Above a baying, swaying sea of claret and blue Jack Grealish, alongside James Chester, lifted the play-off winners’ trophy up high in the royal box but it was the Aston Villa captain’s overlooked supporting cast that propelled them to the Premier League.
None more so than John McGinn, the Glaswegian who spent the buildup to the final telling everyone there is more to Grealish than junior-size shin pads, flashy haircuts and sunbeds. By the same token that Grealish is not the Jack the lad his manager, Dean Smith, said he envisaged on taking the job in October, McGinn is so much more than just a nagging nuisance in midfield. An ubiquitous presence – the bargain of the season at £2.7m – it was fitting his goal sealed victory.
“Sometimes in football you have to take risks and challenge yourself,” McGinn said. “I think some people had the perception I’m just a runner, just a hard-working player. I think I am that – but I think I’ve got a lot more to my game. I had to come down here and challenge myself against stronger, faster players to show that I can offer a lot more. There are always going to be doubters but hopefully I can show what I can do in the Premier League.”
For Villa fans, proudly rejoicing about “super John McGinn” as the song goes, one that a joyous Smith was singing as his midfielder held court after the match, is nothing new. This, though, was yet another near-flawless performance, perhaps best encapsulated by his hounding of Kelle Roos, the Derby goalkeeper, midway through the second half.
McGinn is happy fire-fighting, harrying, inventing, as well as scoring screamers – as typified against Sheffield Wednesday in September.
The modest – and menacing – McGinn, signed by Steve Bruce, admitted he feared he might not make the grade after struggling in his first couple of training sessions last August. Ten months on, how silly that now seems.
All in all, it proved a hugely satisfying weekend for McGinn family, given that on Sunday his elder brothers, Stephen and Paul, ensured St Mirren maintained their Scottish Premiership status. McGinn will be Stephen’s best man on Friday and here he was the best player on the pitch.
But it was not just McGinn who came to the fore when his team needed him most, as typified by a well-worked Villa opener. The unfashionable Albert Adomah, who came within hours of returning to Middlesbrough in August, and the 31-year-old Ahmed Elmohamady combined down the right, the latter delivering a wondrous ball towards the back post for Anwar El Ghazi, a lovely, frustrating player capable of the sublime and the ridiculous, to convert.
Until Villa established a two-goal buffer, the worry – once again – was that Grealish, a supremely talented No 10, was trying too hard, cropping up at left-back and holding midfield to pick up possession. Once McGinn had seized on Roos’s error, Grealish could relax, backed up by his teammates, namely Conor Hourihane, the former Plymouth midfielder who has proved a trusty midfield anchor after patiently waiting for his chance.
Then there is Tyrone Mings, a colossus at centre-back who was forced off through injury after making a lung-busting run to prevent Martyn Waghorn from getting a shot on goal.
The composure of Mings and Axel Tuanzebe made Derby’s harum-scarum defending look all the more shaky. “I said to John on the pitch: ‘Keep going, you’re the engine of the team’ and it’s absolutely true,” Mings said.
“He has such a great desire, so when you have a player like that it is easy to go and back him up when you see how he’s working for you.”
Grealish’s influence on Villa cannot be overstated – no one is more deserving of a Premier League stage – especially given how he shone during an end-of-season run that now translates to two defeats in 16 matches, including a 10-match winning run, but others did the damage here. With McGinn’s tireless midfield energy, Villa always seemed shatterproof.