SOMEWHERE amid 8,000,000 people in the Chinese megalopolis of Zhengzhou, Ryan McGowan will search for a screening of Hearts v Hibs this Sunday.
The defender’s move from Dundee United to Henan Jianye comes at an awkward time with a powder keg Edinburgh derby only days away. Despite being 5000 form Edinburgh in eastern China, McGowan will do whatever is necessary to tune in.
He would probably have been at Tynecastle had United not sold him two weeks ago. Returning to China, where he spent two years with Shandong Luneng Taishan from 2013 to 2015, denies him the chance to indulge in his favourite fixture. McGowan scored for Hearts at Easter Road and Hampden against Hibs and is something of a derby cult hero, up there with Wayne Foster, Phil Stamp, Mark de Vries and Graham Weir.
He has had three clubs since leaving Gorgie three years ago but still refers to Hearts as “we”. It’s not so much a hard habit to break as an affection he is determined to maintain. The Australian knows the anticipation within the Hearts support ahead of this Scottish Cup fifth-round tie. He feels the same nerves and excitement. Edinburgh derbies are absent from this season’s league fixtures with Hearts in the Premiership and Hibs in the Championship, so the feeling is that everyone had better make this one count.
“I’ll be doing my best to watch it,” he said. “Since the cup final in 2012, we drew Hibs the following year and lost and now we’ve got them again. With Hibs being in the Championship, you miss the derbies during the season so that will add spice to this game.
“I always looked at the derby as a great opportunity to make a name for yourself. People remember key moments and certain players scoring. As a player, when you’re about to go out there, it’s such a great feeling to know you could be part of something people talk about for years to come. When goals are scored, the reaction from fans is just amazing.
“There’s Wayne Foster, Gary Glen scored for Hearts at Easter Road in the cup, and these things get brought up. I still get folk on Twitter messaging me about the 5-1 game. People come up to me in Edinburgh and still talk about the goal I scored in the New Year derby [in 2012]. Any time you score in a derby, the fans will remember it and remember you.”
He finds it impossible not to reference that 2012 Scottish Cup final. “You’d need to go a long way to top that game – the magnitude of it and the way it panned out. I still get people approaching me to talk about that day. They tell me how it made them feel, what they did before and after the final. It’s still amazing to see the smiles still across their faces after all this time. It was a great moment in my career.
“This game on Sunday is different. It’s probably been a while since both teams have been doing so well. Usually, one team is doing well and the other is on the slide. Both teams have been relegated not playing the best style of football in recent years but they’ll both go into this one feeling confident.
“For the fans, this will probably be the biggest game of the season. Robbie Neilson has already said Hearts want to have a right good go in the cup competitions, so this is kind of their last-chance saloon. Hibs have shown they’re capable of doing well against Premiership sides. They beat Aberdeen and us when I was at United in the League Cup and they’ve just knocked out St Johnstone. They’ve probably got a squad good enough to do well in the Premiership. I don’t think they’ll have any fears going to Tynecastle.”
One of the Australian’s last games for United was at Tynecastle late last year. Soon after, he was the subject of a £300,000 transfer bid from Henan Jianye which the Tannadice board couldn’t refuse. “It was a good fee considering I only had six months left on my contract,” he admitted. “It does always make you feel that bit better knowing the club have got good money for you. Dundee United got me on a free, Jackie [McNamara] brought me in, so it was a good bit of business for them.
“The club came to me to say they’d rejected a bid from a Chinese team. That was the first I heard of it. Then you start thinking about who it is. A few days later I got a phonecall to say they’d accepted the bid and I was free to go and speak to them. It ticked a lot of boxes because I wasn’t signing a pre-contract with anyone and then trying to play out the last six months of my contract at United. I didn’t want to deal with that. Moving now was also a better option than going into the summer out of contract, joining hundreds of players who are also looking for a club.”
He finds himself in pretty exalted company in the Chinese Super League. Brazilian superstar Ramires has just completed a £25m transfer from Chelsea to Jiangsu Suning, whilst the Ivory Coast icon Gervinho has joined Hebei China Fortune from Roma in a £14m deal. The Chinese have clearly never been more serious about their football. Translators are assigned to every foreign player to aid communication, although McGowan speaks some basic Chinese already.
“I’m certainly not fluent. I can understand more than I can speak,” he laughed. “I know basic stuff like days of the week and more important football-related stuff so I can communicate during games. You pick up more when you live there so I’ll try to work on the language again. I have my own translator who follows me around the training ground and the hotel facilities. I’m definitely not left out in the cold. I understand everything that goes on.
“He’s by my side to help me with everything and translate pretty much everything. The club supplies translators for all the foreign players. Each team is only allowed five foreigners so we can all communicate and our needs are attended to. It’s really good to have someone there you can rely on and to help you get your point across if you need to.”
Like all successful leagues, money is a major driving force. Rich Chinese businessmen invest in football clubs and get the right to change team names every year to promote their companies. Something like “Dacia Midlothian” or “Vodafone Hibs” wouldn’t go down too well in Edinburgh, but in Asia it is part of the culture.
“It’s a very up-and-coming league and it’s got the highest attendances in all of Asia,” explained McGowan. “No ground has less than 20,000 fans inside it, all the teams have a lot of money and great facilities. The Chinese are trying to be as professional as they can be.
“In years gone by, players like Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka went there in their mid to late-30s. Now you’ve got Ramires and Gervinho moving there at 28. They’re leaving huge clubs to go to China. Obviously money will be a big incentive for them but, at the same time, it’s a very competitive league. This year, there will be five or six teams realistically thinking they can win the league. I don’t think any league in Europe as that. It’s exciting times considering the players coming over.
“Clubs change their names almost every year purely for sponsors. Companies pump in huge amounts of money for the right to change a club’s name. The club who have just bought Ramires have a businessman who wants to put his business all over the world. He uses football as his marketing tool and buying players of that calibre puts his club on the map. Then people become interested in that team and it helps his business. Most club owners are businessmen with an interest in football and they see it as a good way to market themselves and their companies.”
Neither Ann Budge nor Sir Tom Farmer would seek such public profit. Their ownership is more understated.