Express & Star

Dean Smith ready to play safe with returning Aston Villa hero John McGinn

Dean Smith will exercise caution with John McGinn as he decides whether to throw the midfielder straight back into the fray of Villa’s relegation fight.

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McGinn’s recovery from a fractured ankle is a huge boost for Villa, who get the ball rolling on the Premier League’s restart when they host Sheffield United tomorrow night.

But with his team facing 10 matches over the course of just five-and-a-half weeks in their battle for survival, boss Smith is wary of pushing the Scot too hard, too soon.

He said: “It’s great to have John back but I have to manage him accordingly. It’s easy for me to go and throw him straight into the battle, knowing the sort of lad he is.

“But the other players have had 14 weeks without a game and John has had six months without a game.

“He has managed to get minutes in both the Albion and Leicester (warm-up) games but I have to be a little bit mindful of where he’s been and where he’s come from.”

McGinn fractured his left ankle early in Villa’s 3-1 home defeat to Southampton on December 21.

The 25-year-old was on the verge of a return when the season was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March.

Smith believes the break provided a chance for his players, many of whom were signed last summer following promotion, to build closer bonds.

“Even during the lockdown we had group meetings and it’s given the opportunity to players who wouldn’t normally speak up in meetings to air their opinions,” he said.

“You’ve got to build up relationships within that team to have a tight team spirit.

“Getting John back is one of the benefits we’ve had during this pandemic and the pause in the season.

“He’s a top player but on top of being a top player, he’s a top character in that dressing room and gives everyone a boost by being the person he is.”