Headed cup final goals are becoming Ryan McGowan’s speciality. Be it Hampden Park in Glasgow or the Olympic Sports Centre in Nanjing, McGowan is making a habit of scoring in showpiece finals.
Then there’s the celebration, which now involves removing his shirt and charging round a track Craig Beattie-style. When your 95th-minute goal wins the cup and takes your club into the Champions League, you’re entitled to go a bit mental.
McGowan did just that on Saturday. His dramatic stoppage-time header won the Chinese Cup for Shandong Luneng and gave the former Hearts defender his second goal from two cup final appearances. The close-range effort was even converted from a similar area to the one he scored for Hearts against Hibs in the 2012 Scottish Cup final. McGowan is a man for the big occasion, it seems.
Shandong were facing defeat on away goals to Jiangsu Sainty in the dying seconds of the two-legged final until his last-gasp intervention. Shandong’s 4-2 home win in the first leg had been cancelled out, with Jiangsu 2-0 up in the second leg and just moments away from lifting the trophy. McGowan popped up inside a crowded penalty area to head a loose ball high into the net after a free-kick ricocheted into his path.
Then came another wild celebration. He jumped advertising boards and perimeter fencing before whipping off his bright orange jersey and galloping round the stadium’s athletic track in front of Shandong’s euphoric fans.
It is a moment he intends to cherish alongside other career highs like playing for Australia at the World Cup in Brazil. Now back in his native Australia on an end-of-season break, he spoke to the Evening News about this uncanny knack of netting in cup finals. “It’s a decent ratio now,” he laughed. “It’s something I can look back on, another one of these moments in my career that I can really be proud of. When I hang up the boots I can look back on two huge games that I played in and say that I managed to influence them both with a goal.
“At the time, I just couldn’t believe I’d scored again in a cup final. I was speaking to friends before the game and they were giving me stick and saying, ‘Imagine if you scored again’. It’s great for myself, my family and everyone in the support group around me that I was lucky enough to score.
“Anyone who’s seen my celebrations over the years knows they’re never planned. Everything just takes over you and you go crazy for a little bit. I know it looked a little bit like a certain Mr Beattie’s celebration, but mine was a bit more stylish than his. The goal was right in front of our fans. If it was at the other end, I probably wouldn’t have jumped the barrier but that was our end, so it was great to jump over and run and see them all going crazy and enjoying it.”
McGowan was just as unhinged. His kangaroo-style antics after scoring for Hearts at Hampden became the stuff of legend around Gorgie and he was no different this time. Sheer shock took over, not least because he had scored a goal similar to that header against Hibs two years ago.
“I’m not going to score from 20 or 30 yards out so I don’t tend to try it. The only time I really get forward is for corner-kicks,” he explained. “All good strikers keep moving in the box and that’s just something I’ve tried to do. Some of it is a little bit of luck. My cup final goal for Hearts, I pretty much stole it. The one the other day was a bit more difficult but it makes all the sacrifices over the last ten years worthwhile, like leaving home at such a young age.
“I did quite well getting forward in the first leg of the final. I won a penalty and got an assist so we were quietly confident going into the second leg. Jiangsu got an early goal, which gave them belief and put us on the back foot. We knew if we lost 2-0 they would win on away goals so when they went 2-0 up the game changed. We went from holding out to pushing for a goal and I was lucky that the opportunity fell to me.
“I think everyone was up in the box and it was our keeper who helped knock it down. It was a bit of a Hail Mary to get the ball in the box and hope for the best outcome. I ran to the front post and it went over my head. I turned round to see if I could get any scraps and I saw the ball coming to me.
“My first thought was to head it into the ground and make sure it was on target, then I saw two [Jiangsu] boys on the line. I had to quickly change my mind and just get as much power on it and hope for the best. I’m just delighted it went in, for everybody involved. It was a great way to end our season. My family’s gone a little bit crazy, but most people are saying they just can’t believe that’s two cup finals and two goals I’ve scored. Especially considering I’m a defender. I’ve only scored two goals this year and that’s roughly average for me.”
Adding to the goal’s significance was the fact China’s national cup winners gain direct entry to the Asian Champions League. Shandong finished fourth in the Chinese Super League, just outside the Champions League places, so McGowan’s header ensured they achieved a major pre-season target. He has played right-back and centre-back in his two years in Jinan and is enjoying life in China, but he has no idea what the future may hold.
“Over the years I’ve just kind of got used to not knowing what’s going on. Football is funny. I could say I want to go here or there but unless someone puts money on the table for a transfer or puts a contract in front of you, then you just have to go with the flow.
“I didn’t really expect to be out in China when I was at Hearts. That situation came about because you had a set of options and you had to pick one because you weren’t going to be at Hearts. This could be the same. Shandong could accept an offer or they might not take up the option on my contract and I could be looking elsewhere.”
Should that unlikely scenario come to pass, there will be a queue of suitors for an international defender with a habit of scoring in cup finals.