Aston Villa's John McGinn relishing Hibs return as he reveals 'homecoming' could have happened much earlier
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Except this time, everyone will understand. The Scotland international midfielder will take to the Easter Road pitch for the first time since leaving for England in the summer of 2018, having since become a Scotland mainstay and captain of Aston Villa after having a big say in helping the club back to the top flight after three seasons in the English Championship. This Europa Conference League play-off encounter was always going to be an intriguing one without the subplot of one of Leith’s favourite sons returning to EH7. Hibs have already dubbed the tie the ‘John McGinn custody battle’, and the 28-year-old admits he had everything crossed that his former employers would prevail against Luzern of Switzerland in the previous round and give him the chance to play at Easter Road for the first time since his final appearance in a Hibs shirt, in a 3-0 Scottish Premiership victory over Motherwell.
"I remember the draw got split and it was a one-in-four chance that we'd draw Hibs or Luzern, so I knew it was a possibility. Then when the draw came out I was delighted,” he says, speaking ahead of Wednesday night’s first leg.
“I was excited at the prospect but I didn't want to be let down. Hibs had to get past Luzern which wasn't going to be an easy tie, but thankfully they got the job done so I’m looking forward to it. I never got the chance when I left to show my appreciation to the fans or anyone there.
"Neil Lennon and I had a feeling at that point that Motherwell would be my last game. I remember coming off but you don't want to be the guy that does a lap of honour, expecting appreciation, so I just jogged off as normal. It will be nice to see the supporters and thank them for what was an amazing three years, but at the same time when the whistle goes I hope they're cursing and swearing at me and treating me like a normal opponent!”
There was a time when McGinn was scoring vital goals for Hibs in Europe – like that equaliser in Greece against Asteras Tripolis – but come Wednesday and next week, his full focus will be on doing the same for Villa.
“We're desperate to get to the group stages and Hibs will be as well. I've a lot of friends in that team but when the whistle goes we all want to achieve the same thing,” he continues. “There have been some special nights at Easter Road over the years and I don't think this will be any different – and I hope it's not, because it's a competitive game and we need to win. When we get started I'll be doing my best to get a victory for us to take a good result back to Villa Park.”
Villa’s staff have unsurprisingly been scrutinising every aspect of Hibs’ style of play but McGinn has first-hand experience of the threats and strengths at his old club. He was also impressed by the way Lee Johnson’s side eliminated Luzern, particularly in the first leg.
"I just walked past the analysis room and there were about ten guys going through all the Hibs clips from the Raith and Luzern games,” he says. "But the manager treats every team the same; Hibs will get the same respect Everton got on Sunday and I'll be making sure our full-backs know that Élie Youan and Martin Boyle are dangerous, but I'll also be warning the centre-backs about Dylan Vente. I know Hibs spent a lot of money bringing him in and he was really good in both ties and we'll absolutely respect Hibs 100 per cent. Even though the financial gulf might be really big the margins are very small and on the night Hibs could turn up and win so we need to be focused and make sure we're at it.
“I’ve been getting loads of questions from the boys and I’ve said to expect a nice stadium, nice pitch, nice city, nice hotel, the food is brilliant, the people are nice. But as soon as that whistle goes you might get a rude awakening if your foot is off the gas. I’ve given them as much information as possible and they are excited to play at Hibs. I think even the boys who have no affiliation with Hibs wanted this game because there will be a little more spice than if it was Luzern. It’s exciting for everyone. The boys who have never played in Scotland are keen to go up there and show what they can do.”
And so McGinn will on Wednesday night take to the Easter Road turf once more and will likely be afforded a hero’s welcome. But he might have been back sooner, had things not changed at both clubs following his transfer.
"When I first signed for Villa I think there was talk about a pre-season friendly but both clubs upstairs and in terms of backroom staff have changed more than Costco staff,” he quips. "I think this is a bit more important! I'm quite glad that didn't happen; I've always wanted to go back to play at Easter Road but I didn't want it to be a token gesture.
"I'm glad it's a competitive match and both teams have earned the right to play each other. Did I see this coming five years ago? No, because Villa were in the bottom half of the Championship and this European competition didn't even exist! It's very weird, it's strange, and I'm just glad that things have happened and this is what's in front of us now."