The rise and rise of 'Meatball' John McGinn

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John McGinn - GETTY IMAGES
John McGinn - GETTY IMAGES

John McGinn is renowned as the resident comedian in Scotland's European Championship squad so it is perhaps fitting that he was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival three years ago when his life changed forever.

It was then that Aston Villa offered McGinn the chance to leave his country and join them in the Championship. He had already firmly established himself with St Mirren and Hibernian, winning a promotion, Scottish League Cup and Scottish Cup, and was attracting the interest of Brendan Rodgers at Celtic, the club he supported as a boy.

But McGinn was determined to prove himself in England and the move has paid off spectacularly. He has emerged as a pivotal figure in the club's evolution under Dean Smith and, on Monday, the man previously known as “Meatball” will be one of Steve Clarke’s main weapons as Scotland begin their first major tournament campaign in 23 years with a game against the Czech Republic at Hampden Park.

McGinn has fully earned his reputation within Scotland’s squad as the king of knockabout humour, but Clarke is deadly serious when it comes to the 26 year-old’s importance. He epitomises the underdog spirit that Scotland hope will make Euro 2020 one to remember.

“McGinn is one of those lads who is a massive influence and sometimes goes under the radar,” says Paul Lambert, the former Scotland midfielder and Villa manager. “If you take him out of that Scotland team, or the Villa team, you would miss him so much.

“He’s got incredible work-rate, desire and leadership, and he’s developing into a really top midfielder.”

John McGinn is surrounded by Luxembourg players - GETTY IMAGES
John McGinn is surrounded by Luxembourg players - GETTY IMAGES

McGinn’s journey from the academy pitches of Paisley to Euro 2021 has been an unconventional one, defined by a hunger to make the most of his ability.

It was during his time in Scotland where the ‘Meatball” nickname first emerged, due to the short hair and, in his own words, his round head, although when he was a child, he used to pretend he was Zinedine Zidane, practising overhead kicks on the trampoline at his Clydebank home.

His family have a rich football history, with brothers Stephen and Paul both professionals. There is also a close association with Celtic: granddad Jack was a former Celtic chairman and parents Stephen and Mary still attend matches in the directors' box.

McGinn joined St Mirren's academy at the age of seven and broke into the first team as a teenager, catching the eye as a brave, dynamic midfielder.

Gary Teale, a former St Mirren teammate and caretaker manager, told Telegraph Sport: “He wasn’t the biggest or strongest at first, but as he developed physically the improvement was there for everyone to see.

“He had the vision to find these passes other players wouldn’t notice. He would use that big backside of his to protect the ball and turn the opposition players!

“The big moment for me was when we played Celtic in the Scottish League Cup semi-final [in 2013]. John was up against the likes of Scott Brown and Victor Wanyama, but he more than held his own that day. That was a real coming-of-age moment."

There was another moment McGinn will never forget, when he was at the centre of a “stupid” training ground prank at the age of 20.

Teammate Steven Thompson hurled a spiked pole at him, which punctured his thigh and cut seven centimetres into the leg, a millimetre away from the artery.

A freakish accident which threatened McGinn’s very career, he spent nearly four months out of football after being released.

He almost joined Owen Coyle’s Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer, flying out to America on economy-class flights in a bid to save himself from dropping out of the game.

A move to Houston fell through, and he eventually signed for Hibernian in July 2015 for £100,000 in compensation to St Mirren.

John McGinn (right) in action for Hibernian - ACTION IMAGES
John McGinn (right) in action for Hibernian - ACTION IMAGES

It is a sign of McGinn’s determination and unwavering enthusiasm that he reinvented himself at Easter Road, instantly becoming a cult hero. He played a key role in Hibs’ win over Rangers in the 2016 Scottish Cup final, the club’s first trophy in 114 years, with fans branding him “Super John McGinn”, insisting he was better than Zidane.

Inevitably he attracted interest from rival clubs: Nottingham Forest had three bids of up to £1.5 million turned down in the summer of 2017, with then manager Mark Warburton aware of McGinn from his time with Rangers.

McGinn has often reflected that it could have been an entirely different career path, if he did not have brothers David and Robbie Threlfall as his representatives. They told him to bide his time in Scotland and wait for more offers.

The move to Villa came a year later, shortly after NSWE’s takeover. When he flew down for talks, Villa were in the Championship with Steve Bruce under pressure after defeat to Fulham in the play-off final.

McGinn had a firm offer from Celtic and could probably have spent the rest of his career at the club had he accepted it, while there was also interest from Brighton, but Villa produced a charm offensive, turning on the floodlights at an empty Villa Park to show off the towering Holte End in all its glory. The move was all wrapped up within hours.

McGinn made an instant impact and, after Smith succeeded Bruce, promotion to the Premier League soon followed via the drama of the play-off final. Now known simply as “Ginny”, he remains an integral member of the squad and is the player all the Premier League’s Big-Six would happily sign.

A versatile, tireless roadrunner and a high-pressing machine, he has been described as an “absolute snip” due to the meagre transfer fee.

He is particularly close with Jack Grealish, and recently spoke about their relationship in typically self-deprecating style.

John McGinn (left) is particularly close with Jack Grealish (centre) - IAN HODGSON
John McGinn (left) is particularly close with Jack Grealish (centre) - IAN HODGSON

“We’re close friends on and off the park, we’ve got the same interests and everything, with the exception that he’s going to be a model when he finishes playing and I’m not!”

They could face each other at Wembley next Friday night, and the flow of WhatsApp messages between them has been suspended until then.

At international level, McGinn has added goals to his all-round game and is now in double figures: the brilliant overhead kick against Austria in March was the pick of them. Clarke even refers to him as a “support striker” because of his unerring ability to get himself into goal-scoring positions.

It is a long way from those days on the trampoline, but one thing is for sure: with McGinn in their ranks, Scottish football is no longer an international football punchline.

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