Ex-Hibs midfield trio: John McGinn soars – but can Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan rediscover spark?
The past season for Hibs was largely defined by their struggle to replace the formidable midfield trio of John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan.
After playing a significant part in the side’s strong finish to the 2017/18 campaign, these three popular players all departed the club last summer. McGinn signed for Aston Villa in August, McGeouch joined Sunderland and the on-loan Allan returned to parent club Celtic, leaving former manager Neil Lennon with a string of problems to solve. The result of this exodus of midfield talent was a largely underwhelming season for Hibs, which only gained some sheen when Paul Heckingbottom replaced Lennon in February to perform an impressive salvage job and elevate the team from eighth place to fifth. Even then, the absence of players of the calibre of McGinn, McGeouch and Allan remained notable.
The size of the void left at Easter Road last summer was underlined earlier this week when one member of this highly-regarded trio emerged as the main man in the most lucrative game in world football. Hibs fans watched on with a mixture of pride, envy and delight as McGinn heavily influenced the English Championship play-off final on Monday by scoring the winner and being named man of the match in Aston Villa’s 2-1 victory over Derby County. Villa’s promotion to the Premier League, with McGinn at the heart of their rise, triggered a clause which will see Hibs receive a notable financial bonus from the Birmingham club as part of the deal which took the burgeoning Scotland internationalist south nine months ago.
Some Villa fans have joked on social media that their club should throw some more money Hibs’ way as a goodwill gesture because the initial fee in the region of £3 million is now deemed to have been such a bargain.
The 24-year-old has been a revelation for Villa since making his debut in a 1-1 draw away to Ipswich Town on August 18. In total, he made 44 appearances – 43 as a starter – in his first season and scored seven times, including a goal-of-the-season contender against Sheffield Wednesday in September and that money-spinning Wembley winner on Monday.
The former St Mirren midfielder was viewed as the driving force of the team and scooped both the players’ and supporters’ player of the year accolades at the club’s end-of-season awards dinner. McGinn is now deemed to be on a comparable level to team-mate Jack Grealish, who has been linked with a lucrative move to Tottenham Hotspur. “Jack gets all the headlines but it’s the work John does,” said Villa assistant manager John Terry this week. “He is superb. You see him day in, day out and he trains how he plays. He’s a great professional and he is a great lad. He can take his recent top form into the English Premier League. He is well capable of doing that.”
While McGinn’s career has continued on an upward trajectory, taking him to a level where an Andy Robertson-style rise is starting to seem possible, the same can’t be said of his two former colleagues in the Hibs midfield. The past year hasn’t panned out the way McGeouch and Allan would have liked at their respective clubs and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that both could be back at Easter Road next term.
McGeouch made 30 appearances in all competitions for Sunderland over the past season, but managed only 14 starts in League One. His best run came last autumn when he started six consecutive games - all of which ended in victories - but since then he has generally been unable to enjoy a consistent run of starts, with the majority of his game time coming off the bench. Despite being fit for the majority of the campaign, save for a few minor niggles, the 26-year-old has started only five league games in 2019.
Sunderland lost only one of the 21 matches in which McGeouch started in all competitions over the course of the season, but manager Jack Ross appeared to be phasing the ball-playing midfielder out of the team as he opted for a more direct, combative playing style in recent months in an ultimately futile attempt to secure promotion to the Championship. McGeouch’s last start came at home to Burton Albion on April 9. Speaking just before that game, and after one his best performances of the season away to Accrington Stanley, Ross said of McGeouch: “His ability has never been in question. There is an element of the fact that this is his first season in English football and there are some differences for him to adapt to. But his attitude has been terrific, and whenever I have spoken to him he has said he is ready and just waiting for an opportunity.”
Despite being available for selection, McGeouch, ominously, didn’t make the match-day squad for any of the three season-defining play-off matches this month, home and away to Portsmouth and against Charlton Athletic at Wembley. Having earned Scotland recognition a year ago after the best season of his career, McGeouch didn’t head south with the intention of being a fringe man in England’s third tier. Hibs are monitoring his situation with interest. Heckingbottom, when asked about the possibility of bringing McGeouch back to Edinburgh during a question and answer session in the Hibs Supporters Club a little under a fortnight ago, confirmed that he was a player they had discussed. The midfielder’s future is likely to become clearer in the coming weeks as Sunderland establish how they will move forward after the trauma of losing to Charlton Athletic in Sunday’s play-off final and being consigned to another campaign in League One.
While doubt surrounds where McGeouch will be playing his football next term, one man who will definitely be back at Easter Road is Allan. Despite ending the previous campaign with a string of excellent performances alongside McGinn and McGeouch in the Hibs engine room, Allan was still unable to get a look-in back at his parent club. The 27-year-old was an unused substitute for three of Celtic’s Champions League qualifiers last July, and thereafter had no involvement under Brendan Rodgers, who always seemed open to letting Allan move back to Hibs - or elsewhere - either last summer or in January if a deal could be struck. The demands of Celtic’s hierarchy - reasonable or not - ensured Allan was left kicking his heels in frustration on the sidelines for the entirety of the campaign. “Scott’s a great guy who trains every day, works hard and is professional,” said Rodgers in January. “But he’s been unfortunate he hasn’t been able to play. That’s really been through no fault of his own. The players have just been at a level and form.”
Striking a pre-contract agreement with Hibs in January proved to be the high point of Allan’s frustrating season. This development at least allowed him something positive to focus on as he trained diligently during the week without any prospect of a game at the weekend, bar the odd outing for the development team. Lennon, Rodgers’ successor at Parkhead, had suggested in March that he would try to involve Allan in the closing weeks of the campaign but the politics of his deal with Hibs, who had riled the Parkhead board by playing hardball when they tried and failed to buy McGinn last summer, ultimately appeared to count against the former Dundee United midfielder in his quest for end-of-season game time.
While McGinn soars to the moneyed land of the Premier League, Allan and McGeouch will spend this summer ensuring they are in the best place possible to rediscover the spark that helped them illuminate Easter Road together a little more than a year ago.