RYAN McGOWAN hasn’t put a foot wrong for Hearts this season yet finds himself needing a stellar performance tonight to regain a foothold in Paulo Sergio’s first-team squad.
He has spoken to the manager and been reassured over his future, so the modest surroundings of Somerset Park become the Australian’s big stage this evening.
Fortunately, he has a fair idea of what to expect. Seven months on loan at Ayr in season 2009/10 accorded McGowan vital match experience, enabling him to challenge for a place back at his parent club. However, having started this season in dominant form at right-back, he has fallen out of favour since Sergio replaced Jim Jefferies. The last three games have seen him fail to even make the substitutes’ bench.
The player, pictured right, isn’t unduly worried but did hold talks with his manager earlier this month to clarify the situation. Tonight he is expected to play in the third round of the Scottish Communities League Cup against some of the Ayr staff who helped accelerate his development two seasons ago. There will be no room for sentiment, for McGowan senses this is his big chance to impress Sergio.
“I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago just to see what’s going on,” said the Australian, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “He seems quite happy. Jamie Hamill is doing well at right-back so I just need to make sure that, if I do get a chance to play in the team, I give the manager a selection headache. That’s all I can really do.
“At the end of the day he’s the manager and he picks the team. I’m a Hearts player but it’s not just about Ryan McGowan, it’s about the whole team.
“If that means that one week I’m playing, then the next week I’m in the stand or on the bench, I’m just happy I’m here. Different managers have different opinions on certain players. I was just speaking to him to see what his thoughts were. He got my thoughts as well. I think he’s spoken to near enough everyone out of courtesy.
“It was a general conversation and he told me that I need to make sure I give 100 per cent every time I get an opportunity.”
McGowan’s mature outlook is the reason he isn’t flustered or panicked by his omission. Still, he is a stereotypically competitive Aussie and therefore isn’t willing to just sit back and accept the situation.
“All I can do is focus on giving 100 per cent tonight if he chooses me to play. Hopefully we’ll get a win,” he added.
Whilst Sergio may feel the 22-year-old is not yet ready to become a first-team mainstay, the man in the opposite dugout this evening will have a vastly different opinion.
Brian Reid, the Ayr United manager, negotiated McGowan’s loan deal in October 2009 and then extended it three months later to ensure he kept a player who had developed into a crucial part of his team.
“I owe Brian Reid a lot,” said McGowan. “He took a chance on me a couple of years ago taking me there. He gave me over 30 starts in the First Division when I’d just turned 20. I have a lot of respect for him and a lot to thank him for. He’s done a lot for me in my short career so far and it will be good to see him tonight.”
It may be that McGowan is chosen for this specific task because of his familiarity with Somerset Park. Ayr’s home is one of Scottish football’s more traditional venues tucked in behind a group of houses. Inside are small changing rooms, old fashioned terracing and a raucous home crowd.
Anyone with prior knowledge of what awaits in Ayrshire, such as McGowan, Hamill, Ryan Stevenson and Mehdi Taouil, could come in useful.
“A lot of players have changed since I was there,” points out McGowan. “Craig Samson was the goalie and he was playing against us on Saturday with St Mirren. I don’t know how the fans will be. They were good with me when I was there and I loved the Ayr supporters. We used to take a lot of fans to away games and when we were doing well it was close to a sellout. Even when we came off after a bad result at home, the next week they would still all be there, singing their hearts out. I don’t know what their reaction will be to us. It’s probably more about Stevo (Ryan Stevenson) than it is about me.
“I keep in touch with a few of the Ayr players and I made a lot of good friends when I was down there. When the draw was made I got a couple of texts saying they hoped I would be playing, sending down a weakened team and things like that.
“I hope the manager doesn’t send down a weakened team because, with the crowd and the way Ayr play at home, I wouldn’t recommend that. We have to treat it like any other game because if we go there thinking it will be an easy game, we’ll get a rude awakening.”
Sergio is certain to have his own eyes opened to the less salubrious levels of Scottish football. “Coming from Portugal with all the sun, it might be a bit different for him. I’m sure he’s experienced enough to know that these kinds of places aren’t the best but they are places where you need to get a win.”
The craving for victory can also be attributed to Hearts’ desire to build a run in a national cup competition. The feeling within the club is that their cup exploits have not been satisfactory in recent years.
“In the last couple of seasons, we haven’t done as well as we should have in cup competitions,” explained McGowan. “Ayr away is not the best draw, they knocked out Hibs in the Scottish Cup last season so they won’t be a pushover. We need to make sure we are professional, get a result and then look forward to the next round.”
If McGowan can produce top form tonight, he too can look ahead with confidence that Sergio might be persuaded he is worth more than his current bit-part role.