It IS the way of the football world that in Edinburgh, Ryan McGowan’s World Cup will not be remembered for him being unexpectedly selected to start two of Australia’s three group matches. It will not be remembered for him being handed the dubious privilege of marking David Villa on what will likely prove the striker’s last appearance for Spain.
Nor will it be remembered for the assist he contributed for Tim Cahill’s explosive volley against the Netherlands, perhaps the goal of the tournament so far.
No, the former Hearts defender’s campaign will be recalled for a moment – and it was only a moment – that occurred during Australia’s second group match against the Netherlands last week, after Cahill’s early wonder goal and as McGowan took his place in a wall as his team prepared to face a free kick.
The right-back extended all five fingers on his right hand and the index finger of his left hand behind his back. It was a meaningless gesture as far as most of the watching millions were concerned. In Edinburgh, however, it provoked one of two extreme reactions – either you kissed the television screen or you threw a shoe at it.
As far as Hearts and Hibs fans were concerned, the hand signal intentionally referenced the score in the Scottish Cup final of 2012, a game in which McGowan played and also contributed one of the goals in the Tynecastle side’s 5-1 win.
So Ryan, what’s it all about? Surely you didn’t mean to wind up Hibs supporters in the middle of a vital World Cup match, one which at the time was so evenly balanced? It wasn’t top of his list of priorities, he admitted. However, although seeking to set the episode in its proper context, he has revealed that he did indeed indulge in a very swift tribute to the events of 19 May, 2012. “Everyone says football is too serious, and how there is no banter in the game anymore,” he smiled. “Even now you cannot celebrate a goal without getting booked. It is just one of those things. The amount of abuse I get, you have to take it back. It is just one of those things that happened.”
In short, get over it Hibbies, although McGowan is keen to stress that if anything, rather than enrage fans of the Easter Road club, the message was designed to thank Hearts supporters for their continued support as he furthers his career in China.
“No way was it meant to wind anyone up,” he said. “If anything it was meant for the Hearts fans for the support they have shown even now I have left the club.”
Of course, even here in Brazil, he was not surprised to be asked about the incident. The Sydney Morning Herald even ran a story about the episode several days ago, although it is easy to discern a sense that the writer, Michael Koziol, is slightly bemused by the tale. “But what did it mean?” he asked, with reference to the gesture.
Koziol then goes on to give a potted history of Edinburgh footballing rivalry – and its sensitivities. McGowan spoke to The Scotsman shortly after playing in his side’s 3-0 defeat by Spain at the end of a World Cup odyssey that was far from as poor as their record of losing three goals in each game suggests. His head was possibly still in a spin from marking Villa, something he described as “an experience”, but he seemed to anticipate what was coming – so did you mean it Ryan?
“It was a strange one,” he said. It certainly is strange – here we were, in the midst of a fabulous World Cup, discussing a gesture that relates to a match that took place in Scotland more than two years ago. But McGowan is happy to give his version of events that sent his Twitter page into meltdown. There was some method in what some chose to interpret as his madness.
“Originally he [Australia goalkeeper Maty Ryan] wanted six in the wall,” explained McGowan. “Obviously with the noise and everything I couldn’t hear, so I was gesturing to him. I already had the five and the one up to signal the six.
“So I have turned around to look at where they have taken it [the free kick] and I saw on the big screen that I had [the 5-1] up. It was not something running through my mind all game, thinking ‘I need to get a 5-1 up’.
“But it was the six in the wall. As I stood there I could see myself on screen, and I thought ‘I will just keep my hands there and if they notice it then they do’.”
Boy, did they notice it. McGowan was described as everything under the sun by Hibs supporters, one of whom accused him of risking his World Cup chance to “appease fans of a wee team in Scotland”. Hearts supporters, of course, quickly accorded him legend status.
“It was not to wind up the Hibs fans or anything like that,” insisted McGowan. “It is just that every day I get a hundred tweets saying ‘do 5-1 in the World Cup, do 5-1 in the World Cup’. It was just one of those things. He [Ryan] wanted six in the wall, and I thought that was a chance. If you see it on YouTube, I am doing the sign for six in the wall. It was only a split second. As I put my hands down I am thinking: ‘that’s a 5-1’.”
It was not even the first time he had done it at the World Cup, revealed McGowan. Another moment to treasure for fans of the Tynecastle club came after the game against Chile, during which both McGowan and another former Hearts player Mauricio Pinilla came on as substitutes. At the end McGowan made a bee-line for Chile striker Pinilla, whom he had got to know while he was a trainee at Tynecastle, and swapped shirts. “We did it [the 5-1] after the Chile game as well, but no-one caught that on TV,” he said.
“I had just arrived when he [Pinilla] was there. I think most of the young boys spent more time with him than some of the first-team players because he was always injured. He always had some great stories to tell. He remembered me; I was not sure if he would or not. He asked how I was. And it was great to be able to change jerseys with him.”
Like Pinilla, McGowan has now left Tynecastle behind. However, in the defender’s case there is always a sense that he might return at some stage; he of course played with current manager Robbie Neilson early in his Hearts career. He has six months left of his contract with Shandong Luneng Taishan, but isn’t sure what the future holds in two weeks’ time – when he is due back in China.
“At the end of 2012 if someone said I would be in China now, that would have been one of the furthest places from my mind,” he said. “Things in football change very quickly.”
Despite the defender’s strong rebuke via Twitter, when he criticised the manner of brother Dylan’s release by Hearts at the end of last season as well as that of several others, he retains very strong feelings for the club. He owes his career to them, he said. They are why he was in Brazil.
“Hearts gave us an opportunity to play professional football, which is something we have both dreamt about since we were little kids running around Adelaide,” he said, with reference to his brother, who has just signed for Adelaide United. “None of us has any regrets. If it were not for Hearts I would not be here playing at a World Cup. They showed faith in me and gave me a platform on which to play; there is no ill-feeling towards the club from anyone in our household.”