Aston Villa's John McGinn is a class act on and off the pitch
Football reporters get more insight than most into what makes professional players tick.
Though those operating at the very highest level can sometimes appear to be inhabiting another world, such is the wealth earned by their success, they are all human, affected by the same everyday worries as everyone else.
Even the greatest career will feature its share of hardship. Every player who makes it in the professional game has their own story to tell and those of us who have covered Villa in recent seasons have been fortunate to report on some rather remarkable journeys.
In less than 18 months, Tyrone Mings has gone from an almost forgotten man at Bournemouth to a star with Villa and an increasingly prominent and intelligent voice on matters far beyond just football.
Conor Hourihane experienced life at a Premier League academy before heading to the depths of League Two with Plymouth and fighting his way back to the top flight.
In terms of pure ability, meanwhile, Jack Grealish is perhaps the best talent to emerge from the Midlands for several decades. For the past two-and-a-half years Villa’s captain has frequently been a joy to watch and while there have been unfortunate and needless off-field indiscretions, they also highlight a man who cannot be anything other than very real.
Picking a favourite from that group alone is no easy task.
Yet there is something which draws people to Grealish’s best friend at the club and fellow midfield schemer, John McGinn.
Perhaps it is the childlike love for the game – which exists somewhere even in those of us only ever good enough to write about it – which the Scot is so unafraid to show.
“When I wake up on the morning of every Premier League match it is still like Christmas,” McGinn explained in an interview this week.
That attitude has certainly been evident in the all-action performances which have earned him hero status at Villa, almost from the moment he made his debut in a 3-2 home win over Wigan in August, 2018.
But McGinn is about far more than just hard work. He is also a player of serious talent, capable of dominating matches and scoring spectacular goals.
“He has to be one of my best-ever signings,” Steve Bruce, the man who brought him to Villa Park, commented last year. Villa paid Hibernian just £2.75million for McGinn, a deal which surely ranks as the greatest bargain for several decades for a club which previously had a habit for splashing out big money on players who then failed to deliver.
Bruce, of course, was not around for long enough to see the benefit of the buy, though McGinn’s performances were still the undoubted bright spot during the chaotic early weeks of last season.
It did not take long before his successor, Dean Smith, realised he had inherited a gem.
“I don’t think you realise just how good you can be,” he told McGinn, after pulling him to one side during a training session in the early weeks of his reign.
McGinn would go on to play a key role in Villa’s promotion. Though Grealish’s return from injury in early March was seen as the biggest catalyst, almost just as important was McGinn’s contribution.
It was his introduction as a second-half substitute – after three weeks out suspended – which helped tip a tempestuous Second City derby at St Andrew’s in Villa’s favour.
Three days later McGinn scored two quick goals after Smith’s men had fallen behind in another key game at Nottingham Forest, before netting again in a 3-0 win over Middlesbrough the following Saturday.
He would, of course, go on to net the winner at Wembley in the play-off final, while his early performances in the Premier League this season suggested he would have no trouble making the step up.
Indeed, the general downturn in Villa’s form can be traced not just to the ankle injury which ruled him out for three months from late December, but also the few weeks preceding it when the level of McGinn’s own displays had just started to dip.
The unexpected Premier League shutdown caused by the coronavirus has afforded him extra time for recovery and Villa, who have little more than six weeks to fight their way out of trouble when the season restarts, will be hoping he can quickly hit top form.
Always engaging and honest when interviewed, McGinn this week confessed to frustration in his performances immediately prior to injury.
Just like team-mates Mings, Hourihane and Grealish, he does not deal in cliches while his background – his parents are teachers and he has two older brothers who play professionally (he has previously claimed his mom and dad feared they were ‘breeding robots’) – means he remains firmly grounded.
Such qualities further help make him a favourite of the press pack.
For Villa, his return represents a glimmer of hope in a campaign which appeared locked on a downward trajectory before the coronavirus stopped play. Just as last year, supporters will hope McGinn can help give this strangest of seasons a sweet finish.