“I pitched up at Hearts, a long, long way from home and if training had been lousy I couldn’t call my mum right away and moan about it,” he says. “I had to trudge down to the local shop, buy an international phonecard and wait until about ten at night when it would be breakfast-time back in Adelaide.
“Look at us now. You and me are talking on Zoom. And I’m not kidding, on my social media, Instagram or Twitter, I’ve had at least one message every week since 2012 about that game. Usually more than one. And this week, plenty already.”
That game is that final – that derby. Hibernian 1, Hearts 5. The worst-ever day for one set of supporters; the greatest-ever for another, with the Scottish Cup the prize to go with an internet-busting amount of bragging rights.
Though he’s played for nine clubs since leaving Tynecastle, McGowan talks like one of the scarf-twirling Jambos who could have autogyrated all the way back to Edinburgh after the final whistle. His goal celebration was that of a fan who’d won a competition to be on the park for a few seconds – by happy coincidence at the moment there was the opportunity to score in a Hampden showpiece from Tom Forsyth range. And the detail in his analysis of the contest strongly suggests he’s watched it back once or a hundred times.
For instance, I suggest that however dominant Hearts were, and however weak Hibs’ response, winners will always carry a bit of luck. Wasn’t Ian Black fortunate, as old match reports argue, not to be red-carded in the tenth minute for taking out Leigh Griffths with a blow to the back of the striker’s head? And was that really a penalty for 3-1 after Hibs had clawed their way back into the contest?“If we’d had VAR that day Blackie would probably have gone,” admits McGowan. “And maybe the foul on Suso [Santana] was outside the box but it was a second yellow [for Pa Kujabi] so Hibs would have been down to ten men. Football produces so many ifs, buts and maybes. We’re discussing some of them right now and the final was ten years ago. But here’s another: if James McPake hadn’t cleared that Suso shot off the line and we’d gone three-nil up after just 30 minutes then maybe the score could have been anything. Seven, eight, nine … ”
From China to Tayside and the Middle East to West Yorkshire then a return Down Under, the 32-year-old McGowan currently plays his football for Kuwait Sports Club and is hoping to be part of Australia’s final push to the World Cup during the Socceroos’ June play-offs.
“I’ve been involved in the last six or seven camps so having been fortunate enough to play in one World Cup I’d love to make another,” he says. But he’ll be tuning in to today’s Mount Florida rematch between the capital rivals. “It’s Ramadan here which means training is in the evenings so I’ll be able to watch.” Maybe without Muslims’ month of fasting and prayer he’d have had to contrive some excuse. While injured at Bradford City, he was all for hobbling up the road for an Edinburgh derby and sitting among the Jambos until reluctantly conceding that the club physio would have gone ballistic.
McGowan’s wife Stephanie and daughter Millie are currently with him in Kuwait City but they and his son Harry from a previous relationship all live in Edinburgh and it’s there that the player will settle when his wanderings are over, the city and its football culture having been such a key part of his formative years.
“Growing up in Australia I dreamed of becoming a pro footballer and playing overseas – I was desperate for it,” he says. “Hearts were the first to give me that chance aged 17 so the club and Edinburgh will always be special to me.
“I’ve got very fond memories of starting off in the youths and the camaraderie of being with 20 other guys, same age and interests, all going for it together. I’m still good mates with the likes of David Templeton who was my housemate and Johnny Stewart, now at Bonnyrigg Rose. Hearts, and Edinburgh, were so welcoming to this Aussie kid. I did a lot of growing up during those six years and my young adult life was really shaped by the good people at the club.”
So no culture shocks then? “Oh sure. The intensity of the game in Scotland, on the pitch and off it, was the biggest. When I made the first team I could be out with my mum if she was visiting, nice quiet meal, and the fans would come straight up and tell you how well you’d played – or how badly. They have no censorship for that kind of thing. In other countries it doesn’t happen. Training was intense, too. Everybody, every single day. And games – there haven’t been many countries I’ve played where it’s at that level. Maybe the players are just trying to keep warm.”
McGowan is of Scots emigre stock. There were childhood visits from Oz and as a Jambo colt he had aunties close at hand in Lanarkshire for whenever he felt homesick. Now his younger brother Dylan, who followed McGowan to Gorgie and then went on his own travels, is back playing in Scotland with Kilmarnock. His father James is currently resident here, too – but at Her Majesty’s pleasure. In 2017 he was jailed for life for the murder of a former brother-in-law in Coatbridge. the attack taking place after he’d returned from Australia for his mother’s funeral. The High Court in Edinburgh heard that McGowan Snr made a confession to a helpline in which he mentioned his son’s cup final goal. I ask McGowan, who was in court when his father was sentenced, how he’s coped with the family trauma but he says: “I don’t talk about it. Maybe one day I will … ”
Full-back or midfield, McGowan has a derby record of three wins, two draws and one defeat and he says he “got” the fixture long before facing Hibs for the first time. “I’d been around the club for four years before that and it was a perk to get tickets for the big games. I loved the ones at Easter Road and it was there, being among the fans, that I came to understand their frustrations – and also appreciate the euphoria if the team had won. All the boys thought: ‘We want this.’”
His debut in the fixture was the final derby of 2010-11 in Leith, Jim Jefferies hoping the newbie could help the back line hold out for a share of the points. “Right away, though, Hibs scored. With us having to chase the game I was worried I was going to be subbed back off but thankfully Stephen Elliott equalised.”
McGowan returned to Easter Road for the New Year derby of 2012 with Paulo Sergio in charge but the club’s finances in disarray. Players’ wages had been late in the October and November of the outgoing year but they took the field with December’s pay packets seeming to have disappeared up the chimneys with letters to Santa Claus.
“I was still living in digs, no wife and kids at that point, but the older guys had mortgages, mouths to feed and it was Christmas. It would have been very easy for us to lose that derby and blame the defeat on the chaos at the club – but we didn’t.” The 3-1 win featured McGowan’s first goal in maroon and, he reckons, bonded team and supporters.
“That was an important victory. It brought the fans onside with us. There might have been the attitude: footballers are well off, a couple of months’ wages missed is nothing to cry about. But we weren’t on big, big money. It wasn’t that the supporters felt sorry for us, more that they could see we cared about the club. After that, although we didn’t always play well, they stuck with us. And then we all had a fantastic end to the season.”
Hearts were “quietly confident” going into the final, having won all the league derbies that campaign. Hibs had had a dismal time of it, flirting with relegation. “The only concerns we had were that Griffiths could bang one in the top corner from 40 yards and [Garry] O’Connor could score from nothing. We might have 90 percent possession but still not win. And that was the last game anybody wanted to lose.”
He reckons that ten years ago Hearts had the better players. Did they, given Hibs’ big-game frailties before they would finally smash the Scottish Cup curse, also have the mentally-stronger ones? “Possibly. Back then we always thought we were the more confident team, even if that sometimes didn’t show in the league placings. Maybe the mental strength we had came from the expectations of the club. From the age of 17 I knew we had to beat Hibs. I’m not sure if I saw the same from them about us. I think our supporters were more up for the derbies too. The club sold out their allocation in 2012 faster and it’s been the same this year. Hearts always want to be the biggest team in Edinburgh.”
A decade ago the Hibs team contained five loan players and there were many grumbles from the support that this left the side short of the necessary experience, passion and commitment for the derby of derbies. “I think that was a factor,” says McGowan. “We had a lot of guys who’d been at Hearts a decent amount of time. Jamie MacDonald and myself from youths, Marius Zaliukas and Andrew Driver six years, Andy Webster came as a teenager, went away and returned, Blackie was a lifelong fan. I remember there was a debate beforehand about how having too many guys emotionally involved could cost us; that the final would be overwhelming. Hibs on the other hand would have all these players with no pressure on them. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.”
As Hampden rained maroon confetti, McGowan admits he did not get the opportunity to commiserate with the losers. “It was difficult to do but I always had a thought for Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson who I’d played against underage. There was mutual respect and I knew that 5-1 would have been a massive shock for them. They cared, and so did James McPake who I got to know when I played for Dundee, but probably Hibs didn’t have enough guys who did. If it hadn’t been for James and a couple of others the scoreline could have been a lot worse.”
McGowan’s goal was the fourth, coming right after the penalty, an unmissable header with the player following the ball into the net and then embarking on a gormless dance of delirium. “I lost it, didn’t I?” he laughs. “A short while before we’d been sat in the changing-room at half-time, having played well but only 2-1 ahead. But after my goal I thought to myself: ohmigod, we’re probably going to win the bloody thing now. Half of me wished my celebration could have been a cool one. But the other half was like: it’s okay, I’ll live with looking like a lunatic. The celebration got a lot of positive reaction from fans. A few have told me that if they’d scored the goal to probably win the cup it’s how they’d have reacted.”
To reach Qatar, McGowan’s national team must overcome United Arab Emirates – a stop earlier in his continental cross-crossing – and Peru. They will be nothing if not competitive because the age-old query, “What’s Australia’s national sport”, comes with the answer: “Winning.” A strong Scottish link for the Socceroos continues with former Hibee Martin Boyle’s involvement. “He’s hit the ground running for us but I hope it’s me celebrating on Saturday night and not him.”
McGowan played in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where he’s supposed to have flashed the “5-1” hand-signal during a game against Holland. He insists he was merely helping line up a defensive wall but admits that every selfie request in the past ten years has come with the requirement he confirms the famous scoreline.
“If I had a pound for every one I’d be pretty rich,” he laughs. “And if I ever need a drink I’d just have to head down to Gorgie in my Hearts top and someone would oblige.”