Ryan McGOWAN will no doubt deny ownership of a Danny Grainger doll, but, if he has followed the advice of ex-Hearts defender Jimmy Sandison, the 22-year-old Australian may well be indebted to voodoo magic for an impending first-team chance with the Jambos.
Despite having started just three of Hearts’ 14 SPL games this season, McGowan is unlikely to have resorted to sticking pins in an effigy of one man restricting his access to a slot in the senior side, but he is tipped by Sandison to be the ideal replacement for Grainger, one of Jambos boss Paulo Sergio’s most consistent performers this term who has been ruled out until the new year with injury.
Sandison, who played for Hearts from 1984-1991, cuts a keen supporter from the Tynecastle stands to this day and often forms part of the commentary team on the club’s online match coverage. Now, he says his sometime co-commentator McGowan, equally at home in midfield or defence, is the man to fill in and assert his claim for a first-team berth.
“Ryan should actually feel a bit hard done by,” said Sandison of a player who earned Sky Sports’ man of the match award in Hearts’ 1-1 draw with Rangers on the opening day of this season. “I’ve never seen him play poorly in a Hearts strip.
“I can understand managers doing that, as managers want a regular back four. He’s done himself really proud and will probably get the nod ahead of most of them.
“He’s not naturally left-sided, but is very mobile and has good pace over ten-15 yards, which you need these days with so many pacy strikers in the game. He has real good stature, and is quite an intimidating presence.
“He’s also very comfortable on the ball – a bit like David Weir and Andy Webster – and always makes good use of it. I have a wee carry-on with him, telling him to get the voodoo dolls out and hopefully someone gets a little injury so he gets his chance.”
McGowan’s current contract expires in the summer of 2013 and, having joined Hearts five years ago from near his home town of Adelaide, he is only now beginning to use his talent to positive effect on the SPL stage. At 22, “Gowser” may view level of his progress in the next year-and-a-half as critical to his chances of remaining with Hearts.
“There comes a time after you’ve been in and around the first team when you need to start playing regularly,” said Sandison.
“You begin to put questions over your future at the club. There’s not a reserve league any more, so those not in the first team are only playing in bounce games and training. Ryan, though, is very flexible and never lets us down.”
Sandison’s argument for McGowan’s inclusion at right-back centres around the power of the young Aussie, but he adds that Hearts would be pressed into altering their style and adapting to the loss of an attacking dimension previously offered by Grainger and, before him, Lee Wallace, who signed for Rangers in summer this year.
“I think Danny’s been excellent. He tries these lung-bursting ‘Lee Wallace’ runs down the wing and produces excellent delivery,” said Sandison. “There are guys who will come in and be able to do that, but not to his standard and quality. He’s able to put a ball in from the halfway line, or from the byline, because Grainger can find you from 50-60 yards.
“Ryan McGowan coming in will mean [striker] Ryan Stevenson will have the ball played in to his feet a bit more. They’ll know when McGowan comes down the left the strikers will maybe come in short. It’ll just be a different philosophy, but the manager won’t change his overall style.”
Brian Whittaker and Tosh McKinlay are of Sandison’s vintage and filled the left-back slot for Hearts 20-plus years ago, and although the position remains troublesome for many clubs due to the proliferation of predominantly right-footed footballers, Sandison believes the versatility of the likes of McGowan, Eggert Jonsson and Rudi Skacel means the role is relatively easy to fill.
“Jonsson can fill in anywhere and McGowan is a terrific player. That’s what I like about the squad – they’re very versatile,” said Sandison, 46. “Rudi Skacel has not had a pre-season and is not as fit as the rest of the troops. Although he is very left-sided, he’s maybe not a left wing back who would go up and down the line. His best position is off the front two, but I don’t think he would take the huff if he was asked to play left back some weeks.
If Jambos boss Sergio decides a natural left-back is preferable to such utility players as Skacel, the answer, says Sandison, lies in the form of 18-year-old rookie Kevin McHattie. The Scotland under-17 represents the straightest replacement for Grainger and, besides, a similarly prodigious precedent in Gary Naysmith was handed his chance in the late-1990s when a year younger at 17.
“I’ve heard really good things about McHattie from Alan White [Hearts’ community manager]. He looks the most natural left-sided defensive player, but you get the impression that the manager prefers experience so that’s why he’s down the pecking order.
“Apart from McHattie and Grainger, no-one else is naturally able to play at left back, so you might have a case to take a chance on him. I think McGowan or Jonsson may get the chance before him, but it looks time for him to come into the first-team squad.”