Last Tuesday night the eyes of the footballing should have been solely squared on the Nou Camp as a Kylian Mbappe hattrick against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona heralded the dawn of a new era of Balon D’Or winner.
While that narrative was given plenty of focus, it found itself bizarrely upstaged by events happening thousands of miles away at Sixfields Stadium in a League One match between Northampton and Ipswich.
Football is a sport much beloved for its ability to throw up the most unimaginable of events, but even by its own lofty standards seeing a referee square up to a player is up there.
But that’s exactly what happened as Darren Drysdale went head to head with Ipswich midfielder Alan Judge. Further back the pitch watching on in total disbelief was Arsenal loanee Mark McGuinness.
“I didn’t really see too much about it,” he tells football.london . “Alan Judge is one of the nicest guys in football, he hasn’t got a bad bone in his body.
“So, when I saw it happening I thought that’s a bit strange, Alan wouldn’t have said anything or done anything. It was very peculiar and very strange to see. I’ve never seen that before.”
As images of Drysdale’s forehead pressed confrontationally into face of Judge began to circle the internet it was quickly forgotten that on the night Ipswich had kept their sixth clean sheet in 18 matches.
Central to that has been McGuinness who, having established himself as a regular in the Tractor Boys’ back four, has helped Paul Lambert‘s side to become the third best defence in League One.
This run at first team football has been a long time coming for the 20-year-old who would have come onto the radar of many Arsenal fans after his thumping header for the first team during a pre-season match against MK Dons in August.
After captaining an Arsenal under-18 side containing the likes of Bukayo Saka, Folarin Balogun and future Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah to the top of the under-18 Premier League South trophy in the 2018/19 season, the expectation was that McGuinness would push on to experience first team football on loan elsewhere.
But it was not to be for the young centre half. An unfortunate set of injuries restricted him to just four under-23 appearances and the much-anticipated loan move never came.
“It was frustrating because I always wanted to go out on loan,” he says reflecting on the most test time of his career so far.
“Last year I felt like I was ready. I’ve always been quite a big lad and I felt like I was ready for that step into first team football and I know as a defender you need that exposure so I wanted to get that as quickly as possible. So it was a bit frustrating for me.
“There were other people around me in the team who were pushing on and progressing and I was sort of left.”
At this point it might have been easy for McGuinness to feel sorry for himself and curse his luck at the sizeable speedbump his rapid development had been forced to overcome. It was here when the youngster’s mentality really began to shine through.
“I didn’t look at it in that way,” he says. “It’s my own journey, things happen for a reason and then what’s happened now has been great for me.
“In fact those injuries I learnt from each one and they never hindered me. They always made me stronger.
“I never felt like I was behind the curve. Yes, I didn’t get the minutes that I wanted to and the exposure, but in terms of my performance I didn’t feel like I was slacking behind anyone.
“Those injuries were a learning curve and then I feel now being 18 games in I’ve learnt even more. The exposure has been great for me.”
Looking back in his time on the sidelines McGuinness is refreshingly mature in his holistic approach to the events that unfurled. But even for someone with the strength of character the 20-year-old clearly possesses it was difficult not to find himself struggling at times.
It was on these occasions that the close bond he shares with former Arsenal captain and current academy manager Per Mertesacker really came to the fore.
“I think (Mertesacker) also had those injuries as well, I think that was a big part of it,” he says of their relationship.
“It’s hard for some players when you’re injured to keep positive and see the end goal. But he was there to reassure me and things like that when I was going through those injuries.
“He’s also a very dedicated man. Obviously being a leader as well and that’s something that I would hope to be in the future. Even now I see myself as a leader so just little things like that he’s good to talk to.”
Having waited out his spell of injuries and sat through the initial lockdown of the COVID pandemic that saw youth football brought to an end last season, come the start of this campaign McGuiness was desperate to get senior level football under his belt.
As he speaks glowingly about how much he has experienced in just under six months at Ipswich, McGuinness gives the clear impression of a man who feels as though he is making up for lost time.
“I think it’s the resilience,” he says when ruminating on what he has learnt most at Portman Road.
“Knowing your body and playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday every week, just the relentlessness of that and being able to cope with that.
“Just being involved with the first team, knowing what it’s like to win and knowing what it’s like to lose as well.
“There’s a massive contrast between winning and losing in a first team environment than there is in a first team environment.
“Of course, no one wants to lose but with that added pressure and that added stakes of the game, you get to feel what it’s like to win properly but you also get to feel what it’s like to lose on the flipside.”
Having got this far in his come back though you don’t get the sense that McGuinness has any intention of resting on his laurels here.
With Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi having left the club in January, David Luiz‘s contract set to expire at the end of the season and the futures of Calum Chambers and Dinos Mavropanos still uncertain, the 20-year-old centre half feels as though there is an opportunity for him to break into Mikel Arteta‘s first team plans if he is able to keep up the early form he has shown so far at Ipswich.
“That’s my goal,” he says. “I’ve been at the club since I was 10 and that hasn’t changed. I’ve always wanted to play for Arsenal’s first team so that will never change.
“What I’m doing now is experience and hopefully I can kick on. My goal is to come back and try and get myself into the side.
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“Obviously there’s other factors with other centre halves in the first team and things like that, but that doesn’t stop me trying to get into the first team which is what I will try and do. If it doesn’t happen then it doesn’t happen, but that’s my main goal.”
With the rise to prominence of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, Arteta has already shown that he has no issue with the throwing youngsters into his first team.
With a season of senior football under his belt, McGuinness will be hoping he can follow in their illustrious footsteps.