Ryan McGowan sets World Cup target as former Hearts defender gears up for huge year in Kuwait

Ryan McGowan savours a cup final triumph more than most. Hearts fans can vouch for his excitement on big occasions, so imagine his giddiness at the prospect of two trophies inside a month.

Tuesday, 11th January 2022, 7:00 am
Ryan McGowan is aiming for the World Cup with Australia.
Ryan McGowan is aiming for the World Cup with Australia.

After winning the Emir Cup four days before Christmas, McGowan and his Kuwait Sporting Club team-mates will compete for the country’s Super Cup against Al Arabi this Sunday. Whether jumping around uncontrollably at Hampden Park or rejoicing with fans at Jaber al-Ahmad Stadium in Kuwait City, the Australian loves a cup success. Particularly this year.

Another rather different type of cup occupies his long-term focus in 2022. The World Cup in Qatar is approaching and McGowan is desperate to participate. Having qualified for the last four editions of the greatest show on Earth, Australia are pursuing five in a row.

They must successfully negotiate qualifiers against Vietnam, Oman, Japan and Saudi Arabia between now and March to progress.

McGowan famously gave a ‘5-1’ hand signal which was captured on television during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That merely enhanced his legendary status at Tynecastle Park. However, he was not selected for Russia four years later. He will be 33 come kick-off in Qatar and knows this is, realistically, his last chance.

He may hold a slight advantage over some compatriots given he already plays in an Arab country. The more trophies he collects in Kuwait, the more his World Cup chances increase.

“I got back into the national team with Sydney FC and I want to be involved in the games at the end of January. Hopefully we have a World Cup in ten months’ time so I want to stay fit, play well and keeping winning things here,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview.

“You want trophies to show medals to your kids but I want to stay in the national team to make the World Cup. I spoke to [national coach] Graham Arnold when this move to Kuwait came up. We were at an international camp at the time.

“He said it wouldn’t be a bad thing being in this part of the world leading up to a World Cup [in another Arab country]. If he felt this would harm my chances then I would have looked for something else.

“This is a relatively good league in the Arab world and we have a chance of Asian Champions League this year. That’s massive in Asia with a lot of money and pressure involved. Hopefully I get selected again for the national team. Then it’s trying to get to that World Cup.”

Anyone suspecting McGowan is plying his trade in a meaningless environment should think again. Kuwait Sporting Club are the biggest side in the country, owned by millionaires demanding success.

The player is familiar with the Arab environment after a brief spell at Al-Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates in 2017. “The league is really close, only five points between the top five teams,” he said.

“We are one of the biggest teams so there is that added pressure to win trophies. There are three or four cup competitions that they want to win, plus the league. There is an importance on every single game.

“As one of the foreign players, you have that bit of added pressure. You’ve been brought in to help them win. It’s quite cut-throat. If you aren’t putting in performances, they aren’t shy in moving you on.

“It’s common knowledge that the foreign boys are on more money than the local boys. So they are expecting you to be performing at a higher level. If they don’t see that you are helping the team or are worth that, then they move you on and get someone else in.

“Since I arrived our coach has been sacked, we’ve lost three foreign players and brought another three in.” One of those shipped out was Champions League winner Jon Obi Mikel, formerly of Chelsea.

“It’s definitely a quiet pressure to make sure your performances are good. Fingers crossed we can keep this winning streak going, win the majority of the cups and win the league.”

Emir Cup, Super Cup, league and then World Cup? It could be quite a year for McGowan. “There crowd was more than 30,000 at the Emir Cup final and we don’t normally get that here,” he explained.

“Because all the stadiums are so close, a lot of fans just go to the biggest game. If we have a big match we could get 8,000 to 10,000, but a normal league game might only be 3,000 or 4,000.

“We were playing one of our main rivals [Al Qadsia] and they have a big following, so that made it an even bigger win. That puts us into the Super Cup against last year’s league winners [Al Arabi].”

It’s all more memorable experience on the extensive journey that is McGowan’s footballing career. “I used to think: ‘What is experience?’ Then all of a sudden you’re 29 or 30 and you’ve played 300 or 400 games.

“You begin to understand the game and you see things happening before you would when you were younger. My role in defence here is to keep everyone switched on.”

When he isn’t marshalling colleagues, he stays in touch with matters at former club Hearts as a resident guest on the Scarves Around the Funnel podcast. It helps pass the downtime without family, like son Harry, daughter Millie and wife Stephanie. They are all in Scotland.

“This is one of the sacrifices,” said McGowan. “Football isn’t a long career so I want to make the most of it just now. In a couple of years time, I can settle down and spend some quality time with them.

“I still feel I’ve got a good couple of years in me. I’ve got my sights set on this World Cup, that’s a pretty big carrot. I want to stay in the Aussie squad.”

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