John McGinn returned to Aston Villa’s training ground at Bodymoor Heath for the last time this season. He was there to collect his boots ahead of international duty with Scotland and popped in to greet manager Unai Emery.
“He was following the Brighton game,” says McGinn. “It just shows that he’s passionate about football and making us better. He is dedicated to making us better.”
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A 2-1 home win over Brighton sealed Villa’s seventh place in the Premier League and a return to European football for the first time in 13 years, qualifying for the Europa Conference League.
“Get your passports, see you in Europe,” declared a beaming McGinn amid raucous scenes on the pitch at Villa Park afterwards, in what has been an extraordinary campaign for the club and himself. “It’s been a rollercoaster,” he says. “And now this is the highest I’ve ever been in football.”
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The 28-year-old is the way of his life, so much so that Villa want to extend his contract even though he still has two years left. “My agent is good at dealing with these issues,” he says. “It was quite a turnaround. If it was celebrated in October or November, it would be ridiculous.”
What McGinn says next would certainly be funny. But not now. “The question is, can we maintain that consistency next season and why not challenge for the top four?” he takes a stand. “We are on that path: the structure, the belief. It all came together.”
Not so long ago it was very different. McGinn was made Villa captain by manager Steven Gerrard last summer, but the season got off to a poor start with just two wins in 12. A relegation battle was expected, and it was worse for McGinn as he struggled for form. The more he tried, the worse it got.
“I felt guilty. He [Gerrard] had so much faith in me and it was great to learn from him as a midfielder,” says McGinn. A 1-1 away draw with Nottingham Forest in October was a low score. He was substituted and, as McGinn recalls, there was “derisive applause” from the Villa supporters.
“The fans have been phenomenal with me, but it’s deep. My father didn’t return to away games for four or five weeks. I kept my head down and didn’t get too excited, but it hurt and my ego got a little deflated,” he admits. “Then it’s about proving those people wrong, and luckily I was able to do that.”
“It was a bit embarrassing”
Eleven days later, Gerrard was sacked and McGinn was sacked by caretaker Aaron Danks. Looks like he was the fall guy. “It was the hardest part of my career. It was a bit embarrassing, especially when the manager got fired and that was the first thing that happened after that,” he says. “I wouldn’t be naive to think I’m playing well. I must have been trying too hard to find the answers. The criticism the manager was getting, the criticism everyone was getting. I was doing my best to get it right.”
McGinn used the time-out positively, he “went back to basics” but, emphatically, it was the arrival of Emery that changed everything. Rarely has a player been as excited as McGinn about the Spaniard. It is almost messianic.
“He probably transformed me as a player. took me to a level I probably didn’t think I was capable of; forced me to adapt in so many ways that I probably didn’t think I was capable of,” McGinn explains. “He is so passionate, so passionate about football, so detailed. He just wants to improve every player.”
McGinn gives two examples. The first is how Emery instructs two of his coaches, Antonio Rodriguez and James Arias, to work with each player individually. So when McGinn was asked to play on the right wing, he had already worked on “body shape” and where to position himself with Rodriguez.
Second, he talks about Emery drilling left-back Alex Moreno about how good a team Bournemouth are and what a threat they pose. In fact, McGinn says Bournemouth were the side Villa spent the most analyzing because Emery was delighted with “their level”. Villa won 3-0 after losing 2-0 to Bournemouth on the opening day of the season.
“Tyrone [Mings] He also talks about it. he’s 30, I’m 28, and we regret not having a different coaching style earlier,” McGinn explains. “We’re used to British ex-professional managers who are all brought up the same way and this style, the Spanish way, is something I really like.”
McGinn has had similar conversations with his friend and former Villa team-mate Jack Grealish, who works under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
“The best thing for me is that he [Emery] judged with his eyes,” says McGinn. “There was a lot of noise outside. “he [McGinn] can’t lead, he can’t be a captain.” I’m not a huge speaker. I feel like I have a lot of respect in the dressing room, but I’m not going to be Conor Coady or Jordan Henderson. I try to lead with my game. That perception was quite easy for me to see. because I wasn’t playing well, so I wasn’t leading. Now I play well, suddenly I become a good captain. I feel the perception is normal, but I have grown into the role and enjoy the responsibility.”
Emery taught McGinn another thing: he has more time than he thinks.
“It opened my eyes”
“The Spanish have always been much more chilled out, certainly more relaxed, than the Scots,” says McGinn. “When you’re a midfielder, you don’t spend a lot of time on the ball or get it, but you actually have more time.
“In Scotland, putting your foot on the ball is impatient in midfield, but the manager came in and said: “Why not: You don’t have an opponent anywhere near you, don’t waste your time, bring someone else and create a place for your teammate.” It’s something I’ve learned and understood.
“It opened my eyes. Too often before, Villa fans have grumbled and grumbled, but they’re going for it. There were collisions on the road. Stevenage at home [FA Cup]”Leicester” at home [4-2 defeat] “When we’ve been penalized for playing from behind, but I think the fans are learning as well, the fans are seeing that there’s a bigger picture here and that we’re progressing as a team with a certain style.”
McGinn is even considering coaching for the first time when he eventually retires. “My understanding went through the roof under him [Emery],” he says, “I never thought I’d get into coaching, but he made me think about the game in a completely different way. When someone is so obsessed with perfection and doing everything right, you can’t avoid learning. : It was priceless and I can use that if I decide to go into coaching. I always thought you buy the best players and win, but he opened my eyes.”
For example, when McGinn was in Emery’s office, they were talking about the Brighton game. “I told him. “It was a bit like chess.” Because their build is so impressive, we both kind of canceled each other out. It was like moving parts,” he says.
Not surprisingly, there is a tremendous amount of analysis and tactical planning involved. “Meetings can be long, but it’s something new every week,” McGinn explains, and the “marginal gain” is watching videos, “being on it mentally,” staying focused, “not running around the field.”
McGinn adds: “Football intelligence has come a long way because now these managers are so intense and detailed. It’s just so interesting. People find a way to win because the margins are so good and the standards are high.”
“We’re not under the radar anymore”
He has also shown football smarts in his adaptability. “The only positions I haven’t played are centre-back, right-back and goalkeeper. That’s a good thing,” says McGinn, while the exciting challenge for Villa next season is that they “won’t be under the radar anymore”.
Emery was under no illusions when he arrived that his remit was simply to avoid relegation. But that quickly changed. “We had a staged ambition. keep the club in the league, then try to get into the top 10 and then see who we can catch,” says McGinn.
“But he also said: “I’ve had success in Europe for the last 14 years and this is the first season I’ve missed it and I don’t want to miss it,” so his personality is so driven to succeed that it’s certainly rubbed off on the players. Now watching West Ham. [in the Europa Conference League final] there is definitely a hint of jealousy. Hopefully next season we can be.”
For now, McGinn is traveling with Scotland to a training camp in Spain ahead of European Championship qualifiers against Norway and Georgia. In a sign of their unity and determination to reach another major final, the players chose to join rather than go on leave.
“Last summer we had a big playoff game for the World Cup [against Ukraine] and until then we had a break, but we had to keep training,” says McGinn. “The players and the staff got together and said: “Okay, how do we improve if we find ourselves in this situation again?” So we are going to Spain for training for a few days. We decided that. We have about 18 players. It would be easy for us to be on the beach, but we want to bring Scotland back to another major tournament.”
It’s all part of learning and improving, even if McGinn always has a hint that he’s being pretty hard on himself.
“That’s how I was raised,” he says with a laugh. “If you interview any player from the west of Scotland, we’re all the same. We are all pretty hard on ourselves. If you get too carried away, you get slapped back. I always appreciate what we do for a living.”
Positive results for Scotland would complete a hugely impressive campaign for McGinn. “The resilience I’ve shown this season is something I’m quite proud of and I think I’ve come through it now, which means there’s more to come,” he says. “I’ve certainly enjoyed the last three quarters of the season and probably played the best football of my career.
“It’s a club at the top but it means absolutely nothing if we don’t perform on the pitch. The fans demand but they want success, they want European football. “The manager is the same and he clearly said. compete in Europe, compete for trophies.”
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