Dylan McGowan openly admits Hearts are still “a work in progress”, but the young Australian has warned Celtic they will encounter a more mature side on Sunday than the one they beat in the league back in September.
The Scottish champions return to Tynecastle this weekend to kick off their Scottish Cup defence two-and-a-half months after recording a 3-1 victory in the Capital.
Hearts competed very well that day and briefly levelled the match in the second half through Jason Holt, but ultimately Celtic’s superiority shone through against a youthful Jambos side who were still finding their feet in the first team back then.
That defeat came early on in what would become a demoralising but character-building run in which administration-hit Hearts took only one point from a possible 24 in the league. McGowan believes that he and his young colleagues have now emerged from that slump as a stronger team and, although still prone to costly errors, he feels they are gradually becoming more accustomed to what is required to compete against top-flight opposition.
“When Celtic came to Tynecastle the last time, we acquitted ourselves well,” McGowan said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “We were level at 1-1 fairly late in the game, but we got punished for a couple of little errors. Hopefully, we’ve learnt from that and can give them more of a game on Sunday. We are more mature as a team now and I think the wins at Aberdeen and Hibs in the last few weeks have shown that.
“We are still a work in progress, but most of the younger boys have now got at least 15 games under their belts and they’re starting to feel at home in the first team. It’s already starting to show in the performances and we’re only going to get better and better with time. We’re getting closer and closer to where we want to be and it will click for us. When it does click, we’ll start picking up a lot more points than we are now.”
While Celtic are red-hot favourites this weekend, McGowan and his team-mates will take heart from the fact their biggest results this season have come when they have been viewed as lambs to the slaughter, namely home and away to Aberdeen in the league and away to Hibs in the League Cup. “I don’t think it’s a case of us raising our game against the likes of Hibs and Aberdeen this season,” said McGowan. “I think it’s just that we’ve performed a little bit better in those games and got a few breaks that we haven’t had in other matches. Winning those games at Easter Road and Pittodrie, when no-one really gave us a chance, gives us a lot of confidence for a game like this.”
The gulf between the two clubs is perhaps highlighted by the fact Celtic welcomed the mighty AC Milan to Parkhead in the Champions League in midweek, while Hearts’ last European action came in the form of a fund-raiser against Wolfsburg a couple of weeks ago. McGowan, however, is adamant Hearts will be unfazed at facing a side who have been keeping such illustrious company of late.
“Everyone looks forward to these games,” said the 22-year-old. “There should be a good crowd and Celtic obviously played in the Champions League on Tuesday, so it’ll be good to test ourselves against the best team in the country.
“Every player likes to test themselves against players who have played at that level and who have won league titles, so hopefully we can do ourselves proud on Sunday. We just have to treat them like any other opponents because that’s what they are. They are a top team, but they still play in our league week in, week out.”
As Hearts – as big as 8/1 – bid to defy the odds on Sunday, they can take heart from the fact they produced a stunning upset the last time they faced Celtic in the Scottish Cup. Craig Beattie’s last-gasp penalty and subsequent topless celebration, right, after sealing a 2-1 victory at Hampden in the 2012 semi-final is now the stuff of Tynecastle legend and McGowan sees no reason why his team can’t pull off another famous victory against the most formidable team in the country.
“I was out on loan at the time, but I watched the semi-final and it was a great performance from the boys,” he recalls. “We were good value for our win and we went on to have an even better win in the final. Our team’s changed so much since then, but I think we can definitely take inspiration from that win as Celtic were massive favourites that day, as they will be on Sunday.
“Celtic go into most games as favourites, but that can work in our favour. If we can get a good start and get the Tynecastle crowd behind us, there’s no doubt we can go on and win the game. It’s important to get through the first 20 minutes and keep ourselves solid and hopefully catch Celtic on a bad day.”
After starting the season at right-back, McGowan is now beginning to establish himself in his favoured centre-back role. “I have been delighted to get a few games at centre-back, but I’m just happy to be playing,” he said. “I’ve always thought of myself as a centre-back, but when you start getting a few games here, there and everywhere, you start to wonder where your best position is. I take advice from the gaffer for whatever position he asks me to play and as long as he’s happy with me, I’m happy with my performances.
“It’s hard not to grow as a player when you’re playing week in, week out. You learn from your own mistakes, you learn from other people’s mistakes around you and you learn how to hold on to games, which is something I think we have been starting to get better at in the last few games.”