It was the dying moments of Scotland’s opening match of Euro 2020 and another loose pass into midfield threatened to put the hosts under even more danger. John McGinn scampered to the ball and was coming under pressure from the long legs of Czech Republic midfielder Tomas Soucek when the two players met. But, in a flash of two drag-backs and a whirl of his body, McGinn escaped, leaving a bewildered Soucek stumbling to the turf as he burst away.
Away from Hampden, McGinn’s former coach David Longwell was watching on with a proud smile. It was a trick Longwell recognised from his 13 years of coaching McGinn at St Mirren’s youth academy, where countless hours were spent honing technique and practising those exact spins in the club’s indoor halls. Here was his former prospect executing the turn to perfection on the biggest stage.
Longwell first saw McGinn when the player was six years old. Small for his age and the youngest of two older brothers who went on to play professionally in Scotland, it was McGinn’s technical ability, as well as his tenacity and bravery on and off the ball, that stood out as he progressed through the ranks at St Mirren.
Surrounded by bigger opponents, at home, at training and on matchdays, McGinn also caught the eye by reading the game quicker than anyone else. He developed an acute awareness and speed of thought, characteristics of his play that are as recognisable now as his driving runs from midfield and the way he uses his body to shield the ball from defenders. It is the combination of those traits - skill, guile and hustle - that makes the midfielder one of the most watchable at these Euros, as well as Scotland’s most important.
“John, because he was smaller, had to find solutions,” says Longwell, as he recounts McGinn’s formative years. “Finding space was something he had to do when he was very young. John took to that because he’s always had an intelligence as a football player. So when you’ve got intelligence it really helps you read things, pick out a pass, or take players on.
“He’s now a man. He’s strong and powerful, but he’s still got all those technical aspects that he was given and developed himself. Obviously the awareness which he has, and the combination of all of them is why he’s playing in the Premier League, why he’s playing for Scotland and doing so well.”
McGinn has been as central as any to the national team’s resurgence under Steve Clarke, with his tendency to pop up in goalscoring positions often proving decisive in tight games. With 10 international goals, he is the top scorer in Scotland’s Euro squad and has thrived on playing in a more advanced role for his country than he does for Aston Villa.
Like many in Clarke’s group, the 26-year-old’s journey from the Scottish Championship to the Premier League in England has been built on perseverance, hard work and humility. From St Mirren, Hibernian secured his services for a little over £400,000 in 2015 - and McGinn became a cult hero in his first season in Leith as the club won the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years.
Nottingham Forest and Celtic, McGinn’s boyhood club, had bids turned down before Villa swooped in with a £3 million offer in 2018. McGinn made an immediate impact in the Championship, starring alongside Jack Grealish as the club gained promotion, with the Scot scoring the winning goal in the play-off final victory over Derby.
McGinn has gone from strength to strength since, quietly becoming one of the most efficient midfielders in the top flight. His performances for Dean Smith’s side have seen his value increase to 10 times what Villa paid for him three years ago, but those close to him convey an image of a player whose rise from Clydebank to the Premier League hasn’t changed him.
“He’s still as humble and grounded as he always was,” Longwell says. “It’s amazing to see how much he has developed and he’s got to take so much of that credit for himself because of his mentality and mindset to keep on improving - and at the same time never getting carried away, never getting arrogant. He’s just a modest, hard-working young person, which he’s always been.
“He’ll openly say he went through difficult times at the academy because it was so frustrating for him. He hadn’t grown, he was struggling to move at one point because his body was still developing. But he used any difficulty he had in his football career to make him stronger, and you can’t praise him enough for that. You see that hunger and desire when he plays with Scotland or Aston Villa - it’s just pleasing to see.”
When Scotland take to Wembley to face England on Friday evening they will do so not quite with their tails between their legs, but aware that it will take a huge improvement from their opening performance against the Czech Republic to keep their Euro 2020 hopes alive.
Forget beating England, simply claiming a point against their Group D rivals is a daunting task for Clarke’s men. But Scotland will know that making a few adjustments across the park could make the difference. The return of Kieran Tierney, absent for the Czech Republic defeat through injury, is one, while starting Che Adams should help a side that looked a little toothless at Hampden.
Another is getting McGinn back involved in Scotland’s attack. He was one of those to have a subdued performance on Monday, as Scotland were defeated on their return to a major tournament for the first time since 1998. Soucek may have been beaten by McGinn’s trademark turn late in the game at Hampden, but the West Ham man bossed the midfield battle, and his club team-mate Declan Rice will provide a similar test at Wembley.
The excellent performance of captain Andy Robertson against the Czechs demonstrated the limitations of having your best player at left-back when the rest of the side is not performing, but McGinn has shown he can be Scotland’s key man from central positions. He will not be one to be overawed by the challenge after more than holding his own against such opposition so far in his career. Now, Scotland need him more than ever.