By Katie Whyatt
When Ryan McGowan makes his next appearance for Bradford City, it will be under his fourth manager in as many games. McGowan had been in the building barely ten days when the club sacked Stuart McCall; he started the next game, at home to Bury, under Greg Abbott’s caretaker tutelage; he featured in Simon Grayson’s first bow as manager before a knee injury cut short his season.
Then Grayson left. McGowan, still only 28, insists there was little anxiety in the dressing room during the 61-day search for Grayson’s predecessor. “It’s not really that much of an issue,” he says. “I wasn’t really that fussed over whoever was going to walk in the door. It wouldn’t have mattered who was manager because you have to be the best professional you can, be the best player you can be.” Still, McGowan is probably one of Michael Collins’ most vocal supporters: “I’ve worked with a lot of good managers and I know it’s only early doors, but he has taken the positive things of all the managers I’ve enjoyed working with and added his own little twist”.
“Everything’s got a purpose to it,” McGowan explains. “It’s very, very detailed. The training all through the week is all to do with the game plan or how he wants us to play, right from the warm-up to the main body of the session and the last bit. Each day has a theme, or has something that he wants us to work on leading towards the game. It’s just really refreshing to have a manager who’s like that. It’s not the same old stuff that we’ve been doing for years. It’s all new.”
At Collins’ side is Uefa A licence-holder and former lead development coach Martin Drury, 32, as well as head of recruitment Greg Abbott. “All three of them are involved in training sessions,” confirms McGowan. “It’s quite good in terms of, it allows them to focus on each individual group. Sometimes one of them will take the strikers and work on patterns of play, one of them will take the defenders and the other can take the midfielders. You’re getting a lot more one-on-one coaching and the ideas of how they want to play. Being on the bench the last few games, [I can hear] they’re all talking amongst each other and they watch different things. It’s another pair of eyes that can see different things. I think it’s positive having them all involved, and I’m enjoying all three of them and what they bring to the table.”
McGowan’s 14-year career began at the tender age of 14, when he was playing semi-professional football for Para Hills. With opportunities for young professional footballers in Australia limited – there was no youth league back then – he jumped at the chance when Hearts came calling. More specifically, he hopped on a 27-hour flight. “It was Adelaide to Melbourne, Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur to London, London to Glasgow,” he recalls. “That’s just the way it was back then. There was no route through Dubai. That was what I had to do to try and become a professional.” He admits the first six months, living with a host family, were “pretty difficult. You’re leaving family, friends and everything you’ve kind of ever known to jump on a plane. Even as an adult, changing clubs is hard. But as a 16 year old, moving across the world and everything that brings makes it a sink-or-swim thing. Some players can’t handle that.
“Every 16 year old has the people that they grew up with and went to school with, your mum and dad helping you out and pretty much doing everything for you – and then you end up in another country and having to do things for yourself. You try and fit in and get used to life in Scotland, get up to the pace of the game in Scotland, get to grips with full-time training. I’d gone from never seeing snow to realising it snowed a fair bit in Scotland. Even around Christmas time in Australia, everyone’s just in shorts and T-shirts. But I had a good support network around me, a lady who looked after me full-time and kind of became my second mum in Scotland. It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”
It was an education for McGowan, too. In five seasons at Hearts, there were loan spells to second division Ayr United and Patrick Thistle: aged 18, he featured 30 times for relegated Ayr. “I’d been in a first team environment when I was 14, so I kind of missed that, playing in front of crowds and playing against men, and having the responsibility of getting three points. You’re playing against ex-professionals that had maybe dropped down the league or legs had gone a little bit, and being a young player that’s trying to learn off them.
“In the lower leagues, we didn’t have state-of-the-art training facilities and huge changing rooms. It wasn’t exactly a culture shock – it was very similar to how I grew up in Adelaide. If anything, I wasn’t used to the facilities that we had at Hearts, and it made you realise how lucky you were and how good you had it when you went back.
“At Bradford, we’ve got everything that the young players could need or want to become a professional. I try and get into their ears, even the young boys: they’d really be wasting their time and their talent if they didn’t take those opportunities and utilise everything that the bigger clubs do have. It only takes you to drop down the leagues to see that not every club’s lucky enough to have that. When I went back to Hearts, I felt that I was ready to make the step-up.”
McGowan’s progression through the ranks was steered by some guy called Jim Jefferies – a manager a best known in these parts for attempting to picking up the pieces from Geoffrey Richmond’s Premier League overindulgence. “He was a bit of an old-school style of boss. He liked the fear-factor and his number two Billy Brown took a lot of the training sessions.” Those were heady times for Hearts. There were Europa League nights against Tottenham and Liverpool – against a baby-faced Harry Kane, Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher. Hearts beat Edinburgh derby rivals Hibernian 5-1 in the Scottish Cup Final, McGowan scoring his side’s fourth.
But on the penultimate day of the 2012 summer transfer window, Rangers, then in the third tier, offered Hearts £1.3 million for McGowan and winger David Templeton. McGowan feared the drop would damage his hopes of playing international football, so turned down the offer in the hope of a new Hearts contract. But Hearts, paying the price for years of overspending under owner Vladamir Romanov, told McGowan he would be gone in January to the highest bidder. That was Chinese side Shandong Luneng Taishan.
Was he scared? “A little bit, but I obviously had assurances from the club before I went that I’d be well looked after. Shandong literally went all over Europe to pick the best parts of training facilities and training grounds – and built their own £20 million complex. We had everything from X-ray machines and swimming pools to six or seven pitches with stands. We we had the works.”
There was a ‘4+1’ foreign players rule in China: clubs were only allowed to name four foreigners of any nationality plus one Asian player in a matchday squad.
“The rest of the players are Chinese, so the club only really has to worry about four of you,” McGowan explains. “So everyone has their own translator, their own driver, your own apartment waiting for you. You have everything ready for you. We stayed in a complex with a few of the other foreigners there – they grouped us all together so we weren’t totally alone, which was pretty good of them – but we were pretty full-on with football. You have to fly to a lot of away games in China. If you’re not training or playing, you’re in a different hotel. It’s quite full-on throughout the season.”
The conversation spins back to Valley Parade. In his post-match media duties following the Shrewsbury victory, Collins repeatedly praised his squad’s quiet composure and attitude during a pre-season that, from the outside, often looked tumultuous. He spoke extensively of the “unselfish mentality we’ve got in the group” – comments McGowan echoes.
“He’s really brought across in pre-season that we’re not just relying on one player and we’re not individuals,” McGowan says. “He’s looked at previous seasons and teams that have gone up or been successful in League One, and you can probably count on most of those being really good teams and not being reliant on players. He’s looked at it and studied previous seasons: who’s gone up, who’s done well, what we should be like.
“The players they’ve brought in all want to be here for the right reasons. They’re good characters and that can build yourself a good core. If you have a good core group, it allows the other ones to cling on and you can drag them along with you. [Collins] has been terrific with me. He’s told me exactly what he wants from how I play, he keeps up to date with most of the squad – I’ve been really impressed with his man-management and how he’s gone about things. My role will be to try and help the younger boys and be an on-field leader, whether that’s in training sessions around the club or matchdays. We do have a lot of young players who’ve got the potential, and it’s just making them realise what it takes to reach the very top level.” Throughout McGowan’s injury, Collins was “in contact with me and speaking with me and letting me know where I stood.”
McGowan believes the side could trouble the automatics this season: the “bare minimum” target is the top six. “I believe the squad that we’ve got, the players that we’ve brought in and the coaching staff that we have – we’re all looking at play-offs and above,” he explains. “We want to get promoted, but I think the next couple of weeks will be about finding a way that we want to play and getting the results. We didn’t play as well as we wanted to against Barnsley, but it’s all about being consistent, getting good results on the board and hopefully ending up with promotion.”