It has been a season of highs and lows for Celtic, losing the SPL title on the last day to rivals Rangers to lifting the Scottish Cup after beating Motherwell 3-0 at Hampden Park. But for Niall McGinn he had to watch much of the season from the sidelines through injury.
He talks candidly about his time at Celtic from when he signed for the club, to this season where he was the target of hate, receiving bullets in the mail.
In January, McGinn received a package containing bullets, along with manager Neil Lennon and team-mate Paddy McCourt.
McGinn commented on the threats: “I was completely shocked because I’m a footballer and I’m not involved in politics. I suppose I always believed professional sports people were exempt from these type of threats but evidently not in this case. I went through a lot of emotions from surprise to anger but ultimately I had to put everything out of my head and get on with playing football and doing my best to help Celtic win trophies.”
The Northern Ireland internationalist stated that he was more worried about his family though, in particular his mother.
He added, “To be honest I was worried more for my family who had little information as to the extent or seriousness of the threat and I spent some time reassuring my mother in particular that I’d be fine.”
Asked if he considered quitting Celtic, McGinn was adamant in his answer: “Quitting Celtic? Are you insane? No chance. Once you’re at the club of your dreams then you do everything in your power to stay there. I’m also a determined character and I would not allow myself or my career to be derailed by what happened, if anything I use it as motivation to succeed at Celtic.”
McGinn was not always just a footballer, he was also a member of the GAA, playing Gaelic Football for Donaghmore Celtic and Tyrone Under-21s. But when he signed Professional Football terms with Dungannon Swifts he had to make a decision – Football or Gaelic Football – he chose Football.
McGinn admitted: “It was definitely a difficult decision for me. I was very proud to have spent practically my whole life as a member of the GAA, playing gaelic football and it would have been the biggest honour for me to represent my county at senior level but a career in soccer beckoned and to be honest I can’t have any regrets, just great memories.”
The midfielder spent three years at Dungannon making 42 league appearances for the IFA Premiership side. His performances with Dungannon soon saw him earn a move to Stephen Kenny’s Derry City side in January 2008. Speaking about Kenny and his days at Derry, McGinn said: “I have nothing but admiration for Stephen Kenny, he took a gamble bringing me into the game full-time at Derry City and he definitely is an excellent manager. I really enjoyed my time at Derry. The city, the club and the supporters are all top-notch, and I won young Irish player of the year when I was there, which was a tremendous achievement for me personally and for the club. A lot of the thanks must go to Stephen Kenny for pushing me on and giving me the belief that I was good enough to play at a high level.”
McGinn spent a year at City, before news that Celtic were in for him, at the same time as he was about to sign for Swansea City. He said: “I was actually about to sign for Swansea, the deal was done and I’d already been across and visited the stadium and met the manager. All I needed to do was the medical and I’d become a Swansea player but then I got the news that Celtic were interested and no other club could have tempted me. For a young Irishman to play for Celtic is the ultimate honour and the moment I knew Celtic were showing an interest I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”
And with every player who signs for one of the Old Firm, they are asked the same questions – how are they looking forward to the Old Firm Derby and how will you be able to cope with it?
McGinn said of the derby game: “I suppose growing up a Celtic supporter regardless of coming from Ireland, Scotland or wherever across the world, helps you to realise the magnitude of the tie but nothing can prepare you for the actual game itself. The atmosphere in the build up to the game and then during it is absolutely phenomenal, and of course there is no feeling in the world like beating your fiercest rivals.”
This season McGinn has been sidelined through injury, playing just 11 games scoring three times. Despite not getting a good run in the team he remains optimistic.
“I broke a bone in my foot during the last training session of last year and missed all of pre-season training plus the first five months of this season. Although I’ve played in 11 games and scored three goals this term, I’ve struggled to get a good run and this has probably been the most frustrating season of my career to date. I just need to remain professional and stay prepared in case I get called upon to do a job. Football can be strange, one minute you’re in the wilderness, the next you’re starting games and expected to produce the goods.”
Much has been said about Celtic manager Neil Lennon, his lack of management experience and the style of it also. We posed the question to Niall, and asked for his opinion of his gaffer.
“I think he has been sensational. To come in and do the job he has done without any significant management experience is testament to the character he is. I’ll not be giving any dressing room secrets away but some of his team talks evoke the most incredible passion. I hope he is Celtic manager for a long, long time and that he experiences considerable success during his tenure.”
We asked for a number of Celtic fans to send in a question to ask Niall.
First up was Jacqueline who asked Niall: “Why do you think there is so much made of Celtic’s Irish roots in Scotland. We are pilloried by the media, SFA and other supporters over this, so where do you think it comes from?”
Niall replied: “Obviously there’s a lot of historical baggage and some quarters can’t move with the times. I think Celtic as a club are very proud of our Irish heritage and the fans, both Irish and Scottish, are quick to let everyone know that the club has strong ties with Ireland. It’s evidently what makes our club special and should be celebrated not criticised.”
Michael was another fan who posed a question to the midfielder: “What is your favourite game so far for Celtic?”
Niall said: “I suppose, although I only played a few minutes at the end, beating Rangers 2-0 at Ibrox in January was excellent but from a personal perspective my performance away to Rapid Vienna was very good and even though the game had no bearing on qualification, coming back from 3-0 down gave me great satisfaction.”
The Northern Irish midfielder is part owner of the Failte Restaurant on Falls Road in Belfast. We asked him how he got involved in it and what he would eat from his own kitchen.
“My agent was opening a restaurant and asked if I’d like to be involved. I thought there was no harm and little to lose
and that has proved to be the case. The restaurant has been extremely successful in its first year and its difficult to get a table a times, particularly at weekends. We employ a lot of local people and its nice giving something back, particularly
to such a strong Celtic supporting community. I’m quite a fussy eater but I enjoy most chicken dishes, I also have a soft spot for chocolate fudge cake desserts but don’t tell the gaffer.”
And with every Celtic player, many are asked if they could play in a team of Celtic greats who would they select, and Niall was no exception to that rule as he gave us his Celtic XI:
“I’d go 3-5-2, Bonner, McNeill, Elliott, Balde, Jinky, McStay, Lennon (have to say that one), Collins, McGinn, Henrik and Lennox.”
Although he has many years ahead of him as a footballer, being just 23, he did state that once he hung up his football boots he ‘would like to stay in the game in some capacity’.
With Niall saying, “There is nothing like being involved in football and making a living from it.”
Scotzine would like to thank Niall McGinn and his Agent Gerry Carlile for agreeing to the interview.