BEING crushed in a clubhouse in the suburbs of Adelaide celebrating Australia reaching their first World Cup in over 30 years is a memory that will live with Ryan McGowan forever.
He is in an altogether different place now, though. The former Hearts defender finds himself at the coal face as the Socceroos aim to qualify for their third consecutive World Cup.
A 4-0 victory earlier today against Jordan means a win against Iraq next week would take Holger Osieck and his players to Brazil next summer. It will also complete McGowan’s journey from the Ingle Farm SC clubroom to the pinnacle of international football.
In November 2005, the former Hearts defender finished training at his local community club and, along with dad Jamie and brother Dylan – currently still at Tynecastle – squeezed into a room with dozens of other Aussies desperate to see their country make history by beating Uruguay in an intercontinental play-off for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
It was a night to remember in many ways and one McGowan, who is now plying his trade with Shandong Luneng in China after moving there from Hearts in January, has been replaying in his mind as he nears the same level of accomplishment eight years later.
“Just to say I was involved in the squad or on the bench the night we reached the World Cup would be great,” he told the Evening News. “Everyone remembers where they were that night when we beat Uruguay on penalties. Two World Cups later, I’m involved in the squad and on the bench and I’m just very proud to be a part of it.
“I was with my dad and Dylan at our local football club, Ingle Farm, that night. We had training and afterwards everyone piled into the community club and watched the game there. It was probably the biggest game I’d ever watched because I was at that age where I understood what it meant. I’d watched the first leg (which Uruguay won 1-0) and I still remember losing to Uruguay in 2001 when we didn’t make it. I was 12 back then and I remember my dad explaining to us that Australia wouldn’t be in the World Cup if they lost that game.
“When we got Uruguay again it was a grudge match, I guess. Just massive. The whole of Australia really picked up on it. I understood what it meant. We beat them 1-0 on the night and 4-2 on penalties. I saw how happy everyone was, like the older people at the club. Australia hadn’t qualified for a World Cup for over 30 years, so a whole generation had missed out on it.
“From then on, it was all about the World Cup buzz and the players involved became
heroes in Australia. To think you could be a part of something like that and maybe be involved in a World Cup next year really keeps you focused and concentrated.”
It might also bring McGowan some public recognition, not that he would covet adulation. “No, I don’t get recognised in Australia. It reminds me of a few years ago at Hearts when we had signing sessions and I was sat next to [Andy] Driver or Christophe Berra. Little kids aren’t shy in saying ‘Mum, who is that?’ when they come up to you. I’m back to that now because not too many people in Australia would know who I am. That’s another goal, to become an established player and someone they can look up to.”
Australia easily saw off Jordan in Melbourne today through goals by Mark Bresciano, Tim Cahill, Robbie Kruse and Lucas Neill. They now travel to Sydney to take on Iraq on Tuesday.
McGowan, an unused substitute in today’s match, said: “We’re expecting 50,000 in Sydney. It’s more special playing for your country in front of these crowds.
“Australia is different to Scotland because you guys have Hampden as a national stadium. We travel from city to city, which can be good because the Australian public sometimes makes more of an effort when it’s in their city. With Australia being so big, it gives the fans a chance to see us.”
McGowan expects to remain on the bench when Osieck names his team to face Iraq, although you won’t find the 23-year-old complaining. Merely being part of the Australian squad is an honour many of the country’s players are clamouring for.
“I’d go anywhere to be involved with the Socceroos,” explained McGowan. “It’s something you dream about as a kid.
“You have to hang about and wait your turn, kind of like what happened to me at Hearts. I have to bide my time and impress in training, then get the odd game, make sure you do well and try to get yourself established. I’ll always make an effort to come to the Australia games no matter where they are.
“We hardly get any call-offs at all because the boys here are all very passionate about coming here to play for Australia. I know other countries can get a lot of call-offs for friendlies, but we have a good group who are all committed to the cause. We know the next two games can get us to the World Cup, which is the pinnacle of anyone’s career. If we do qualify, the next 12 months will be about trying to get into the team and keep performing at club level to get yourself on that plane to Brazil.”
McGowan’s international debut only came last August when he featured as a substitute against Scotland in a friendly at Easter Road while still at Hearts, just months after scoring in the 5-1 Scottish Cup final rout of Hibs. The intervening period has been spent plundering the memory banks of some older colleagues.
“Most of our squad have already been involved in World Cups in 2006 and 2010,” he continued. “Mark Schwarzer saved two penalties against Uruguay in that game eight years ago.
Lucas Neill scored a penalty, Tim Cahill played and Luke Wilkshire was in the squad. They’ve all been there and done that and it’s great hearing stories from them about how they did it and what they went through.”
Should McGowan get to live the dream alongside them next summer, you can bet the Ingle Farm clubhouse will be rammed to the rafters again.