Return of The Meatball: Hibernian will be out to spoil John McGinn’s homecoming - and he will relish it

The Scotland international will return to face his old club in the Europa Conference League on Wednesday evening.
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Ordinarily, when I hear the words ‘meatball’ and ‘continental adventure’ in the same sentence, it is because I am being sternly coerced into a Saturday afternoon spent trapped in the flat pack labyrinth of a local IKEA. Not today, however.

On Wednesday evening, Aston Villa will begin their first European campaign in 13 years with a trip to Edinburgh. There, they will face Hibernian in a clash that, while noteworthy for everybody of a claret and blue persuasion, will hold particular significance to one man.

John McGinn, affectionately christened ‘The Meatball’ ever since the days when his mother would give him a grade two buzz cut all over in the kitchen of his childhood home, carved out a considerable renown during his three years at Easter Road. Combative, gifted, and talismanic, the midfielder soon established himself as a prized marrow in a field of cabbage, and was so highly-exalted in Scottish football that Hibs rejected no fewer than three bids from Celtic before finally, reluctantly, acquiescing to his Villa departure half a decade ago.

Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn. The Scotland international will return to face old club Hibernian in the Europa Conference League on Wednesday evening.Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn. The Scotland international will return to face old club Hibernian in the Europa Conference League on Wednesday evening.
Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn. The Scotland international will return to face old club Hibernian in the Europa Conference League on Wednesday evening.

In the time since, he has amassed a cultish following of admirers, hewn just as much from his dry, self-deprecating wit as his technical prowess. Here we have a player who claims that he would be turning out in the doldrums of non-league with Yeovil Town were it not for his substantial backside, who has absolutely no qualms about openly bashing the sartorial sensibilities of gravel-throated colossus Sean Dyche, and who, when asked as to who his favourite Premier League footballer is during an interview last year, immediately answered ‘John McGinn’.

He is so beloved that even the Villa Park stadium announcer prefaces his name with ‘Super’ whenever he scores, and the word on the terraces is that he is irrefutably, unequivocally ‘better than Zidane’.

It is out into this climate of ubiquitous appreciation that McGinn will walk on Wednesday night - adored by the visitors, fondly missed by the hosts, the fulcrum on which so much of the narrative hinges, the face on which all gazes will be magnetised. In some respects, it almost feels like a testimonial of sorts, a homecoming for a prodigal son who nobody can truly begrudge.

Or at least, that will be the sentiment until the first trill interjection of the referee’s whistle. McGinn himself is under no illusions as to how quickly any and all anticipatory tenderness will wither as soon as hostilities commence.

As quoted by the Daily Mail, he said: “It will be nice to see the supporters and thank them for what was an amazing three years. Hibs was a massive part of my life, and the way they treated me through those three years was amazing. But, at the same time, when the whistle goes they will be cursing and swearing at me and treating me like a normal opponent!

“There might be a wee appreciation when my name’s read out but once that’s over with I’m sure they’ll be focused on Hibs winning. And 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.”

Because that’s the thing to remember here - McGinn will court an awful lot of attention at Easter Road, and Villa will delve into the contest knowing that anything other than a win will be deemed an unexpected and inconvenient disappointment. But by no means will Hibs submissively settle for playing the role of background foliage in their former totem’s own personal fairytale.

Lee Johnson, with his terrier-like adherence to the philosophical mantras of David Brent, will be eager to bloody the nose of his Premier League opposition and to give his side a fighting chance in the second leg at Villa Park next Thursday. McGinn, for all of the goodwill he might have accrued, would be nothing but collateral damage in such an upset.

Then again, the Scot probably wouldn’t want it any other way. You need only witness him career around the engine room like an atom in a particle accelerator, more pinball than meatball, hurling himself after lost causes with a delirious grin plastered across his face, to recognise just how much McGinn loves the cut and thrust of it all.

If Villa are to earn a positive result in Edinburgh on Wednesday evening, it will have to be a hardfought one. Luckily for them, the very man they lured away from Hibernian all those years ago loves nothing more than fighting hard. And having a laugh while doing it.