Dream catcher Niall McGinn taking every opportunty that comes his way
Former Celtic ace Niall McGinn has taken his opportunities every time they've come his way. Here, he tells Brendan Crossan about the highs and lows of a sporting career that has many lessons for any aspiring young sportsperson...
EDDIE McCallion was one of the fittest players in the Derry City squad. And he was never shy in telling his team-mates either.
The popular defender prided himself on turning up for the start of pre-season raring to go. Nobody would beat him doing the lung-bursting runs at St Columb’s Park on the Waterside of the city.
Nobody, until a skinny kid from Donaghmore turned up one evening.
“All the boys looked after themselves but there was always a competitive edge with the likes of Eddie McCallion wanting to be the fittest at the club,” remembers former Derry City midfielder Barry Molloy.
“We were doing this particular running session and I remember the last 100 yards were steep and people were struggling. Then Niall came motoring up. He blitzed everybody. He was so fit and fast. He tore Eddie apart in this fitness drill. We kind of knew then he was a bit special.
“You’d be sitting back watching him in training and in games thinking: ‘This boy is on a different level.’
“He was getting the ball, beating four or five men and having a shot or crossing for someone.”
Big things happened in a blink of an eye for Niall McGinn.
In the afternoon, he’d be cutting a dash for Irish League club Dungannon Swifts and later that night he’d be tearing a corner-back to shreds somewhere in the foothills of his native Tyrone.
“I loved Gaelic football,” McGinn says, now enjoying a second stint with Scottish Premier League club Aberdeen.
“I was playing Gaelic and soccer five nights a week. I remember one Saturday I had a match for Dungannon Swifts at three o’clock against Linfield and as soon as the game was over I had a car waiting for me and a few boys from Donaghmore took me from Windsor Park up to Edendork where we had a Championship game against Errigal Ciaran that night.
“To think what I was doing back then, it was crazy. But I was young, fit and healthy and I loved it.”
HE should've been a certain starter in the 2005 Tyrone minor team, but he’d missed too many training sessions because of his soccer commitments with Dungannon Swifts.
But he was always going to be the first substitute thrown in by joint managers Liam Donnelly and Martin Coyle. And that’s how their unforgettable Ulster minor Championship clash with Down played out at Healy Park.
McGinn entered the fray and his five quick-fire points wrestled momentum away from the Mournemen.
The two sides were laced with quality. Down had Kevin McKernan, Marty Clarke, James Colgan and Paul McComiskey. Tyrone, defending All-Ireland champions, had McGinn, Collie Cavanagh, Aidan Cassidy and Cathal McCarron.
With Tyrone two points up entering stoppage-time, thanks largely to McGinn’s scoring spree, Down grabbed a last-gasp goal to topple the Red Hands.
“I remember thinking if Niall had started that game we would have won,” says former minor team-mate Collie Cavanagh. "But he was still playing soccer and wasn’t training as much so the management couldn’t start him.
“We’d that game won. We were two points up and the ball came in, it broke to [James] Colgan who took a shot, I dived on it and it deflected off my hand and flew past Johnny Curran, God rest him, in goal.
“Down went on to win the All-Ireland that year. We were defending champions and in my opinion we quite possibly had a better team that year than in ’04. Two points up in injury-time and we lost...”
McGinn recalls: “I’d a free-kick close to the sideline at Healy Park and I put it over to put us two points ahead and then about a minute later Down went up the pitch and scored a goal to win it. I was absolutely gutted.”
Senior manager Mickey Harte didn’t really need a trial game to confirm what he already knew about the gifted Donaghmore attacker.
But he invited the-then 19-year-old anyway to take part in a game up in Trillick where he proceeded to take apart highly-rated defender Mickey McGee.
“Mickey McGee was one of Tyrone’s best corner-backs at the time and McGinn scored something like 2-7 off him. Absolutely destroyed him,” says Cavanagh.
“At that point everybody realised he was head and shoulders above everybody else. Mickey [Harte] tried to do all he could to get Niall to play for Tyrone. But there was always the pull towards soccer for him.”
Even Harte’s powers of persuasion couldn’t get McGinn to change course.
In February 2007, Dublin and Tyrone were about to play in front of 80,000 spectators under Croke Park’s brand new floodlights.
“So Mickey had that card," McGinn recalls with a wry smile.
“He said: ‘Look, you’ve the chance to play in front of 80,000 people here.’ And the other side of it was I'd just been offered a three-year deal with Derry City.”
Cavanagh and McGinn sat beside one another at St Patrick’s College, Dungannon for the best part of five years and have remained firm friends ever since.
“There was nobody who could get near him,” Cavanagh says.
“It was before you had 13 men behind the ball in Gaelic football, the game was more open, which would have suited Niall down to the ground.
“There is no doubt in my mind he would have been one of Tyrone’s best forwards had he stayed. Nothing seemed to faze him, he just went out and played.”
STEPHEN Kenny hadn't attended the Dungannon Swifts versus Limavady fixture to run the rule over the flying winger of Stangmore.
Respected coach Billy Reid, with Hamilton Academicals at the time, was also in attendance and leaned into Kenny presuming he was there to watch McGinn.
As it happened the-then Derry City boss was looking at another player, but left the ground convinced McGinn was perfect for the Brandywell.
The next day McGinn’s phone rang. It was Stephen Kenny offering him a three-year deal.
Mickey Harte’s voice was still buzzing around in his head – “You’ll be playing in front of 80,000 people.” – but McGinn went with his heart and moved to Derry.
The Championship run-outs for Donaghmore became fewer as McGinn took the Brandywell by storm in the 2008 season.
“Things moved so quickly,” McGinn says.
“Stephen Kenny was brilliant for me. He let me play with a lot of freedom. I just loved that season under him. He really helped me massively.
“Stephen is different,” the 33-year-old adds. “You need to know him personally. He was just so easy to get on with. He was more like a father figure and he took me under his wing.
“I was travelling up and down to Derry and he pulled me aside and said: ‘Listen, if this is going to work for you, you’re probably going to have to stay.’ I ended up staying there and I found my feet. I went from strength to strength.
“We always played with two wingers and he wanted me to get chalk on my boots and get on the ball. He didn’t care if you made mistakes as long as you were always trying to get crosses in. He allowed his players to express themselves and you just knew Stephen was going to go on to bigger and better things.”
Under Kenny, Derry City thrashed Wexford Youth 6-1 to win the League Cup, with McGinn bagging two goals and assisting for another two. But Bohemians denied them the FAI Cup final after a penalty shoot-out at Dublin’s RDS in November 2008.
“I think that Derry City team should have won more,” insists Molloy, who was a mainstay of the club for a decade.
"We definitely should have been competing for the title because we had a good team. We had Niall McGinn, and we had Paddy McCourt for a short spell of that season before he moved to Celtic, Sammy Morrow was a good goalscorer and Gareth McGlynn was starting to become a massive player for us.”
Little did McGinn know he’d be following Paddy McCourt to Paradise a few months later.
DRIVING home from training one afternoon, McGinn’s phone rings.
‘Hi Niall, it’s Nigel Worthington…’
It sounded like Nigel Worthington to the point where it couldn’t actually be him at all.
This was a stitch-up. Definitely a stitch up. One of his Derry City team-mates playing a prank.
McGinn didn’t hang up though. He listened intently. The more the guy on the other end of the phone talked, the more McGinn realised it was the Northern Ireland manager offering him a chance to play in the upcoming friendly against Hungary at Windsor Park.
Both men talked it through. There was some reticence on McGinn’s behalf – a young Catholic lad from Donaghmore, played a bit of GAA and was throwing shapes up in the Bogside with the Candystripes.
Was he really a good fit for Northern Ireland?
“Not only had I just become a professional footballer, I had the chance to be an international footballer.
“I’d just one year of professional football under my belt and to get the opportunity to make my debut for Northern Ireland…
“I remember doing ball boy at a Northern Ireland game against Czech Republic and the likes of Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller were playing. So when Nigel offered me the chance, I jumped at it.”
On November 19 2008, Worthington summons McGinn from the bench. He can’t feel his legs.
Apart from the rousing reception he received from the home fans, he remembers little else about his international debut.
“Hearing that roar when I came on as a sub was sensational. I think it was because I was a local lad who played in the Irish League and had gone on to Derry City and had done well for myself… Any time I got the ball I just ran with it and I felt the fans in the Kop End were with me. It was just unbelievable.”
As Derry’s 2008 campaign drew to a close it became more apparent with each passing day that McGinn wouldn’t be around the domestic game for much longer.
In his spare-time he was still washing cars at Pristine Car Wash in Dungannon. Unbeknown to McGinn, a Swansea scout had been a regular attender of Derry’s games that year.
McGinn's agent Gerry Carlisle rang him and said Championship club Swansea wanted to sign him.
“Roberto Martinez was their manager at the time and Swansea were playing nice football. So Gerry and me went to watch Swansea and Cardiff, which was a massive derby game.
“Martinez came to our hotel to speak to me. Everything was looking good and I was offered a contract. I went home, spoke to my family and I was just about to sign for Swansea.
“Then I got another phone call from Gerry. He said he wanted to call to my house now and he said: ‘Neil Lennon’s just off the phone. Celtic want to sign you.’
“Paddy McCourt went six months before me for a couple of hundred grand and then I had the opportunity of going as well to one of the biggest clubs in the world.
“So I ended up signing for Celtic… I was kind of signed as a development player. Gordon Strachan was the manager at the time so I was in the development squad with Neil Lennon before Tony Mowbray became manager in January time and I just thought to myself, ‘Knuckle down here, have a good pre-season and you just never know what can happen.’
The deal was done in December 2008 and his contract would officially begin on January 1 2009.
Even though he’d just signed for one of the biggest football clubs in the world, McGinn continued to wash cars at Pristine Car Wash for four weeks before moving to Scotland.
WELCOME to the goldfish bowl of Glasgow, where the air is thin and the hatred is dense. The trajectory of Niall McGinn’s life was the stuff of fantasy.
Expected to be kicking his heels in Celtic’s reserves in the 2009/10 campaign, he was promoted to the first team and played in the prestigious Wembley Cup pre-season tournament, debuting against Tottenham Hotspur at the famous Wembley stadium.
A short time later he was darting down the wing at the Etihad Stadium against Man City.
McGinn’s Celtic career had lift-off, making his competitive debut at home to Dundee United and scoring his first goal against Kilmarnock at Celtic Park.
“I remember when I was a young lad I went across to watch a Celtic and Rangers game at Celtic Park and I remember Alan Thompson scoring the winner – he scored in the goal where I scored my first for the club. I remember like it was yesterday. It was just an unbelievable feeling.
“That season for me was brilliant because I played a lot of football and if I wasn’t starting I was first or second sub. I ended up having 30-odd appearances and scored a few goals.”
He made his Old Firm debut on January 2 2011 with Georgious Samaras grabbing the two goals at Ibrox to sink Rangers.
A week after Celtic’s brilliant win, Hoops manager Neil Lennon called to McGinn’s door on Saturday evening – the day before a game.
“It was Lenny at my door,” he recalls.
“I was thinking: ‘What’s going on here?’ And Lenny said: ‘Look, I’m not trying to scare you but there’s a big story coming out in the papers tomorrow about you and me as we’ve been sent bullets in the post. I’m just giving you the heads up, go and phone your mum and your dad and tell them.’
“The last thing I wanted was my family lifting the paper the following day and their son was being targeted with bullets. So I phoned them and kept them calm.”
After the initial shock, McGinn wasn’t too disturbed by the death threat.
“I’ve always been level-headed and grounded. I didn’t let it bother me too much because I obviously grew up around that kind of stuff. You just get on with it.
“I put it aside and got on with things. I remember weeks after Lenny and myself were sent bullets again, Paddy McCourt was as well.”
Injuries at bad times limited his game-time at Celtic the following season before accepting a loan move to Brentford.
He returned to Scotland to play arguably the best football of his career at Aberdeen where manager Craig Brown played him as a central striker.
For a few seasons at Pittodrie it rained goals for McGinn.
A brief misadventure to South Korea club side Gwangju in 2017 ended after a half dozen games before he returned to Aberdeen again.
Having played a goal-scoring role at Euro 2016 for Northern Ireland, McGinn is still punching his weight at international level, thanks to the faith Ian Baraclough has shown in him.
He’ll not retire from the international stage until he’s no longer required.
At the moment, McGinn is fighting for precious minutes at fourth-placed Aberdeen and has plans to go into management. But the legs and body still feel good and he sees plenty of road in front of him.
For every aspiring sportsperson, there are many lessons in Niall McGinn's career path.
When an opportunity comes, seize it, don't waste it. Keep your feet on the ground at all times. Don't get too high with the highs and don't get too low with the lows.
These guiding principles have served the skinny kid from Donaghmore well - the dream chaser who caught everything that he ever reached for.