FROM “owning” Juan Ortiz at Ibrox on the season’s opening day, through the ecstasy of scoring against Hibs, to the pride of collecting the Hearts Young Player of the Year award on Saturday evening, it has been quite a season for young Ryan McGowan. One beyond his wildest dreams, in fact.
Last summer he approached his 22nd birthday with just nine Hearts appearances to his name, knowing three years had lapsed since his senior debut in a meaningless end-of-season encounter with Gretna.
It was now or never, and McGowan made sure it was now. He seized every first-team opportunity this season to become a regular, a status he craved since leaving his native Australia for Edinburgh in 2006. Being recognised as Tynecastle’s most outstanding young player of the last 12 months topped it all off.
With versatility one of his greatest attributes, McGowan’s assured displays in both full-back roles have been a feature in recent months. Be it right-back, left-back, centre-back or centre midfield, he is a reliable performer, something the Hearts manager, Paulo Sergio, has grown to accept. McGowan’s consistency at right-back forced the more experienced Jamie Hamill into a midfield role of late and, to date, has brought him 31 senior appearances this season.
On Saturday he accepted the Hearts Young Player of the Year award in Tynecastle’s Gorgie Suite with his trademark humility. Inside he was probably bursting with unbridled joy, perhaps even more than he displayed in front of the South Stand at Easter Road back on January 2.
McGowan has worked tirelessly for six years since leaving his parents’ home in suburban Adelaide to make his name in Scotland. A series of managerial changes hindered his progress at Hearts, as did the fact that blooding young defenders is difficult because they have no margin for error on a football field. But last July he came to the fore. His dominance of Ortiz on the Spaniard’s Rangers debut evinced a player ready to step up.
“Last year, his contract had an option in it where Hearts could have released him and said: ‘We don’t think you’re going to be our type of player,’” explained Dave McPherson, the former Hearts defender who helped broker McGowan’s move to Tynecastle. “I knew they wouldn’t let him go and waste all the time, effort and money that had gone into him over the years. I think he was aware that he was nearly there in terms of breaking into the first team.
“The uncertainty at Hearts regarding managers didn’t help. He would make an impression and the manager might think Ryan was one for the future, but then he would be replaced and it was back to square one. I had a chat with Ryan recently and I said to him he was actually two years behind schedule.
“He should have been in this position a couple of years ago, but all the managers coming and going affected that. This is where he is now and I’m sure he’s happy to take it.
“All young players need a run of ten to 15 games in the first team and that gives them that extra confidence to go out and play. They know they can do it and the nervousness of playing for the first team goes out the window. You can watch players getting past that mark. They lose that youthful nervousness and Ryan got to that point this season.
“He just loves playing for Hearts and he’s part of the furniture now because he has been there since a young kid. He’s seen a lot of comings and goings and he has always remained focused on the team. As everyone knows, he’s one of those players who will always go out there and give 110 per cent.”
A potential captain of the future then? “Oh yes, definitely,” continued McPherson. “A lot of people are taking notice of him and particularly his versatility.
“You’re getting four players for the price of one with Ryan. In the modern game, that is great value. I’d actually like to see him playing an attacking midfield role because I think he’d be outstanding there. That’s a role that comes with experience. Ryan defends well, he leads other players round about him because of his attitude. There’s no doubt he could be a future captain of Hearts.”
Although McPherson played a part in luring McGowan from Down Under, it was an English-born coach at the South Australian Institute of Sport who first identified his potential. “A guy I knew in Adelaide, Martyn Crook, was Ryan’s coach at the SAIS,” explained McPherson. “He put me on to Ryan, his brother Dylan and Rocky Visconte when Ryan was about 15 or 16 years old.
“I met Ryan’s mum and dad and we discussed the possibility of him coming over to Hearts. Martyn explained what type of lads they all were and he felt they would be able to cope with the change. There was a lot of background work done before Ryan actually hit the ground in Scotland.
“Martyn Crook was the main man in all of it. Unfortunately, he died a couple of years after Ryan moved to Hearts. He was in California on a trip with the Australian Under-17 squad and never showed up for breakfast one morning. He’d had a heart attack during the night so everybody was in shock when that happened. He was such a nice guy and he was the one who was heavily involved in Ryan coming to Hearts.
“I’d told Martyn when I was travelling Australia to let me know if he came across anybody who stood out because there was a market for them in Scotland. He got in touch and I went back out to Australia to meet him a few times. He recommended Ryan as one of the better ones.”
McGowan’s maturity and confidence were evident almost from the minute his long-haul flight from Australia touched down at Edinburgh Airport late in 2005.
“He settled in really quickly,” said McPherson. “Sometimes when boys come over it can take a while, but not with Ryan. When his brother came over that was a big boost for him. If he was apprehensive he certainly never showed it.
“Deep down there would have been that wee bit of doubt because he was going away from home, needing to tough it out among a bunch of strangers in a country where he’d never played football. He must have had a certain amount of doubt, but it never showed.
“Any time I met him he was always fully confident about wanting to knuckle down, work hard and play.
“I don’t know if he had a stated aim, but I had a stated aim for him. I told him he would play in the under-19s and that he should be looking to break into the first team at 18 or 19.
“He had to be looking for a year-on-year progression. Because of the number of changes in managers at Hearts, it’s taken a bit longer for him to break into the first team and get a settled place. He knew he just had to keep his head down.
“He never showed any emotion over not getting a chance. I think he realised his turn would come and he just had to wait for it.”
Patience has paid off big time. That thought would doubtless have crossed McGowan’s mind standing on stage receiving his Young Player of the Year shield from Hearts’ assistant manager Sergio Cruz at the weekend. The awards continue next month when the Gorgie Suite hosts Hearts’ Player of the Year ceremony on Sunday, May 6. McGowan won’t win that one, but there is little doubt he has been one of the players of the season at Tynecastle.