DYLAN McGOWAN is just 21 years old and feels like an old man. So young is Hearts’ senior squad following the onset of administration that the Australian is now an elder statesman.
He has played just 22 times for the Edinburgh club, but finds himself guiding a team dominated by kids and passing on advice to players just a couple of years his junior.
Testament to his character and leadership skills, it’s a responsibility he relishes. McGowan marshalled the Hearts defence during Wednesday’s 5-0 win over Raith Rovers and is targeting an unbeaten run through to the start of the league campaign. He is in a position of influence and fully intends to use it, even if it does seem surreal at such a young age.
“It’s ridiculous. I’m in the old team at training when we play older ones against younger ones,” he smiled. “Two years ago I was the youngest guy around the place, now I’m one of the oldest. It’s a good job Gary Naysmith is here just now, otherwise there would be another young player in the old team.
“You just take the responsibility you’re given and I’ll hopefully thrive on it. I’ll try to help the young boys any way I can. I do feel like an older player. We’ve all started taking on a bit more responsibility because there are so few of us. Danny Wilson has been named captain and he’s only 21. We’ll need a whole squad of captains. I’ll be around to help him, Ryan Stevenson will help, as will Jamie Hamill and Jamie MacDonald. We’ll do our best and lead the team as best we can.
“I’ve been lucky because I spent two seasons out on loan (at East Fife and Gold Coast United) to prepare for this. Last season I got 20-odd games in the first team so it’s been kind of like a natural progression for me. Others like Brad McKay have sort of been thrown in and it’s a big test. We’ll be facing top level teams soon and that will be the real test, but the boys have looked the part so far. It’s up to us older ones to keep their feet on the ground and make sure we do the business when the league starts in a couple of weeks.”
Before then, Hearts face Queen of the South in another friendly tomorrow in Dumfries before two outings in Belfast next week. Then comes the season-opening trip to St Johnstone on Saturday, August 3.
“Our aim is to stay unbeaten until the league starts,” said McGowan. “If it doesn’t happen, we won’t be too disappointed. We are still bringing players in, like Gary Oliver who came on and scored against Raith. These guys aren’t used to first-team football, so we’ll see how the rest of pre-season goes. I’d rather be undefeated in the league than in pre-season.”
This fledgling Hearts team have shown glimpses of promise in three pre-season outings, with Wednesday night’s goalscoring feats the highlight so far. None of it will matter if they don’t carry momentum into their league campaign to help with the task of overhauling a 15-point penalty for entering administration.
“I don’t think we’ll know where we stand until a couple of weeks into the league campaign,” continued McGowan. “We need to hit the ground running and the gaffer has made us all aware of that. Hopefully, maybe five games into the season, we can look up and say that we’ve eaten into that 15-point gap and that we’re starting to prove ourselves as top-level players.
“Inside the dressing room, we’ve said to the young ones that the pressure is off. We’re 15 points down, no-one expects much of us and everyone knows our financial situation. There’s no expectation on the players and that can take the weight off their shoulders. We make it clear they’re playing for a huge club and they need to do their best week in and week out. That’s the only thing that’s good enough.
“This is what we all wanted. When you’re young, you just want a chance and the boys have been given that this summer. Bar the first game, when we were off the pace against Dinamo Bucharest, we’ve beaten Dunfermline with a scrappy win and then beaten Raith 5-0. I think Raith are going to be a top team this year in the First Division. That bodes well for us.
“You can’t read too much into pre-season friendlies, but winning is a great habit to get into. As long as we’re winning games and playing well, I’m sure we’ll hit the ground running when the league starts.”