Ryan McGowan hobbles around on crutches following knee surgery. Pain and restricted mobility don’t faze him.
He would happily travel 235 miles from his new home in Bradford and perch himself in the away end at Easter Road on Friday. Hearts will be up against it in the Edinburgh derby, and McGowan likes nothing better.
Injuries to left-back Demetri Mitchell, Cameroon internationalist Arnaud Djoum, youngsters Jamie Brandon and Rory Currie, plus a doubt over captain Christophe Berra leave the Tynecastle side depleted. Hibs are nine points ahead of them in the league with a game in hand and it is four years since Hearts last won in Leith. That is no excuse.
McGowan, who returned to Britain with Bradford City in January, says beating Hibs is a prerequisite for joining Hearts. He knows from the experience of scoring against Hibs both at Easter Road and Hampden how much adulation can follow heroism in this fixture.
“As a Hearts player, you need to beat Hibs. It’s almost in your contract when you sign,” says the Australian in an exclusive Evening News interview. “No matter how you’re doing in any season you’re expected to beat Hibs, whether that’s at Tynecastle, Easter Road or a neutral venue. You’re almost judged on how you play in those games.
“I was lucky when I was at Hearts because we had a real hold over the derbies. We won our fair share at Tynecastle and Easter Road. Fans judge you. They will either love you forever or never forgive you if you make a mistake. It’s that sort of cut-throat situation you either thrive on or you go into your shell.
“Victories often taste sweeter away from home because it’s that backs-against-the-wall scenario. It’s us versus them. Their fans outnumber us, although not always – I played in a couple of games down there when it was pretty close with the crowd,” he chuckles.
“Hibs are flying at the minute and they’re selling out so it’s going to be a great atmosphere. A few comments were thrown about after the last derby in the Scottish Cup, so it’s set up perfectly to be a tasty one.
“It’s also a night game. I always preferred the evening games because the atmosphere is always that little bit more electric. It’s under the lights, everyone is excited and they’ve had a few extra hours in the pub. The Edinburgh derbies are just great games to be involved in.”
If he thought he could get away with it, McGowan would be in the Capital personally cheering on his former club. “We’ve got game on Saturday so I’ll probably just be at home watching. I was hoping the derby would be on a Sunday because I could’ve gone up.
“I would’ve had to go low-key because if the Bradford physio found out he wouldn’t be happy. I’d maybe have wrapped a scarf round my face and put a hat on so no-one recognised me, but I don’t think I’d have got away with being on crutches in the away end. It’s probably safer if I stay away.
“Hearts will be disappointed being knocked out of the Scottish Cup. They based a lot on that recently and maybe the league performances weren’t up to pre-Christmas standard. Now they need a real pick-me-up. It won’t make up for losing to Motherwell but it goes a long way to appeasing the fans if you win the derby. It’s been a while since Hearts won at Easter Road so it would be good to get a victory there.
“Hibs have shown all season they’re good at home and Neil Lennon has them playing some good football and scoring quite a few goals so it will certainly be difficult.”
Five years have passed since McGowan last donned a maroon shirt, however he remains a legend in Gorgie for his part in the 5-1 Scottish Cup final triumph over Hibs in 2012. Since then, he has played for three different clubs in the Chinese Super League, plus had a spell at Dundee United and five months in the UAE Arabian Gulf League with Al-Sharjah.
“The UAE club bought me in the middle of last year from the Chinese and signed me on a one-year deal with a one-year option,” he explains.
“Then, at Chirstmas time, they said we had to come to some sort of agreement. You’re only allowed four foreigners in the UAE and they wanted to bring another one in, which meant one had to leave. I was kind of the cheapest, smallest contract so I was the one asked to leave.
“I became a free agent and got a call from Stuart McCall asking if I’d be interested in joining Bradford. I jumped at the chance. They’re a big club in League One with a lot of potential. Plus, I was joining a manager who knew what type of player I was because I’d played against his teams in Scotland.
“I signed an 18-month deal but I missed the first game because international clearance hadn’t come through. I played the next game and then Stuart got sacked. The team was on a tricky run, he lost his job and Simon Grayson came in. A couple of games after that I got injured.”
It hasn’t been an easy start in West Yorkshire but McGowan has a long-term plan. Returning to Britain was always his aim. He wants to help Bradford gain promotion from England’s League One back into the Championship.
“The aim is to play in the Championship, either by getting up this season or at worst next season,” he says.
“My last couple of years have been out in China and in the UAE so this is a great opportunity for me to come to a huge club that wants to go up. It’s sometimes better to establish yourself with a club and go up with them because you’ve cemented your spot already. That was my thinking behind this move.
“The English Premier League is the most watched football league in Australia so I’d watched it since I was young.
“British football suits my game and I enjoy that style. There was a little bit of interest from England when I was at Hearts. It didn’t materialise because Hearts’ financial state meant it was down to the highest bidder, and that’s why I went to Shandong.
“I enjoyed my few years out in China and was successful but the plan was always to come back to the UK. I hadn’t dipped my toes into England before so Bradford fitted perfectly.”
Despite all his globetrotting, the 28-year-old still gets plenty feedback from Scotland. “I get a lot of messages on Twitter from fans there and it’s nice to see that. I really enjoyed my time at Hearts and hopefully they get a result on Friday.”
Many of his Twitter posts prompt responses asking if he is rejoining Hearts, when he is rejoining Hearts, or pleading with him to rejoin Hearts. When you’re a defender who scored twice in six appearances against Hibs – including in that cup final – you tend to be remembered fondly.