Exclusive: Ryan McGowan reveals how Hearts v Hibs changed his life

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Not a week goes by without it mentioned. Ten years have passed, but images of a euphoric Ryan McGowan galloping about in front of the Mount Florida end don’t seem to have aged.

The player himself has good cause to reflect on a career-defining goal as Hearts prepare to meet Hibs at Hampden Park again. Stooping to head the fourth in a historic 5-1 Scottish Cup final victory there back in 2012, McGowan literally found himself in a life-changing moment.

He proceeded to run, skip and jump around with uncontrollable limbs in that memorable celebration. If ever a foreigner immersed himself in Edinburgh’s football rivalry, it is the Australian-born defender. To this day, even playing 4,000 miles away for Kuwait Sporting Club, Hearts hugely influences his life.

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Scotland’s capital is his family home, the city where his wife and children live. He is a resident weekly guest on the Scarves Around The Funnel podcast and remains in contact with several Tynecastle employees. That includes offering advice to the next generation of Aussie Jambos, Cammy Devlin and Nathaniel Atkinson.

Ryan McGowan got his hands on the Scottish Cup with Hearts in 2012.Ryan McGowan got his hands on the Scottish Cup with Hearts in 2012.
Ryan McGowan got his hands on the Scottish Cup with Hearts in 2012.

McGowan went from cult hero to bonafide Hearts legend during that millisecond on the Hampden goal-line ten years ago. A close-range header against Hibs at Easter Road four months previously escalated his popularity with supporters. However, hitting the net in a cup final rout etched his name in Tynecastle folklore.

It is a moment for which he will remain eternally thankful. “It definitely took it to a whole new level in my life,” said McGowan, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I couldn't have imagined the level it reached and it's still going.

“It's almost ten years and I still get a couple of tweets per week talking about the goal, the final or players from that team. It's just special.

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“Only three Hearts teams have won a trophy in the last 25 years so it's pretty special to be involved in one. You have memories of the parade the following day and the celebrations – as much as I can vaguely remember. You want to be involved in winning teams and share that with the fans.

Ryan McGowan will watch Hearts v Hibs in Kuwait.Ryan McGowan will watch Hearts v Hibs in Kuwait.
Ryan McGowan will watch Hearts v Hibs in Kuwait.

“You will always be remembered if you score against them. People always bring it up. It's a game that sticks out in everyone's minds. An occasion like a semi-final or final just amplifies that.

“Look at Paul Hartley and the reception he still gets [for a hat-trick in the 2006 semi against Hibs]. The 2012 team as well. If you are successful, fans will remember you for a long time after you leave the club. As a footballer, that's what you want. You want to put your mark on the big occasion.

“This Hearts squad have already had a good season but they can add a bit of gloss by making a final at the end of it. Hearts finishing third and winning a cup would be up there with some of the best Tynecastle teams from the last 30-40 years.”

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In fact, it would be realistic utopia in an era when Celtic and Rangers are generally untouchable to other Scottish clubs over a full league season. Those two meet in the other Scottish Cup semi-final on Sunday. First up, it’s Saturday’s all-Edinburgh tie.

Ryan McGowan lifts the Scottish Cup after the 5-1 victory over Hibs in the 2012 finalRyan McGowan lifts the Scottish Cup after the 5-1 victory over Hibs in the 2012 final
Ryan McGowan lifts the Scottish Cup after the 5-1 victory over Hibs in the 2012 final

Hearts are favourites again, as they were on May 19, 2012. Gary Locke and Paulo Sergio were part of the club’s management team back then and McGowan recalls Sergio alleviating some pent-up excitement before kick-off.

“I remember everyone flying in the first five minutes of the warm-up with nervous energy,” recalled the 32-year-old. “Paulo was really strict on just playing the way we always had done that season, especially against Hibs. That gave us the best opportunity to win.

“Paulo was more trying to calm us down, telling us not to get caught up in the occasion. It was a weird kind of atmosphere.”

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You might wonder if Sergio also needed to calm Locke down. The message to Hearts’ players was clear: It’s never acceptable to lose against Hibs, and certainly not in the first cup final between the clubs since 1896.

“Everyone understood the magnitude of that game. We spoke about not wanting to be the team that lost to Hibs in a cup final. It would have been a career-defining moment against them,” said McGowan.

“I would have been known as part of the team when Hibs won the Scottish Cup against Hearts. It would have taken the gloss off your Hearts career and that's what you would have been remembered for.

“Our key message was to be the one that wins the cup: ‘You be the Hartley from 2006, the guy they still remember and sing about.’ That said, I definitely don't think that in our wildest dreams five minutes before kick-off that we imagined winning 5-1.”

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Saturday’s tie is likely to be considerably tighter. The opportunity for any player to instantly achieve legendary status with either club is just as clear, though. “At the start of this season, finishing comfortably in third place and winning the Scottish Cup would only have been in people's wildest imaginations at Hearts,” admitted McGowan.

“They won the Scottish Cup fairly recently but should probably have won more given the club's stature. From the modern-day cup-winning teams Hearts have had – 1998, 2006, 2012 – I think most supporters could name the starting 11, the bench, the scorers and the times of the goals. It's a rare thing.

“Hibs are the same. They won it in 2016, you have Sir David Gray and everyone still talking about Anthony Stokes' performance. Players notice that sort of thing. Both squads know they have a real opportunity to make themselves legends in this semi-final.”

You would think McGowan can relax knowing his own standing among Hearts fans is secure. Thing is, it’s not him he’s worried about. Every time Hearts play Hibs, the angst he endured as a player creeps back in and overwhelms him. A dry country like Kuwait isn’t the best place to be this weekend.

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“I think I'm going to struggle to get a stiff drink to calm my nerves,” he said. “I'm really looking forward to it. I can already feel the nerves kicking in. I'd much rather be playing than watching because you feel you can impact the game. As a spectator, you have zero impact.

“I have a connection with some of the Hearts players and backroom staff. I also know that, if the result doesn't go Hearts' way, I'll have some Hibs fans keen to rub it in on social media. It's just one of those games you get caught up in.

“I want Hearts to win and I've been telling the two Aussie boys that this is such a big moment for them. If they play well and are part of a successful team, it sets up their Hearts career.”

Trust him. He knows what he’s talking about.

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