Approaching 1am in the southwestern Chinese city of Guiyang, Ryan McGowan is wide awake talking football. It’s that boundless enthusiasm which has earned him a third lucrative contract in China’s Super League and ended rumours of a return to Hearts.
McGowan joined Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng last month on a 12-month deal after spending most of January fielding questions about his impending return to Tynecastle. Hearts knew he was available as a free agent but didn’t make contact. That didn’t stop Scotland’s rumour mill hitting overdrive with the defender in Edinburgh over Christmas.
His stock in China remains high after successful spells with Shandong Luneng Taishan and Henan Jianye. He made his Guizhou debut at the weekend in a 1-1 draw with Liaoning Whowin and has sacrificed much to continue his career in Asia.
As McGowan speaks on the phone in the small hours, his son Harry is at home in Edinburgh without his father. Young McGowan recently spent his first birthday with only mum for company as dad’s football takes precedence. These are testing circumstances for all concerned. It would have been significantly easier to rejoin Hearts and keep his family together, but McGowan didn’t have that option.
“I think a lot of Chinese teams see me as little risk. I understand how the league works and how the Chinese people are. I’ve been relatively successful in my three years here, so they see that as no huge risk,” said the Australian.
“Finance is one of the keys. The other is that I was quite successful in the two seasons I spent at Shandong. We finished second in the league and won the cup. Like any league, once teams know you can perform at that level in that environment, they see you as a low-risk player.”
The consequences of such a lifestyle are often hidden from public view. “When this deal came up, I was told from the first instant. I knew if they were interested that I’d need to be on a flight three or four days later. With that comes its own pressure and stress, trying to organise everything in four days to leave home. It is difficult. It’s part and parcel of being a footballer. I would never complain about it but it does make life hard sometimes.
“I missed Harry’s first birthday and little moments like that can be difficult. At the same time, I have a career and a job. I’m not the only father to have missed birthdays and things due to work. I missed my brother’s wedding as well. In a normal working evirnoment these things wouldn’t happen.”
A change limiting Chinese clubs to three overseas players per match cost McGowan his place at Henan at the end of last year. Thankfully, Guizhou stepped in and handed him one of their “foreigner” slots – only after a few weeks of familiar speculation during his end-of-season break. Reports that Hearts were ready to re-sign one of their 2012 Scottish Cup-winning heroes didn’t help.
“I had a few weeks in Australia seeing family and then came back to Edinburgh for Christmas,” he said. “When I’m in Edinburgh, everyone puts two and two together and thinks I’m coming back to play in the UK. I’m settled in Edinburgh and it really is my second home. I love spending time there and I happened to be there when the January transfer window was open.
“I’ll forever be grateful for everything Hearts did for me and my family. They gave me the platform to become a professional footballer. They put a lot of time into me and my brother [Dylan]. They were the first club to take a risk on us by bringing us over from Australia. For that, I can never thank them enough or do enough for them. We had some very successful times there and it will always be a very special place for me.
“A lot of things have to line up for me to come back. They’d have to want me. I’m currently contracted here, so there are a lot things which would need to fall into place. I would have to consider it if it did ever come up. It hasn’t come up in the last couple of years and it probably won’t come up for the next 12 months because I’m contracted over here. I’ve no doubt that, if I’m a free agent next January, it will be out there again. If I happen to be back in Edinburgh, [the story will be] I’ll be joining Hearts again.
“I think I’ll always be linked like that. When players are looking for a new club, it’s only human nature that they get linked back to places where they’ve been successful. I think that’s mostly the case with me. On one side, it’s great that people would love you to come back and play. You say to them: ‘I don’t think I’ll be signing.’ Then they look at you and say: ‘Come on, you wouldn’t tell me even if you were.’
“I went and watched two Hearts games with my mates when I was back. I’m a Hearts fan but if I go to a game everyone thinks I’m signing, or I’m going there to sign. I’m just going with my mates, having a couple of beers and watching the boys play.”
Memories of McGowan in maroon are almost all happy ones. The player thinks that may fuel some of the conjecture. “If you ask anyone what were the top ten Hearts games of the last ten years, I was probably involved in five or six. We beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi, then obviously the final, Tottenham away, Liverpool home and away. I played in all of them.
“I guess when people think of those games then I can sometimes come into their heads. Straight away it evokes good memories and I’ll always enjoy bumping into fans and listening to their stories from these games. That’s why everybody loves football – it’s memories. I was very lucky to be on the pitch and actually live what a lot of them dream of. It’s a humbling experience listening to them and it makes you proud of what you’ve achieved.”
He didn’t become an Australian internationalist and seasoned pro in the cash-laden Chinese Super League by resting on laurels. With so much renminbi offered to foreign stars, it is heartening to hear McGowan’s tales of how the Chinese are properly investing in their football structure.
“They want to become a huge footballing nation. They want to know how everything is done at top teams in Europe and filter that into the Chinese league,” he explained. “The money they’re spending on players and coaches is well-documented, but what a lot of people don’t see is the infrastructure behind the clubs.
“Every club has its own team hotel, training base, with all the top facilities you need. They have academies with European coaches as well. People focus on the huge money they’re spending on superstar players but ignoring the fact that they are investing the same amount in facilities to last for 20 or 30 years.
“China’s most successful club is Guangzhou [Evergrande]. They have a massive training base which can sleep and house 5000 kids. They’ve got 30 training pitches. They have a huge structure. The Chinese are targeting the big players to get the kids involved and get their attention. That gets everything focused on China and gets the people right into the league. They can afford to spend lots of money on foreigners because they’re not buying a team’s worth. It’s only three or four.”
McGowan’s team currently have former Rangers forward Nikica Jelavic taking up another of their foreign slots. Even in amongst sprawling Chinese cities with millions of inhabitants, the attention on footballers can be intense due to the rising interest in the sport.
“We do stand out a little bit more than your normal Chinese person,” laughed McGowan. “Football is big here so people are interested in what we do, especially the foreigners. It’s probably the same as it is for me in Edinburgh or back in Adelaide. You do get recognised a fair bit.
“It’s funny how football works. Not so long ago, I was on loan at Ayr United and at that point breaking into the Hearts team seemed a million miles away. A lot of hard work, sacrifice and luck got me an opportunity. The rest is history.”