HEARTS may still have two shots at securing European football but Ryan McGowan insisted today that he wants them to tie up a place in the Europa League qualifiers this weekend.
The Tynecastle team can earn a place on the big stage by lifting the Scottish Cup next weekend – or even earlier if they get a positive result against Celtic on Sunday.
Fifth spot in the SPL also wins the right to play in the qualifiers and McGowan would much rather know that Hearts’ name is in the hat than have an extra pressure in the Scottish Cup final against Hibs.
The Jambos travel to Parkhead on Sunday knowing that a win would keep St Johnstone, who play Rangers, in sixth place and McGowan said: “If St Johnstone pick up a result against Rangers and we don’t play to our capabilities at Celtic then we know that we could slip back down to sixth and out of the European places.
“We are all fully focused on going to Parkhead and getting a result and hopefully getting the European place.
“I played in the games against Paksi and down at White Hart Lane against Tottenham and they are the kind of games that you want to be involved in.
“You want to be able to test yourself against the best European players and hopefully we will get the chance to do that again next season.
“It would be good to finish the league campaign and be able to look back knowing that we have done all of the hard work.”
Hearts travel to Glasgow knowing that there will be a party atmosphere at Parkhead as the SPL champions will be presented with their trophy after the game.
However, McGowan would love nothing more than to put a bit of a damper on their celebrations: “The Celtic fans will be going there intent on celebrating but if we can play well for the opening 20 minutes or so, they might just start to think that things are not going to go their way. That could make the supporters a bit restless and put a bit of pressure onto Celtic.
“We’ll just go there, make sure that we concentrate on what we’re doing and playing well and see what happens from there.”
Hearts are, of course, restructuring, and Ian Black, Adrian Mrowiec and David Obua have all been told that they can leave the club come the end of the season, while Rudi Skacel could be following them out of the Tynecastle exit after the Scottish Cup final.
While McGowan admits that he would have liked to see the nucleus of the team being kept, he believes younger players will make their mark.
Having come through the ranks at Tynecastle himself, McGowan knows there will be plenty of players desperate to stake their claim for a place. “Obviously we want to keep all the boys here but as a player you get used to players coming and going.
“It will be interesting in the summer to see who we bring in and who leaves the club. As a footballer you have to try to really think about yourself and your own career and, as bad as that sounds, that’s the bottom line really.
“I think the club is now looking to the home-grown and Academy players – and being an Academy player myself, I think that can only be a good thing.
“The supporters can relate to guys who have come through the Academy, the players know all about the club before they come into the first team.
“There are a lot of good young players waiting in the wings.”
Although McGowan and younger brother Dylan – who joined Hearts in 2008 – were both born in Australia, the rest of the family is as Scottish as haggis, neeps and tatties and McGowan admits he would have to seriously consider his options if either of the two national managers came calling in the future.
Asked where his allegiances would lie, he conceded: “Yeah, I’ve thought about it, but I’m not really going to put too much thought into it until I get something concrete if they do want me or if they don’t want me. I know I’ve got a long way to go before I can get to that international stage. I just need to keep playing well at Hearts and see what happens.
“I tend not to think about things that might not happen. If it does happen I’ll sit down and think about it. Until then I’m not too worried.
“All my family, mum and dad, uncles and aunties, were all born in Scotland. My parents moved out when they were 20-odd and had me and my brother. So it’s only really me and my little brother that are the Australian ones.
“I’ve been [in Australia teams] up all the way to the under-23s. I’ve been involved in the under-17s, 20s and 23s.
“All my uncles and aunties moved over at the same time so we’ve definitely got a so-called Scottish thing.
“It was Hogmanay, not New Year’s. Things like that. I got brought up like that. It’s just a coincidence that Hearts wanted me and I ended up coming over here.”
With his parents and wider relations all still Down Under, McGowan has made himself part of the Hearts family and he would love nothing more than to repay the fans who have taken him to their hearts with a European place and a piece of silverware for the trophy cabinet.
“I always said from day one that the club gave me the opportunity to come over and play professional football when I was a 16-year-old in Australia. They took a chance on me and paid for my stay and gave me a contract, so I feel I do owe to a certain extent.
“What I’ve done so far is probably 80 per cent down to them, through coaching and everything they do for the younger players. So if we could win the Scottish Cup this season it would be a little reward back.”
McGowan was speaking at the Tesco Bank Football Challenge Festival, which was held at Tynecastle yesterday.
The defender and team-mate David Templeton met 150 local children from schools taking part in six weeks of coaching sessions as part of the Scottish FA’s flagship participation programme.
Big Hearts chief executive, Alan White, said: “At a time when participation is a big topic of discussion, we are delighted to have the opportunity to get local kids involved in basic football activity.
“The target to double the number of participants in football this year to 135,000 will be fantastically supported by programmes like this.”
Grant Gillies, headteacher of Dalry Primary – one of the schools taking part, added: “The children had a fantastic day at Tynecastle.
“The programme fits in really well to the curriculum of Excellence but, more than anything else, gets the children active at the same time as having a lot of fun.”