AS Ryan McGowan embarks on an exciting new chapter in his life in China, not one Hearts fan will begrudge him the chance to flourish away from Tynecastle.
After all, there can be few young foreigners in Scottish football who have ever been as well received by their public as “Gowser”.
The 23-year-old Australian only became an established first pick last season, but in double-quick time he earned cult status in the eyes of the Hearts fans. Indeed, there are plenty who would even argue that, as a goal hero of the 5-1 Scottish Cup final demolition of Hibs last May, McGowan is a club legend.
He received further adulation by snubbing a move to Rangers in August, but ultimately – and perhaps inevitably – the defender’s burgeoning stock, allied to Hearts’ financial troubles, led him to become the latest cup final icon to be shuffled out the Tynecastle exit door when he signed a lucrative two-year deal with Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng Taishan.
Although excited by the fresh challenge he has been thrust into almost out of necessity, his big regret is that he hasn’t had a proper chance to say farewell to the Hearts supporters.
Speaking exclusively to the Evening News after touching down in China, McGowan said: “The fans really took to me and I’ll always be so grateful for that, so I was gutted I didn’t get a proper chance to say bye to them. It would have been good to have played in a few more games before I left so I could have said a proper goodbye. I really wanted to play in the derby [a week past Thursday] but was told we couldn’t risk it because I had the medical coming up. I’ve spent all of my adult life at Hearts so far, so the club will always have a big place in my heart. There are so many people at Hearts who did so much for me and I can’t thank them enough. I’ll hopefully get back later in the year to say a proper goodbye.”
After heading to China on the eve of the New Year derby to agree terms with his new club, he returned to the Capital on Monday to tie up loose ends and say farewell to his friends and colleagues. After a leaving night which kicked off in Loanhead Miners Club – the Midlothian town was his home for the past year or so – and ended, typically for Gowser, in a George Street nightspot, he jetted out of Edinburgh on Thursday night. As a result, he’s barely had time to gather his thoughts.
“I’m a mixture of emotions,” he said. “I’m sad at leaving Hearts because I had six amazing years there, but I’m also excited about the next challenge and desperate to get started. You have to embrace new challenges – that’s what life’s about.”
Having left Adelaide to move to Edinburgh as a 16-year-old, McGowan knows what he’s talking about in terms of embracing new challenges. He certainly ingratiated himself with Edinburgh life – notably when it came to the derby rivalry. “I love Edinburgh – it’s a great football city and the people were great to me,” he said. “Even the Hibs fans. I absolutely loved the derbies. It was a really good, healthy rivalry.
“Sometimes when I was out in the town I’d have Hibs fans coming up to me telling me about the problems at their team and I’d have Hearts fans telling me that we needed to beat Hibs and stuff like that, so you couldn’t fail to get involved in what the derby meant to them. Coming through the youth ranks, we had it drummed into us that under no circumstances were we allowed to lose to Hibs.”
That sentiment was never more pertinent than last spring when the biggest Edinburgh derby of all-time would go on to provide McGowan with his greatest moment at Hearts. “Beating Hibs in the Scottish Cup final was obviously the high point and that will probably remain a career high for the rest of my days,” he says. “From the moment we beat Celtic in the semi-final, it was just crazy.
“We still had loads of league games left to play, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the final, so it was quite hard to keep focused. Why were we so dominant on the day? I think it helps when you’ve got someone in the dressing-room like Lockey [Gary Locke], who’s the biggest Jambo I know. As soon as we beat Celtic, he was telling us we hadn’t achieved anything and that it would all count for nothing if we lost to Hibs.
“When the game eventually came round, you looked at our team and we were packed with big-game players. It all just came together perfectly and the whole weekend will stay with me forever. I ended up at the big party in Woodburn Miners Club on the Sunday night. I’d never been in a place like that before and it was a total riot. It was just a brilliant time.
“Since then, I’ve had grown men coming up to me and they’re standing next to their wife and kids, and telling me that I helped give them the best day of their lives. I still find that weird, but it means so much to me that they feel that way.”
Despite the adulation he’s grown accustomed to over the past year-and-a-bit, it wasn’t all plain sailing for McGowan, with false dawns and loan spells littering his pre-breakthrough years. “I made my debut at 18 [away to Gretna], but I didn’t really get a run in the team until I was 21, so it was hard at times. I went out on loan to Ayr and then Partick and I suppose there were times when I doubted if I was going to make the breakthrough at Hearts, but I always believed in my ability.
“Me and Temps [David Templeton] used to go along to all the first-team games and watch guys like Andy Driver, Lee Wallace and Christophe Berra out there playing regularly and you just thought, ‘I want a piece of that’. It made us extra determined and then eventually me and Temps started to get our chance. The game against Rangers at Ibrox at the start of last season was probably the one where a lot of people sat up and took notice of me, but then just when I thought I was about to get a run in the team, there was a managerial change with Paulo Sergio coming in for Jim Jefferies and I was back out the team for a while. Thankfully I got back in, and managed to cement my place from then on. It’s incredible to think I wasn’t even a first-team regular a year and a half ago – the last year has just been unbelievable.”
That unbelievable year has earned him the chance to set himself up for life financially. Not many SPL players end up in China, but McGowan is open-minded and philosophical about what lies ahead. “When the prospect of going to China first came up, I had a good chat with my parents as well as my network of people in Edinburgh,” he said. “If things had been different in terms of Hearts’ situation I would have happily stayed there – another few years and I’d have been close to a testimonial! – but things happen and you just have to move on.
“I’ve only signed a two-year deal, so it’s not like I’ve agreed to spend my whole career in China. I’ll get the experience of living in another new country and I’ll only be 25 when the contract ends, so I’ll still have a good few years ahead of me. I really don’t see any problems with it at all. I’m just really looking forward to the challenge.”
McGowan doesn’t have time to let the grass grow round his feet. He and his new teammates travel to Thailand at the start of next week to begin preparations for the Super League season, which begins in March, and then head to Turkey in a few weeks for a further pre-season training camp. “I’m straight into it and that’s a good thing because I just feel ready to get started. The trips away will give me a good chance to get to know my teammates straight away.”
Fans have been imploring him to follow Rudi Skacel’s lead and wear the No. 51 jersey in Shandong. “I’ve not had a chance to assess the number situation yet,” he reports, “but I’ll see what’s available, and who knows?”