Livescore Friday, April 12

John McGinn returned to Aston Villa’s training ground at Bodymoor Heath last week for one last time this season. He was there to collect his boots ahead of reporting for international duty with Scotland and popped in to say hello to head coach Unai Emery.

“He was watching back the Brighton game,” McGinn says. “That just shows you he is obsessed about football and improving us. He is dedicated to making us better.”

That 2-1 home victory over Brighton sealed Villa’s seventh-place finish in the Premier League and a return to European football for the first time in 13 years, qualifying for the Europa Conference League.

“Get your passports, see you in Europe,” a beaming McGinn declared on the Villa Park pitch afterwards amid exuberant scenes and it capped an extraordinary campaign for the club and for him personally. “It’s been a rollercoaster,” he says. “And now this is the highest I have ever been in football.”

The 28-year-old is in the form of his life – so much so that Villa want to extend his contract even though it has two years still to run. “My agent is good at dealing with this stuff,” he says. “It’s been quite a turnaround. If that had been mentioned in October or November it would have been laughed at.”

What McGinn says next would certainly have been laughed at. But not now. “The challenge is can we keep that consistency next season and why not challenge for top four?” he poses. “We are in that way – the structure, the belief. Everything has come together.”

It felt very different not so long ago. Last summer McGinn was made Villa captain by manager Steven Gerrard but the season started badly with just two wins in 12. A relegation battle loomed and it was worse for McGinn as he struggled for form. The harder he tried the worse it got.

“I was feeling guilty. He [Gerrard] had put so much faith in me and it was brilliant to learn from him as a midfield player,” McGinn says. A low point came in the 1-1 away draw with Nottingham Forest in October. He was substituted and there was, McGinn recalls, some “sarcastic cheering” from Villa supporters.

“The fans have been phenomenal with me but that cut deep. My dad didn’t go back to the away games for four or five weeks. I kept my head down and didn’t get too upset but it did hurt and my ego did take a bit of a dent,” he admits. “It’s then about proving those people wrong and thankfully I’ve managed to do that.”

‘It was slightly embarrassing’

Eleven days later Gerrard was sacked and McGinn was dropped by caretaker Aaron Danks. It looked like he was the fall guy. “That was the most challenging part of my career. It was slightly embarrassing, especially when the manager was sacked and it was the first thing that happened after that,” he says. “I wasn’t naive to think I was playing well. I was probably trying too hard to find the answers. The criticism the manager was getting, the criticism everyone was getting. I was trying my best to put it right.”

McGinn used the time out positively, he got “back to basics” but – emphatically – it was the arrival of Emery that changed everything. Rarely is a player as enthusiastic as McGinn is about the Spaniard. It is almost messianic.

“He has probably transformed me as a player; taken me to a level that I probably didn’t think I was capable of; made me adapt in so many ways I probably didn’t think I was capable of,” McGinn explains. “He is so intense, so passionate about football, so detailed. He just wants to improve every single player.”

McGinn gives two examples. The first is how Emery tasks two of his coaches – Antonio Rodríguez and Jaime Arias – to work individually with each player. So when McGinn was asked to play on the right wing he had already worked on “body shape” and where to position himself with Rodríguez.

Second he talks about Emery drilling into left-back Alex Moreno how good a team Bournemouth are and the threat they pose. In fact, McGinn says, Bournemouth were the side Villa spent most time analysing because Emery was fascinated “by their level”. Villa won 3-0 having been beaten 2-0 by Bournemouth on the opening day of the season.

“Tyrone [Mings] talks about it as well – he’s 30, I am 28 – and we regret not having a different style of coaching earlier,” McGinn explains. “We are used to British ex-pro managers who are all brought up the same way and this style, the Spanish way, is something I really enjoy.”

McGinn has had similar chats with his friend and former Villa team-mate Jack Grealish, who works under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

“The best thing for me is that he [Emery] judged with his own eyes,” McGinn says. “There was a lot of noise from outside – ‘he [McGinn] can’t lead, he can’t be the captain’. I am not a huge speaker. I feel I have a lot of respect in the dressing room but I am not going to be a Conor Coady or Jordan Henderson. I try and lead by the way that I play. The perception was pretty easy for me to see: because I wasn’t playing well, therefore I was not leading. Now I am playing well I am all of a sudden an OK captain. I feel that perception is normal but I have grown into the role and am enjoying the responsibility.”

Emery has taught McGinn another thing: that he has more time than he thinks.

‘It’s opened my eyes’

“The Spanish have always had a lot more composure – certainly more composure than Scottish people,” McGinn says. “When you are a midfielder you don’t get a lot of time on the ball or you don’t think you do but you actually have more time.

“Putting your foot on the ball in midfield in Scotland is frowned upon but the manager came in and said, ‘Why not? You haven’t got an opponent anywhere near you, take your time, bring someone else in and create space for your team-mate’. That is something I have learnt and realised.

“It’s opened my eyes. Quite often before the Villa fans would have mumbled and grumbled but they are buying into it. There have been bumps along the way – Stevenage at home [FA Cup], Leicester at home [4-2 defeat] – when we have been punished for playing out from the back, but I think the fans are learning as well, the fans are seeing there’s a bigger picture here and that we are progressing as a team with a certain style.”

McGinn is even, for the first time, considering going into coaching when he eventually retires. “My understanding has gone through the roof under him [Emery],” he says. “I never thought I would dip my hand into coaching but he’s made me think a completely different way about the game. When someone is that obsessed with perfection and doing things right you can’t get away from learning. It’s been priceless and I can use that if I decide to go down the coaching route. I always thought you buy the best players and you win but he’s opened my eyes.”

For example, when McGinn was in Emery’s office they talked about the Brighton game. “I said to him, ‘It was a bit like a chess game’. Because their structure is so impressive we were both kind of cancelling each other out. It was like moving parts,” he says.

Unsurprisingly there is a huge amount of analysis and tactical planning. “The meetings can be long but it’s something new every week,” McGinn explains, and the “marginal gain” is in watching clips, “mentally being on it”, staying focused, “not sprinting around the pitch”.

McGinn adds: “Football intelligence goes a long way because now these managers are so intense and detailed. It’s just so interesting. People are finding a way to win because the margins are so fine and the standards are so high.”

‘We are no longer under the radar’

He has also shown football intelligence in his adaptability. “The only positions I have not played are centre-back, right-back and goalkeeper. It’s a good thing,” McGinn says, while the exciting challenge for Villa next season is that they will “no longer be under the radar”.

Emery was under no illusion when he arrived that his remit was simply to avoid relegation. But that quickly changed. “We had staged ambition: keep the club in the league, then let’s try to get in the top 10 and then let’s see who we can catch,” McGinn says.

“But he also said, ‘I’ve managed in Europe for the last 14 years and this is the first season I have missed out on it and I don’t want to miss out’, so his personality is so driven to succeed that it has certainly rubbed off on the players. Now watching West Ham [in the Europa Conference League final] there is definitely a tinge of jealousy. Hopefully it can be us next season.”

For now McGinn is heading off to a training camp in Spain with Scotland before their European Championship qualifiers against Norway and Georgia. In a sign of their togetherness and determination to reach another major finals the players have elected to join up early rather than take a holiday.

“Last summer we had a big play-off game for the World Cup [against Ukraine] and we had a break before it but we should have kept training,” McGinn says. “The players and the staff came together and said, ‘Right, how do we improve if we are in this situation again?’ So we are going to Spain for a few days for training. We decided that. We have about 18 players going. It would be easy for us to be on a beach but we want to get Scotland back to another major tournament.”

It is all part of learning and improving even if there is, with McGinn, always a hint of being quite tough on himself.

“It’s just the way I have been brought up,” he says, laughing. “If you interview any player from the west of Scotland we are all the same. We are all quite hard on ourselves. If you get too carried away then you get slapped back down. I am always appreciative of what we are doing for a living.”

Positive results for Scotland would complete a hugely impressive campaign for McGinn. “The resilience I have shown this season is something I am quite proud of and thinking I am now through that means there is more to come,” he says. “I have certainly enjoyed the last three-quarters of this season and have probably played the best football of my career.

“It’s a club on the up but it means absolutely nothing if we don’t deliver on the pitch. The fans are demanding but they crave success, they crave European football. The manager is the same and he has been clear about it: compete in Europe, compete for trophies.”

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