Big Interview: Former Hearts brothers Ryan & Dylan McGowan speak about facing off for the first time in Sydney derby
Exclusive chat with Australian siblings, who recall childhood garden fights and being separated by Mum due to their competitive edge
Ryan and Dylan McGowan broke windows and fences together growing up in Adelaide. They fought together in the garden, represented Australia together, lived together in Edinburgh and donned maroon shirts together. Even now, they are next-door neighbours in Sydney.
The former Hearts brothers have never faced one another in a competitive arena. That changes on Saturday when Ryan’s Sydney FC travel to play Dylan’s Western Sydney Wanderers in a marquee A-League meeting. The top-of-the-table city derby at the new £280million Bankwest Stadium is eagerly anticipated, and not only by the 30,000 crowd expected to attend.
Theresa McGowan flew into Sydney from Adelaide last night to watch her sons go head-to-head. She is originally from Glasgow and the only person for whom this occasion won’t be a first. When sporting contests spilled over at the family home, she was often the one battling to get between the ultra-competitive siblings.
“There is VAR over here so there can’t be anything off the ball at corners,” laughs Dylan. “I’m not sure if we will be marking each other. He will be a nervous man if we are. I was hoping Mum might be in control of the VAR since she’s seen us against each other before. Her biggest fear is the TV zooming in on her in the crowd. She’s a nervous wreck about that more than the game.
“I remember playing against a Hearts XI when I was on loan at East Fife under John Robertson. Ryan played for 45 minutes so we were against each other that day. We’ve never been on opposite sides competitively, other than the few thousand battles in the backyard as kids.”
The McGowans’ will to win alone should ensure a fiercely-contested derby. Residents of Adelaide’s Salisbury Heights district can testify to the brothers’ insatiable appetite to be the best.
“In any street in any country in the world, you always have the two brothers who are causing chaos. We were probably the two the neighbours hated,” admits Ryan.
“We were always playing something out the front: Cricket, AFL, soccer, rugby – anything we had watched that day. With the weather in Australia, you could play until nine or ten o’clock at night. We loved being outside giving it our all.
“I’m two years older so I would beat Dylan at everything until he got to 12 or 13. Then it evened out and it’s still pretty even now. We have both always been pretty competitive. We look to keep a tally. But now we are in front of 30,000 people and everybody is watching. We have to make sure there are no sly digs and be on our best behaviour. It’s not in the living-room, it’s actually live on TV.”
Can’t have Mum charging onto the pitch to split you up and ground you for a week. Although it wouldn’t be the first time. “We were always getting separated by Mum in the back garden,” recalls Dylan. “With me being younger, I felt I had to lay a marker on Ryan early so there were plenty of fights. We did better against the rest of the street. We should have taken more money off the other kids. We would have made a fortune.
“You’ve seen both of us shoot so it’s no surprise we broke lots of Mum’s furniture, vases and photo frames in the house. We eventually got tossed out the back. Then it was dents in the fence and broken windows. Every day after school we were out there, flying into tackles and committed to winning. Ryan kept putting me in goals so I thought I was going to be goalkeeper. That probably explains some of my performances for Hearts.
“We’ve always been highly competitive when it’s just us two. We are each other’s biggest fans and I’m happy Ryan is here. He’s already scored for Sydney so he’s got one up on me already.
“We have a few competitions on the go. We went golfing the other day and we were in each other’s ears beforehand, giving it: ‘I’ll have you off the first.’ We compete on the Playstation as well. It’s never-ending. I think our wives are sick of us.
“It never boils over, though. It hasn’t come to blows in years. When we were younger it always did. We had to rein it in when we got to Hearts. A few training sessions with Darren Murray sorted us out and that was the end of it.”
Ryan’s aforementioned goal just happened to be in his native city as he hit Sydney’s winner on his A-League debut two weeks ago at Adelaide United. He joined the reigning champions in July, 24 hours after Dylan signed for their closest rivals.
Both clubs have won their opening two A-League fixtures and sit joint-top of the table with six points. As if there wasn’t enough pressure surrounding Saturday’s affair. A pre-match press conference this week lasted more than three hours and was well-populated by local media. The sight of the McGowans in boxing gloves in the middle of the pitch for TV images and photographs illustrated how the contest is being built up.
Just as well the two main protagonists can get away from it all, if not each other, at home. They rent apartments next door to one another not far from Sydney city centre and seem genuinely happy to be so close.
“It’s a good location in Sydney,” explains Ryan. “There are seven or eight players between the two teams who stay there. It’s easy to rent, close to both training grounds and close enough to the city. It just happens Dylan’s place is next door to mine. Mum is loving the fact her two boys are back in Australia and only a two-hour flight away, rather than a 24-hour flight.”
There is always a down side, though. Whoever loses this weekend cannot duck for cover. “I can’t get away from him no matter what. He’s here all the time,” jokes Dylan. “Although he does look after my son for a bit. We are constantly in each other’s pockets.
“There’s nowhere to hide on derby week. We know the 90 minutes will be over quickly but it’s something we can look back on at the end of our careers. We can be quite proud as two brothers playing together in front of a full stadium in an Australian derby. We played together at Hearts as well, so we’ve done a few things other brothers can only dream of.”
Now 30, Ryan played in Scotland, China, United Arab Emirates and England before returning to his homeland during the summer. Dylan, 28, started his career at Hearts and played in the same team as his brother before two spells back in Australia, plus time in Portugal, South Korea and Denmark.
“In training at Hearts is one of the few times we have come up against each other,” says Ryan. “When we were younger, Dylan would join in my local team’s training. We were together at Hearts but then we seemed to always miss each other. When I was playing in Asia, he was in Europe and vice versa. Now we are both set up as rivals.”
Ryan says he didn’t go home specifically because Dylan was there, he simply felt Sydney FC offered a platform where he could thrive. They will compete in next year’s Asian Champions League and are expected to mount a strong defence of their title throughout the campaign. Across the city, Western Sydney have designs on challenging for that crown with their bespoke new ground designed especially for football.
There will be plenty sets of McGowan eyes on that venue this weekend. Relatives in Glasgow, Adelaide and elsewhere will be tuning in to see the outcome.
“It’s nice for families and friends to see the careers we have had,” explains Ryan. “They still see us as the two little boys who used to play football all the time. It will be a really proud moment for us all. We can look back at the end of our careers and say we did do pretty well for two skinny boys from Adelaide. Mum and Dad never imagined in their wildest dreams that we would have the careers we have had.
“When we were 13, 14, 15, both our parents were telling us our chances of being professional footballers were really slim. We were two kids in Adelaide. As far as we knew, you had to be playing with big clubs in Europe to be a professional. Basically, how would that happen for us in Adelaide? And if it did happen for one brother, what are the chances of it happening for the other? It’s something we are quite proud of.
“Once that first whistle goes, Dylan won’t be anything other than an opponent and I will want to beat him. After the final whistle, he is my younger brother. We will shake hands, have a beer and a laugh. We can always look forward to the next one. There are three of these derbies this season.”
Any sibling who loses the first one will face some kind of forfeit. Dylan has one idea, Ryan another. “The loser should definitely get dinner and a couple of beers in after the game,” says Dylan. “I reckon whoever loses will have to do the airport run and take Mum for her flight on Monday night,” claims Ryan. They will probably devise some way to compete to decide who wins that argument, too.