JOHN McGINN has always never been one to shy away from a physical contest. The battling, warrior spirit he brings to the national team has always gone down well with supporters and he has now reached the halfway point in his bid to become a centurion for Scotland.
Wearing the captain’s armband in Andy Robertson’s stead, he occupied the No.10 role at the tip of the Scotland midfield, looking to play off of the team’s focal point in attack, Lyndon Dykes.
This was the Aston Villa midfielder’s 50th appearance for the national team and he has wasted little time endearing himself to the nation since gaining his first cap in a 1-0 win over Denmark in April 2016. It is his performances on the park that have made him a fans’ favourite amongst the Tartan Army, of course, but his jovial and irreverent attitude off it have only added to his popularity.
As soon as that whistle rings out and the match gets under way, though, it is time to get down to business and it was no different here. Within the opening minute or two he was already spraying passes about the midfield and making the most of his low centre of gravity, twisting this way and that to evade his marker.
The former St Mirren and Hibernian man was throwing his weight around within no time. Plenty of column inches have been devoted to the 27-year-old’s deadly deployment of his derriere – it was, after all, the primary factor in Scotland opening the scoring against Ukraine on Wednesday evening – and barely five minutes had elapsed by the time he had used it once again to his advantage to win a free-kick on the halfway line.
It is a somewhat unique weapon that is in McGinn’s arsenal but it would be doing the midfielder a huge disservice to reduce his game to this and this alone. His composure in possession when picking a pass, his neat footwork, his boundless enthusiasm when pressing his opponents and his knack of knowing when to burst forward to join the attack have all proven to be equally important assets in the international set-up.
No player has scored as many goals for Scotland since Steve Clarke was appointed back in 2019 as the attacking midfielder, who has racked up 14 in 37 outings in that time, and it was little surprise that two of Scotland’s best opportunities of the opening 45 minutes fell his way. Both were tricky – the first was a pacy ball in from Stuart Armstrong that he failed to connect properly with, while he was forced into a shot on the turn for the second – and both had the same result as a scuffed effort at goal trundled harmlessly wide of left-hand post.
The Irish had had the best of the first half at Hampden but this allowed McGinn to demonstrate his leadership credentials and show why Clarke named him as his stand-in captain. Whenever an attack for the Scots broke down due to a slack pass, McGinn was at hand to encourage his team-mates, ensuring the home players’ heads didn’t drop.
It was a slightly lacklustre performance from the team during the first half in Mount Florida but it wasn’t long before McGinn was back to his bustling best. Jack Hendry’s equaliser provided the team – heck, the entire ground – with a much-needed lift. On 53 minutes, he fizzed a low drive from 25 yards that whistled past the post and sparked a rendition of the popular ditty ‘we’ve got super John McGinn’ from the stands. Scotland’s talisman was getting closer.
As the game entered its final quarter, McGinn’s influence only grew. A neat pass through to Ryan Fraser allowed the Newcastle winger a fine effort at goal that was tipped wide by Irish goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu and from the resulting corner – taken by Fraser – McGinn’s flicked header at the near post came within inches of finding a team-mate at the back post to bundle it home.
When Scotland took the lead with 10 minutes to go, it should have come as little surprise that McGinn had a hand in it. Standing at the right-hand corner, it was the midfielder’s whipped in-swinging delivery that met the run of Scott McTominay. The Manchester United man’s header ricocheted off the arm of Alan Browne, and Ryan Christie coolly despatched the spot-kick.
Even as the game entered its final exchanges, there was McGinn driving the team on. He did well to launch a counter-attack from an Ireland corner late on as he sent Fraser scurrying through on goal with a well-timed pass. As Scotland looked to run the clock down and see the game out, he used that famous backside of his to waste a good chunk of injury time by keeping the ball next to the corner flag down the Ireland end, holding off challenge after challenge with his remarkable rump.
He didn’t get his goal. He didn’t get an assist. But as Scotland returned to the top of their Nations League group, McGinn marked his 50th appearance in style and can proudly reflect on a job well done.