THROUGHOUT this interview, Ryan McGowan refers to Hearts as “we” and “us”. He makes no apology for it. He is more than 5000 miles away in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan on a new footballing adventure, but part of him will forever remain in Edinburgh.
In his mind, he will travel west on Sunday to Hampden Park to take on St Mirren in the Scottish Communities League Cup final. Giving up Hearts is indeed a hard habit to break.
McGowan was sold to the Chinese Super League club Shandong Luneng Taishan in a £400,000 deal in January, ending a six-year association with Hearts. To listen to him, you’d think he was still going about his daily business at Riccarton. He talks about the “big achievement” of “bringing another cup back” and jokes that he wants a medal should Hearts win having played in every round of the competition to date bar the semi-finals.
“I guess I still feel part of it,” said McGowan, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I played in the earlier rounds against Livingston and Dundee United, I really only missed the semi-final against Inverness. If we win on Sunday I’ll be looking for someone to send to a medal over! If I was there, I’d be running up the steps behind everyone. I’ll never say a bad word about Hearts and I’ll always make sure I’m supporting them. It would be a great moment to be walking out with the team on Sunday.”
In reality, McGowan will be glued to a computer screen in Asia watching former colleagues attempt to lift their second trophy inside ten months. Financial troubles forced his sale during the winter transfer window to one of China’s most reputable clubs. The move furthered his career and multiplied his salary, but it also denied him the chance to join a pantheon of legends who have won both domestic cups with Hearts. Men like Dave Mackay, John Cumming, Willie Bauld and Jimmy Wardhaugh.
Last year’s 5-1 Scottish Cup triumph over Hibs included a goal for the young Australian and guaranteed him lifelong hero status in Gorgie. That is more than enough for him, although he fully appreciates the potential rarity of winning the League Cup as a follow-up. “It’s a big achievement reaching two cup finals in consecutive years,” continued McGowan. “There has been a big turnaround from the starting line-up from last year’s cup final to the starting line-up for this one. Probably only Andy Webster, Darren Barr and Jamie MacDonald will start from last season’s team, which is a huge turnaround for any club. That shows the depth we have.
“Everything that has surrounded the club over the last 12 months – wage delays and things like that – to put two cups in the trophy cabinet at Tynecastle would be a massive achievement and a huge lift for the fans. They’ve put some amazing effort in this season with the share issue and things like that so this is a chance for the boys to thank them by bringing another cup back.
“It’s very difficult to put into words how I felt last year. Even now I still get people coming up and talking about the cup final and saying what it meant to them. This is different circumstances and it’s a different competition but there will be a massive celebration afterwards if we win. You are in football to win things. The boys who were there last year will no doubt be telling the younger players exactly what to expect if they win.
“On a more personal level, taking away the fans, I’d always said I wanted to repay Hearts as a football club and last year’s final was part of that. They took a massive gamble on me, bringing me over when I was 16 and giving me a football education. Since I first moved to Scotland that was in my mind. I got the chance to win a trophy in the biggest game Hearts will ever play in. That whole day is something that anyone involved will remember for the rest of their lives.”
This time there will be a tinge of sadness for McGowan after Hearts sacked manager John McGlynn. He guided the team to Hampden having made winning the League Cup one of his pre-season priorities and must now look on as an outsider. “I feel a little bit for John because, when he came in at the start of his season, one of his main goals was to do well in the League Cup as well as the Scottish Cup,” explained McGowan. “The League Cup was something we targeted. With recent events I’m feeling it for him. If we do end up winning it, I’ll feel like he should’ve been there helping us out.
“Even the fans have to realise that winning the Scottish Cup last year made it easy to forget we didn’t have a great season in the league. We struggled to get into the top six. Rudi Skacel got 18 goals for us and I’d hate to think where we’d have been without him. He’s been very hard to replace. This year we’ve been crying out for someone to get even ten goals. That would make a massive difference given how tight the league is.”
In contrast to Hearts’ struggles, McGowan’s Chinese odyssey began properly last Saturday with Shandong Luneng’s 1-0 win over Dalian Aerbin on the Super League’s opening weekend. He has endured a rigorous pre-season including a stint at a training camp in Turkey. Despite the arduous exercises in sweltering heat, the worst thing for the defender was having to suffer Twitter updates of Hearts’ League Cup semi-final win over Inverness.
“I rushed back to the hotel but I couldn’t get on the net to watch the game so I had to make do with updates on Twitter,” he said. “I was clicking refresh all through the penalty shoot-out. It was coming up ‘Novikovas steps up’ then I’d have to click refresh before it would say ‘goal’. I was just praying it didn’t say ‘Dylan McGowan steps up’. I don’t think I’d have been able to press refresh . . .”
Adjusting to the Chinese culture has been relatively straightforward for a player who grew up in Adelaide before moving to Scotland in his mid-teens. McGowan’s club recently signed the Romanian striker Marius Niculae, formerly of Inverness, which has made the transition easier.
“It’s a new way of life and a new lifestyle. Things like restaurants are mostly the same, it’s just the language and trying to communicate with people. When I first came to Scotland I couldn’t understand anyone either,” laughed the 23-year-old. “We’ve got four other foreign boys – Marius has just arrived and we have a Brazilian (Gilberto Macena), an Argentinian (Leonardo Pisculichi) and a Lebanese boy (Roda Antar). They can all speak good English so I’m hanging around with them and they’re showing me around the city. We’ve mostly just been training. They like their training over here.
“In the games I’ve been playing centre-back mostly, and sometimes right-back. In a way there is more football played here because teams like to get the ball down and play. The SPL is more athletic and rough, typically Scottish I suppose. The pitches over here are a lot better and we play in the summer months, which makes it easier for flair players to pass and dribble.”
This week’s snow and freezing temperatures may take their toll on the Hampden surface on Sunday but Ryan McGowan would still be there in a millisecond.