A NEW season and the new squad numbers have been handed out. Dylan McGowan is number five. The flip flops offer a reminder of last season’s number but given the cull that has taken place at Hearts over the summer there were plenty of spare ones to choose from.
“I took Darren Barr’s number!” says McGowan. “But if I was still No.19 I’d be a little worried, to be honest! Still 19 on the flip flops but times are tough, they haven’t been changed yet!”
With a squad that numbers less than 25 this term, it’s a far cry from recent years.
“When I first signed I was No.74 and my clothes were kept behind the washing machine because there was no space for them [in the dressing rooms]! That gives you a bit of insight into how the club has changed. That was five years ago.”
It’s also a clear indication of why, despite all Vladimir Romanov’s investment, the club remains up to its eyes in debt, in the grip of administration and facing a daunting future.
With fans still fundraising to ensure the club makes it to the new season, passing the halfway mark of the targeted 3,000 additional season ticket sales in the first week and with a rally at Tynecastle today set to bolster the coffers further, even if they make it to the start line, McGowan and his team-mates face the task of having to overhaul a 15-point deficit to avoid automatic relegation.
“Inside our changing rooms, you’ll only hear the positives. We don’t come in and say ‘ah, we’re 15 points down already’,” says the versatile 21-year-old, who is keen to make the centre-back berth his own this term. “We talk about the fact that every game will mean something. As a player that’s what you live for. And what a massive chance to play for this club as a young guy.
“When I arrived I think I was sixth-choice centre-back for the under-19s, so I was under no illusions about how hard it would be to play in the first team. But I think I appreciate it so much more than if I’d come in at No.25 and walked straight into the squad on a match day. I was here four years before I even got to train with the first team.
“The young boys are coming in now and getting No.28 and stuff. It took me about five years to get down that low! But it’s a great time to be a young player at the club, a huge chance, especially at a club this size. To be able to come in and be maybe a couple of good performances in the under-20s or in training away from getting a spot on the bench is unbelievable and all the older boys, the Hammills, Stevensons, MacDonalds, they’re making it clear to people how big this club is and what a chance it is to play for them.”
McGowan was back home in Australia when he heard administrators had been appointed and he confesses there was some concern about whether he would need to return to Edinburgh for pre-season.
“It was hard because you never want the club to be in trouble, and as a player you’re never 100 per cent sure of what it actually means anyway,” he says. “Does it mean you’re away? What about the guy who sits at the locker next to you? Is the coach going to change? You have no idea, the actual terms. Everyone hears the word administration without knowing what cuts are coming. That was more scary than anything.
“But once you realise you’re still a player for this football club and then you see what the fans are doing, you realise this club is going to be around for a while.
“We’ll be sold out most games – the fans have been unbelievable, buying season tickets. They did it in November and they’ve been asked to do it again yet you haven’t heard them blaming anyone else for the situation we’re in. They’ve stuck together and now we’ve got to stick together as a unit and hopefully come out of it at the other end.”
The cause has been aided by the generosity of former players, including Dylan’s older brother, Ryan. He left last season to join Chinese club Shandong Luneng as Hearts tried to cut back on the wage bill and convert playing assets into transfer fees. But he retains a strong connection with the club.
Having pledged to buy one season ticket for every 1,000 sold, Ryan is doing his bit to keep the club afloat.
“It could be a couple of grand it costs him,” laughs the younger McGowan. “I hope the fans make him regret it!” he adds, revelling in the fact his big brother could be severely out of pocket. “I’m buzzing that the fans are so far behind this – I want four, five, six thousand of them to buy season tickets!
“But listen, it’s obviously a fantastic gesture and a lot of the ex-players have been doing things like that. Because this football club stays with you – that’s the only way to describe it
“I’m from the other side of the world and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, 15-point deduction or not. I’d be here fighting it out with the rest of the boys. The club has a special effect on people. That’s why the fans are so behind it.”
A band of brothers who have bonded throughout the highs and the lows of the last few seasons, even considering issues with unpaid wages and the off-field turmoil, there is little evidence of bitterness from those past or present.
“It’s hard to describe why,” admits McGowan, “but this club just takes you in. Once you’ve played in a full Tynecastle, seen the fans, met them and interacted with them, it’s different class.”
Thanks to season ticket sales, there is the promise of a packed Tynecastle for every home game. McGowan hopes it will help with the quest to stay in the top tier, despite the 15-point advantage administration has given their rivals.
“A lot of players could have said they wanted to try their luck elsewhere and the club would have been happy to get you off the wage bill, but that’s not for me. It’s a massive ask, but I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t think we could do it.”