It clearly affected Ryan Bowman to be presented as Scottish football’s public enemy No.1. Yet, it also represented progress for the Motherwell striker, who will enjoy the high watermark of his career when he takes to the Hampden pitch for today’s Betfred Cup final. Until recently, the enemy of the 25-year-old’s career had been public indifference.
The rumbustious style of the Carlisle-born forward meant that not only Rangers but the nose of his centre-back marker Fabio Cardoso was shattered in the Fir Park club’s incident-packed semi-final victory in the competition. A wrestle of an encounter that led Brendan Rodgers, whose Celtic team will face Motherwell today, to claim Bowman’s physical approach could endanger players’ careers. In a denunciation wherein he also cited a studs-to-the-knee contact on Kieran Tierney the previous season by Bowman that had gone “unpunished”.
The revitalised front man in a Lanarkshire side re-energised by Stephen Robinson has hardly been thrilled about being traduced for his physical approach. He does, though, embrace the environment that engendered it because he is being spared the punishment he previously endured in his professional life. The chance to scrap it out at Hampden this afternoon, and throw himself into aerial battles at the major stadiums of Celtic Park, Ibrox, Easter Road, Tynecastle and Pittodrie, tells him he is living high on the hog after the “one man and a dog” days of scuffing around the Conference and League Two in England. Indeed, in joining Motherwell from Gateshead in the summer of 2016, he came from the sixth tier of English football. Others in the Motherwell ranks have made a similar journey.
Bowman’s darkest night, he recalls, was travelling to Barrow with Hereford and experiencing “everything”, “the wind and the rain lashing down” in front of sparsely populated stands. “It was one of the worst games I played in but we got the job done, and won 2-0.”
Bowman’s problem as he bounced around after leaving first professional club Carlisle to find himself at Workington, Hereford, Darlington, York City, Torquay United and then Gateshead was one that might surprise those watching him now in Motherwell colours: he didn’t sufficiently put his back into his endeavours.
“Maybe if I’d pulled my finger out a bit more as a youth player I could have played higher,” he said. “People told me when I was at Carlisle that I could potentially play in the Championship. Maybe that’s down to me or bad luck but it hasn’t happened. But coming to Motherwell has been a different level for me. When you look at the other Scottish clubs, you look forward to games against them.”
The open and endearing Bowman is refreshing in presenting Scottish football as a salubrious environment. He lauds the good pitches, the engaged crowds and the support structure behind the scenes. He appreciates all needs being catered for, in terms of meals – breakfast, lunch and snacks, including Jaffa Cakes – medical and sports science and, eh, laundry.
Much of this is a far cry from the Conference. “Once you’ve had this experience you don’t want to go back to that level and be doing your own washing and stuff like that,” he said. He will take the brickbats for the luxuries because he feels the recriminations that followed the semi-final painted a picture of a player that wasn’t him.
“I don’t want to comment on whoever, but a lot of people labelled me a dirty player, and I’ve never been called that before,” he said. “If you look at the stats, I’ve never been sent-off for that before. I’ve been booked once since the semi-final. I have only had 16 bookings in my career. I’m not a malicious player. If you watch worldwide football, you see all strikers go up and use your arms for leverage. I’ve been a bit unlucky with what’s gone on.”
Bowman offered a “no, it didn’t” to the question as to whether the criticism hurt him. But with a caveat. “It maybe affected me the first game back, which was a couple of days later, against Dundee. It was in my head for the first challenge or so. Then you just have to deal with it. Then I thought I needed to concentrate and get it right. Forget about it and play my game. It’s not on my mind now.”
He did need reassurance to put it out of his head, though. “I didn’t play up to what I have been doing successfully this season at that Dundee game. Of course people are going to come and say forget about it, play your usual game. [But it was when] the manager told me: ‘When you don’t challenge and you’re not physical you’re no good to me’. For example if a winger is not crossing the ball they are no good to you. Physicality is a big part of my game so if I’m not using that the manager is right, I am no good to him.”
The tackle on Tierney involved a foot not an arm but he pleads innocence over any intent. “I haven’t gone in to hurt him, Tierney,” he said. “He’s had a bad touch and I’ve gone in to kick the ball. I kicked the ball out of play for a throw-in and, as I came down, I caught him on the knee. It’s not as if I’ve gone ‘there you go’. I’ve kicked the ball away and as I’ve come down, landing, I’ve caught him. Everyone has their own opinion.”
He is undecided as to whether there was an element of mind games in Rodgers’ offering such a strong opinion on the Motherwell way that has allowed Stephen Robinson’s team to be one of the most effective sides in the country.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If it was, it was. I’m not going to comment on other people. I’m just going to concentrate on my game and do everything I can for the team.”
He is confident that can bring a winners’ medal from his first cup final. “They obviously are in really good form going into it, but so are we,” Bowman said in reference to Celtic’s 64-game unbeaten domestic run. “We feel like it’s whoever wants it more on the day. Someone’s got to beat them – so why can’t it be us?”