John McGinn: Manchester United? Aston Villa is the only place I want to be
After a summer where new players arrived at a rate and cost never seen before, just maybe Villa saved their best signing until last.
When John McGinn remarks as much, just a few hours on from the announcement of his new five-year contract, he does so in the tone of a comedian delivering a punchline.
Yet like all good jokes, within it lies an undeniable truth. Villa might have spent more than £130million on 12 new players, yet none saw their arrival greeted with the level of rejoicing which met news of McGinn’s new deal.
If you want an idea of why that is, or why Villa’s return to the Premier League has generated such a wave of excitement and optimism among their fanbase, 10 minutes in the Scot’s company is all you need.
Humble and self-deprecating, yet at the same time confident and fiercely driven, the 24-year-old is a rare beast both on and off the field. It is easy to see why Villa’s billionaire owners, Nassed Sawiris and Wes Edens, sees him as a player they want to build the club around.
A brilliant first season at Villa Park, which ended in promotion and countless personal awards, saw McGinn linked with a £50million move to Manchester United over the summer, with Sir Alex Ferguson among those lobbying hardest for the move.
Many players might have found the speculation a little distracting. Not McGinn.
“I had a little chuckle at it to be honest. I’m sure a lot of people did,” he says. “It’s nice of course and I suppose it shows how well I’ve done.
“But it is up to me to go and prove it is justified.
“I never had any intention of leaving this place. My whole mindset has been on Villa and being successful here.
“I have still got so much left to learn and prove. In the environment here I am appreciated. I’m loved and respected by everyone.
“There is no better feeling. I still have to pinch myself driving in.”
Negotiations over his new contract, announced a year to the day since his £2.75million move from Hibernian, were about as simple as they get.
“We spoke regularly and the talks were open,” he said. “I assured them I had no intention of leaving here.
“They were comfortable with that and said: ‘OK, we’ve got a lot of work to do, we’ll get it sorted at some point.’ I trusted their word on that and here we have it.
“I’m just glad to be settled and to focus on the next five years.”
Villa start their season at Tottenham this evening, just a few miles up the road from their last top flight appearance in May, 2016.
The contrast in mood between that day at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, where a 4-0 defeat rounded off the worst season in the club’s history, could not be starker.
Villa exited the Premier League a shambles and though three years in the Championship did not always run smoothly, they return a club reborn with ambitious, wealthy owners and a genuine sense of momentum.
A remarkable late season charge to win promotion at Wembley helped with that, of course. Yet it is the ingredients behind the resurgence which matter most.
“It is not just about what is on the park but what is off the park too,” explains McGinn. “Last season the relationship between the players and the fans was at an all-time high.
“That’s because of the guys we had. We all cared about winning, we all cared about getting the club back up.
“It was important to carry that on this summer but also bring in quality. I think we have done that.
“Obviously the fans appreciate what we have done in pre-season but when it counts is Saturday.
“Speaking to some of the experienced boys, they all say Villa used to have a reputation for bad characters and big egos.
“I don’t think we have that now. It is an important trait to have for a hard-working club. I think they have recruited well in that sense.”
McGinn, the youngest of three brothers to play professionally, could never be accused of shying away from hard work.
His own road to the Premier League has taken in some of Scottish football’s toughest outposts, first with St Mirren and then with Hibs.
Yet while this evening will be special, McGinn does not see it as the end of his journey.
“It’s nice when people like that think highly of you but the main thing for me is to become established in the Premier League,” he said.
“If you set your standards high and then fail in the Premier League, it is no use.
“I think I am going in with my eyes open. I love football so I watched a lot of the games last year. You see the intensity. If you make a mistake it is punished instantly.
“I have spoken to a lot of the boys who have been there and played there. I speak to Jack Grealish and Alan Hutton who spent most of his career there.
“They tell you their experiences and you just want to take little bits of it.
“Even though I started pretty well at Villa I was still making rookie mistakes, while I was trying to get used to the league and physicality and stuff.
“As it went along I started to improve and the mistakes became fewer.
“There is still a lot to come. I don’t think you are ever polished or the full article.
“Hopefully I can get there as soon as possible and become the guy I was for Villa in the Championship in the Premier League.”
McGinn speaks with enthusiasm about Villa’s army of new recruits but with an acknowledgement that there are no guarantees, in a division many will be experiencing for the first time.
It is the unknown possibilities, the sense something special might be round the corner which has prompted 30,000 supporters to buy season tickets, a record number.
“I was speaking to my dad about it the other day,” said McGinn. “You always dream of playing in the Premier League, that is just a given.
“But playing with such an illustrious club like Villa, that is when you do pinch yourself.
“You are playing for a cause and what people believe in, what they think about for most of the week.
“People live and breathe Villa and it is exciting to be under that pressure and have that expectation over your head.
“When you are a player you want that, you want to be successful and you want demands on yourself. That’s what you are going to get here this year.”