Whether it’s possible or not I’m not sure. But we’ve got our eyes on Euro 2024 and getting there would be a huge help. Hopefully we do three friendlies instead of two.
“Whenever called upon, I’m always there. If there is a squad get-together, I love coming and I love being available.
“I do have it in the back of my mind but I’d much rather try and get to another two major tournaments before my legs go away from me.
“I will certainly be able to be called upon until I stop getting chosen and if that means 100 caps, or if it means 70 or 80, I am just proud no matter what.
“One would have been enough for me, after going to all the Scotland games and being with the St Mirren Academy, I never ever thought I would play one game for the national team. To be approaching 50 is beyond my wildest dreams, and thankfully it is approaching if the manager picks me on Saturday.
“It will be an amazing occasion to hopefully do that and it is probably a point to look back on what you have achieved, I don’t get the chance to do that often, but it’s certainly a ‘pinch me’ moment.”
*McDonald’s Fun Football ambassador John McGinn was speaking at one of 20 new locations opening this Autumn. Fun Football is the UK’s largest free grassroots football participation programme and will give one million children access to coaching over the next four years. Sign up to attend a session near you at mcdonalds.co.uk/football