RYAN McGOWAN plays at Tynecastle tonight for the first time in three years and is certain of a rousing welcome from the Hearts support.
The Australian may be clad in Dundee United’s distinctive tangerine, but his affection for maroon is well known.
Ironically, McGowan’s last appearance in Gorgie was for Hearts against Dundee United on December 23, 2012. Two weeks later he signed a lucrative two-year contract with the Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng Taishan. His exit was hurried due to the Edinburgh club’s financial troubles, but his legacy lives on.
The 26-year-old etched his name in history with a goal in Hearts’ 5-1 Scottish Cup final win over Hibs in May 2012. However, it was his work behind the scenes which made an equally important impact.
Sam Nicholson is one of several youngsters to follow in his footsteps from Riccarton youth academy to first-team regular. He may even find himself in direct opposition to the United defender this evening. Nicholson knows to expect a firm test of his mettle. It was McGowan, after all, who helped teach him what is required to survive in top-flight Scottish football.
“I was an under-20 player when Ryan was here,” recalled Nicholson. “One thing about him is he was always good with the young boys. He would come in and speak to you and he was never arrogant about it. He could sit there and talk for two hours or two minutes, he was always good that way. I think he’s a role model for a lot of young right-backs in Scotland.
“He’s done everything that I’m experiencing right now. The information he gave me has served me really well. He used to sit down and tell me what a right-back wouldn’t want to play against and pass on his experience of playing in big games. He would tell me to relax and things. Even off the pitch, I’ve had a few nice texts from him over the last couple of years and I appreciate that.”
Nicholson is also fully aware of McGowan’s more intransigent side on a football pitch. “Last time we played them [in October], he told me that even if the ball’s there to be won he’s taking me out,” smiled the winger. “You’ve got to expect that to be fair, no matter who you’re playing against. He’s a good player and, if I start tonight and he’s at right-back, it’s going to be a hard game for me. You get a hard game no matter who you play against in this league.
“I’d imagine Ryan will be emotional about coming back. He did really well at Hearts, he won and scored in the Scottish Cup final. I think it will be an emotional night for him and I’m sure he’ll get a good reception from the fans.”
McGowan and United don’t have their troubles to seek as they sit ten points adrift at the bottom of the Ladbrokes Premiership. Mixu Paatelainen replaced Jackie McNamara as manager in mid-October and lost 1-0 to Hearts in his first game in charge. One win in ten leaves the Finn battling to prevent the Tannadice club sliding into the Championship.
“I know Dundee United are bottom but, from when we played them, I wouldn’t say they really deserved to be there,” said Nicholson. “They played really well and I’m sure we’ll get the same from them tonight. They aren’t easily beaten and they work for their manager, which is really important. It’s going to be a really hard game.”
Hearts find themselves in the lofty position of third in their first season back in the Premiership. Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Celtic offered further evidence that their rebuilding programme is well on track, with progress fairly rapid over the last 18 months. Nicholson is developing his own game in the top flight and adding goals to his game.
He scored from Prince Buaben’s cross on Sunday to level the scores at 1-1 and is more than happy to ignore the deflection off Celtic’s Mikael Lustig. “I just thought to myself to get into the back post when the ball was on the other side. Whether it’s a deflection or not, I’m taking it. I did enough to get in there to get the goal anyway, so I’m happy with that.
“I scored five goals last season and that’s my fourth this year so far, so I’m improving. It took me a whole season to get five last time so I just need another one to equal that tally. Here’s hoping I get another few.”
Despite a spectacular second equaliser from Osman Sow in stoppage time, Hearts weren’t happy with a draw against the Premiership champions. “I don’t think you should ever be happy with just a point,” said Nicholson. “Under some circumstances you will take a point but I thought we played well on Sunday. We had a gameplan and we executed it well. We ended up getting an important point. Three would have been nicer but I suppose that’s football.
“I know Celtic were missing some really good players like Leigh Griffiths, Kris Commons and Scott Brown but you have to give your all no matter who is playing against you. I thought we did that. Gavin Reilly was different class and it was his first game back in the starting line-up.
“The performance on Sunday will allow us to go into the next few games full of confidence. When we played at Celtic Park and drew 0-0, I didn’t think we kept the ball too well. I felt we kept it better on Sunday. You could say we weren’t as afraid. We played with a bit of freedom and the gaffer told us that before the game. ‘Don’t worry about who you’re up against, just play with some freedom and go and enjoy it’. I think everyone did that.”