RYAN McGOWAN faces possibly the most challenging afternoon of his fledgling career tomorrow. Out of position, on the wrong side of the field, away to Celtic, his task will be to nullify the threat of the rampant James Forrest.
Those who know the assured Australian predict he will take the test in his stride. Despite being a predominantly right-footed central defender, he has adjusted well to left-back since suspension and injury sidelined Danny Grainger last month. Forrest, a winger with seven goals to his credit this season, should expect an uncompromising opponent.
McGowan’s displays represent one of the brighter aspects of Hearts’ performances in recent weeks. One win in six matches can be attributed to missing wages, poor team morale and erratic defending. However, neither uncertainty nor lack of motivation are detectable in McGowan regardless of which position he fills.
Loan spells at Ayr United and Partick Thistle honed his development and readied him for regular Premier League football. Tomorrow, he makes just his 22nd senior appearance for Hearts and his 13th of the current campaign. He is guaranteed a stern examination of his credentials in the most intimidating arena but will rely on his maturity and level-headedness to guide him through.
“I don’t think he’ll be fazed by it,” said Jackie McNamara, the former Celtic defender who played alongside McGowan at Partick and who is now manager at Firhill. “I saw Ryan play right-back against Rangers earlier in the season and he had an excellent game. He tried to get forward and he did lose the ball on the halfway line before Rangers scored but it wasn’t that bad an error. He’s done really well when called upon by Hearts and I don’t think there will be any problem with him doing his job against Celtic. James is the one who has really driven Celtic on this year. I think they’ve relied on him heavily in the last few months. For a young kid, it’s a lot of pressure to have placed on you to create things all the time. Other players are coming back now who can take a bit of pressure of him, like Kris Commons.
“Ryan is very quick and he’s shown he can keep up with the best of them. I don’t think he’ll be unsettled by Forrest. How Hearts deal with him could decide whether they get anything from the game or not. Celtic’s strikers are hitting a bit of form but they need the supply line. If Ryan can keep Forrest quiet it will be a huge bonus.”
McNamara played as a right-footed left-back many times during his ten-year Celtic career and knows the difficulties of performing an unfamiliar role. He believes McGowan’s tenacity and diligence are serving him well as Grainger’s deputy.
“He will be wanting to get out there and show how good he is, show what he can do,” continued McNamara. “I don’t have any doubt he’ll do well. I think Ryan has a big future in the game. He’ll just be keen to kickstart his career and get a regular place in his preferred position.
“I know he was out of the Hearts team for a while and he would’ve been frustrated by that. He did well at the start of the season but he just needs to get on with it and make sure he stays in the team now. Hearts have a big squad so he needs to be patient and do the best he can when the chance comes along.”
Celtic’s last league defeat came at Tynecastle back on October 2. McGowan’s only two previous encounters with the Parkhead club have ended in 3-0 defeats, so he may feel there is something of a score to be settled this weekend.
At 22, he is eager to play as much first-team football as possible to enhance his experience. His versatility is a significant advantage over others striving for game time at Hearts, such as the Lithuanian winger Arvydas Novikovas. McGowan has operated in both full-back berths for Hearts this season and looked comfortable throughout. Centre-back is where he has played most since his teenage years as a Riccarton academy pupil, but that is not the full extent of his talents.
“First and foremost, Ryan is a good footballer,” explained McNamara. “He listens to what’s being said and he learns. There’s no reason why he can’t play a number of positions. He played right-back for Hearts earlier in the season and he’s played centre-back as well. He has all the attributes, he’s strong in the tackle and determined. He can play anywhere, really.
“I actually think his best position is centre midfield because he’s strong and good in the tackle. He’s a strong runner with the ball so that’s where I see him at his best. He played a couple of positions at Partick but I think that was his best.
“Ryan came through to Partick on loan along with Conrad Balatoni from Hearts and he’s one of those young boys that you look out for and want to do well. He is a good team player and one thing to his advantage is a long throw-in. Not many people can throw the ball the distances he can so he has a lot to offer.
“Left-back isn’t his preferred position but Ryan will want to play and stay in the team. That will be his aim.”
A solid performance stifling Forrest on his own ground would certainly add weight to McGowan’s case.