John McGinn has backed his Easter Road team-mate Jason Cummings to spearhead Scotland Under-21s’ European Championship challenge after watching the striker notch his seventh goal of the season.
The 20-year-old struck with less than three minutes on the clock to set Hibs on the way to a 3-0 victory over Queen of the South with Liam Henderson and Martin Boyle also getting on the scoresheet at Palmerston Park.
But while admitting he was surprised Cummings made the starting line-up for coach Ricky Sbragia’s first match in charge, last month’s friendly against Northern Ireland, team captain McGinn reckons his display that day in Lurgan and his current run of goals make him No.1 choice to lead the line in the qualifying double header against France and Iceland.
McGinn said: “I was a bit surprised Jason started the last game and I think he was himself. But he was really intelligent, used the ball well and played for the team so if he keeps doing that there’s no reason why he shouldn’t keep that No.9 shirt.”
Handing Cummings a starting place wasn’t the only surprise Sbragia pulled, McGinn delighted to be named captain of the Under-21s but now determined to use his experience – 107 first-team appearances, the vast majority in the Premiership with St Mirren – to help guide the young Scots through two tricky ties, both of which will be played at Pittodrie with France first up on Saturday and Iceland next Tuesday.
The 20-year-old said: “To be made captain was a massive confidence boost, being given that extra wee thing. It’s a real privilege to captain your country at any level and I was delighted to be chosen.
“But I have to lead by example. I have a lot of experience for a young guy so I need to try to give the advice I can to the boys.”
While conceding Scotland’s opponents over the coming week won’t be as widely known as those from their countries’ full international sides, McGinn insisted Sbragia’s squad will be well briefed on both nations.
He said: “France never have poor teams at any level and they’ll be favourites to top the group but we’ll have had them watched and our analysis will be done down to a tee. We’ll have meetings every night on our strengths, their weaknesses and their strengths as well and use it to our advantage.
“It’s a bit of a step into the unknown but there are some top players in the French team. I’m sure our video analysist will put together some packages to make sure we know all about them.
“We know we’ll have to be at our best but I feel with the players we have in our dressing-room we can definitely beat them. Going to Pittodrie for both games is a wee change but France and Iceland are two really good teams and we’re looking forward to them.”
McGinn admitted both he and Cummings travelled north with a spring in their steps following the win in Dumfries, one which the midfielder believed could have been even more emphatic with Queens goalkeeper Robbie Thomson forced into a string of decent first-half saves while he himself saw a free-kick crash back off the crossbar.
He said: “We were over the moon. Palmerston Park is always a tough place to go to so to put in a great performance, score three goals and come away with another clean sheet means there’s no complaints from us.
“We got off to the perfect start with that goal from Jason after less than three minutes. A lot of the time it’s hard when that doesn’t happen and you are forced to try to break teams down. It becomes more and more frustrating but finally we got a very early goal which is important.
“We could have been three or four up before half-time rather than 2-0 but that’s something to work on, being a bit more clinical. However, having said that, the gaffer was delighted with our performance.”
McGinn acknowledged that Hibs allowed Queens back into the match after the interval although goalkeeper Mark Oxley never found himself under any great threat before Boyle ended the fading hopes of James Fowler’s side by scoring for the second game in succession.
He said: “We came off it a bit in the second half and that shouldn’t happen. But we soaked up the pressure, defended really well with the boys at the back absolutely brilliant.”
And McGinn revealed he’d been left a little red faced as his free-kick crashed back off the woodwork only for referee Greg Aitken to penalise him as he got on the end of the rebound – the ball having not been touched by another player. He said: “I was a bit dumbstruck when the ref blew his whistle, I was a bit annoyed at him but, of course, I’d forgotten about that rule. It was just an instinctive thing to try another shot because I actually thought my first one was going in – hopefully that will be the case next time.
“But it’s good to be going away with Scotland on the back of a good win for Hibs. It’s good to be having another couple of games, they’ll be new experiences for both Jason and I which, hopefully, we can bring back to Hibs.”