Cult heroes McGinn and Grealish at heart of Villa promotion bid
John McGinn and Jack Grealish missed their Thursday meal together last week, a ritual that has developed this year and cemented the relationship between the two players at the heart of Aston Villa's renaissance.
Grealish, the local hero, and McGinn, the £2.5m bargain, have made it a regular fixture since March, and tomorrow they will attempt the final step towards returning the club to the Premier League in the play-off final that can change careers, and the lives of clubs.
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Family came first for McGinn, 24, on Thursday, as he sat glued to the TV to watch his older brothers Stephen and Paul play for St Mirren in their Scottish Premiership play-off first leg against Dundee United, but it is his bromance with Grealish, 23, that has so far defined Villa's resurgence.
"During the unbeaten spell [Villa won a club record 10 games in a row] we always went for food on a Thursday," McGinn said. "We've got similar interests and we're similar ages. A lot of the lads have got kids and their Thursday nights are taken up. But we go out and get some food and it just started being a wee superstition and it's carried on.
"Jack is one of the best players I've played with. He's comfortably the best in the league. He just glides with the ball, he's comfortable with both feet and he gets kicked about all the time but I've got no doubt in my mind he will be an England player one day. Everyone gets the perception that he's some sort of bad boy but he's a hard worker and he's been a great leader for us over the past months."
The respect is mutual - in March when Villa's official Twitter account asked fans to sum up McGinn in one word, Grealish replied with "wonderful".
Known as 'Ginny' around Villa's Bodymoor Heath training base, McGinn has also captured the imagination of supporters. Signed from Hibernian by former manager Steve Bruce last August, he is a cult hero, a relentlessly energetic midfielder with a penchant for a spectacular goal - such as his stunning volley against Sheffield Wednesday in front of the Holte End. His goal against Wednesday at Hillsborough in April was not too shabby, either.
"I know I'm only 24 but when you've won things and been relegated you know what football is like," he says. "If you get too high it comes back to bite you on the backside so I was always aware in spells before when I've done well in a season, eventually there was a wee dip. This season I've managed to keep that consistency over long periods.
"If you've not got the doubts to go and prove people wrong, that's when you get into that comfort zone and stop progressing. You will always have people to prove wrong. I always have done and I always will. I use that to spur me on and stay hungry."
By his own admission, McGinn's first season in English football has proved a rollercoaster. He had the option of joining Celtic, then managed by Brendan Rodgers, but signed for Bruce, who was sacked two months later. Inevitably, there was some doubt over where he would fit into Dean Smith's plans but he was pulled aside weeks after his appointment and told: "I don't think you realise how good you can be."
McGinn has since emerged as a crucial weapon in Smith's promotion mission, scoring six goals and contributing nine assists (and, ahem, 14 yellow cards). He was named as Villa's Players' Player of the Year and Supporters' Player of the Year this month and will be important for new Scotland manager Steve Clarke.
Yet when McGinn assesses the campaign with Villa, there is a clear sense of disappointment whatever the outcome of tomorrow's final. "The season has been a failure because with the size of this club, the target is to be in the top two. But we have given ourselves the chance through another avenue to achieve what we set out to do [to win promotion]," he says.
"We have managed to do it the hard way because we were 13th or 14th at Christmas. The reason we are delighted to be in this final is because that is an achievement in itself. We rolled our sleeves up and went on an unbelievable run to get to the final.
"It is definitely the biggest game of my career. I have loved every minute of it so far and if we are a Premier League club at the end of it, it will top it off."