John McGinn felt a little bit like a stranger in his own house as he walked into St Mirren Park.
He had, after all, been with the Buddies for 13 of his 21 years and was returning for the first time since saying his goodbyes a few months ago as he left for a new life in Edinburgh.
Naturally the Hibs midfielder felt more than a little apprehensive, unsure of what sort of welcome he’d receive while concious of the fact he was back seeking to extend the Easter Road outfit’s impressive run of matches unbeaten to 13 while also aware that in doing so he’d add to his former employers’ problems as the Paisley club struggle to adapt to life in the Championship.
As it turned out the reception he received was mixed, the “people downstairs” glad to see him while, as to be expected, he was the subject of some special attention from sections of the home support as he helped guide Alan Stubbs’ side to what ultimately proved to be a comfortable victory, completing an impressive week for the Capital club in which they’d already defeated title rivals Rangers and knocked Dundee United of the Premiership out of the League Cup.
“I’d been with Saints for 13 years,” said McGinn, “so it was always going to be a bit strange going back for the first time. I’d never been in the away dressing room for instance – I discovered it’s smaller than the home one and painted black.
“I was very apprehensive in the days leading up to the game but it was a case of being professional and dealing with it and I think I did. The main object was to go there and get the win which we did in style.
“I had a nice welcome from the people downstairs when I arrived, but I think the fans were a little half and half, there was a wee bit of abuse on the far side. But that’s football.
“St Mirren Park is a nice place to go, perhaps it’s too nice as teams seem to enjoy going there as we did on Saturday.”
Having said that, Ian Murray’s players hardly rolled out the welcome mat for McGinn and his team-mates, the Buddies claiming an early lead just as they had done at Easter Road earlier in the season through Sean Kelly – one of McGinn’s best pals.
But Jason Cummings’ seventh goal in as many games within 90 seconds pulled Hibs level before a quick-fire double from James Keatings – who later completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot – put the game virtually out of Saints’ reach before the interval, the first of them thanks to the speed of thought from Liam Henderson as he caught the home defence by surprise with a perfectly placed free kick.
McGinn said: “I actually thought Jason was offside, but he has that finisher’s instinct and he tucked it away regardless. Liam’s free kick for Keats’ first goal was terrific, the manager has been telling us all the time to be sharp, to be aware of things like that and it’s all credit to Liam for spotting the opportunity.
“It was a great finish from Keats as was his second and to see him get a hat-trick was terrific for him. It’s fantastic for the team to have guys like Jason and James knocking in the goals but we’re getting them from everywhere, I’ve got a couple myself, so has Hendo and long may it continue.”
Keatings, however, had to wrestle the ball from fellow striker Dominique Malonga after Henderson had been up-ended, bringing Hibs that late penalty. His fellow striker was, no doubt, frustrated at having seen Kelly take a netbound effort off the Saints’ goal-line and he made his displeasure clear at being denied the spot kick by not joining in the celebrations.
Malonga later apologised via Twitter, but McGinn revealed the incident was immediately forgotten about saying: “If I was on a hat-trick I’d be wanting the ball so I was glad to see James get his third. At the end of the day it’s a team game but it wasn’t mentioned afterwards.
“Making it 13 unbeaten was great, but it’s a run we want to carry on. We can’t afford to get ahead of ourselves.”
Hibs do, of course, have a League Cup semi-final to look forward to but McGinn, who won the trophy as Saints stunned Hearts at Hampden two years ago, said: “It was amazing to win it at such a young age but the semi-finals aren’t until the end of January so that’s on the back-burner until then.
“It’s something to look forward to, we’ve already beaten two Premiership sides and, to be honest, we don’t fear anyone just now the way we are playing. I think that’s quite evident and we believe the boys in our dressing-room are worthy of playing in the Premiership. We’re at a big club, we are desperate to take it back up and we feel we are capable of steppping up.
“We’re doing well at the moment but we have to keep plugging away, concentrating on taking the three points as each game comes along.”
As fate would have it, McGinn will be back at St Mirren Park again on Friday along with Cummings and Henderson as Scotlands Under-21s face Ukraine in their latest European Championship qualifying match with national team boss Gordon Strachan joining U-21s coach Ricky Sbragia’s backroom team this week as they youngsters prepare for the game.
Strachan intends to familiarise himself with those hoping to force their way into the full squad in the next couple of years and McGinn, captain of the Under-21s, admitted he’s relishing the opportunity.
He said: “It’s great to know Gordon Strachan isn’t disregarding us but it’s up to us to show him we are capable of stepping up. I’m looking forward to meeting him and getting to know him a bit.
“Jason and I have been with the under-21s before but this will be Liam’s first time. Personally I think he’s been hard done by having not been called up before this but he’s been with the under-19s and under-17s in the past so he knows what it’s all about.
“And for me it will be nice to get back into that bigger home dressing-room.”