INTERVIEW: Dylan McGowan on abandoning Bondi Beach in the hopes of winning a title in Ayrshire
From down under to down west, Dylan McGowan’s latest stop in his fascinating career brings him to Kilmarnock. He speaks to Seán McGill about his Championship hopes, brotherly love, and why he’s glad VAR hasn’t reached Scottish football just yet.
Scorching weather, rolling beaches, cultural beacons – it’s easy to see why Sydney routinely ranks in the top 10 most liveable cities in the world. With Opera House and Harbour Bridge firmly in the rear-view mirror, some 10,539 miles halfway across the world, Dylan McGowan finds himself in Ayrshire. His arrival at Kilmarnock is new, but at the same time, acts as somewhat of a homecoming in the 30-year-old’s nomadic career.
“I’ll always live in Scotland once my career is finished. At some point I would have been back, I didn’t really know when,” McGowan says.
“When an option like Kilmarnock came up, I spoke to the manager, I had a couple of days to think on it. I thought ‘yeah, that’s a bit of me.’ I wanted to go somewhere and be successful. This is obviously a big chance for us to get promoted and that’s something I wanted to be a part of. When the opportunity came up, I jumped at it and grabbed it with both hands.”
Jumping and grabbing still requires careful consideration. At the end of a campaign marred by defensive mishaps and a lack of consistency, Kilmarnock too would find themselves in a new location from the summer prior. The Championship poses fresh challenges, not only in terms of the opposition on the park, but also in convincing targets that their future lies as part of Killie’s promotion project.
“I did have some doubts to be honest. I spoke to the manager and he told me he was signing players who he wanted to be playing in the Premiership. The opportunity to work with him, and where I thought the club could go – obviously, having played in Scotland before, I know the size of Kilmarnock – I was well aware of what I was getting in to and it excited me and I wanted to try it.”
With Tommy Wright’s side firm favourites to win the division, a club whose aim was to exceed expectations now must contend with the bare minimum of meeting them. Lofty projections can breed acute pressure, but for McGowan, they serve only as greater motivation.
“I don’t mind it. I think, in terms of being a professional footballer, you want a clear goal. For some teams that might be avoiding relegation, or qualifying for the playoffs, but when you’re at the size of club that we’re playing for, no one’s under any allusions. That’s our aim, to win the league, and we want to achieve that this year otherwise it’s not been a success.
“For me, I enjoy that pressure. I enjoy being a bigger fish in this league. With that comes a lot of challenges. Teams are going to see us as the big scalp this season and we’re going to have to be good enough to deal with that. All of us are relishing the challenge of getting this club back into the Premiership.”
Being the team everyone’s out to get in the second tier is an all-too-familiar story for the club that gave the Australian his route into the professional game. Having played under the dark monetary clouds that loomed over Tynecaste, forecasting eventual administration, McGowan speaks glowingly of Hearts’ transformation into the largest fan-owned club in the UK.
“The turnaround they’ve managed to achieve there is fantastic. That club will always hold a special place in my heart because they were the club that took an opportunity on me at 16-years-old to make me a professional player, to take me from the other side of the world and I managed to come over here and live out a dream for so long.
“I’ll always keep an eye on them and I’m delighted they’ve managed to become fan-owned. I think the fans there deserve a massive amount of credit because, when I was there, it was the height of the money issues they went through.
“To see them come out the other side is brilliant, and I think Scottish football is stronger for a club like Hearts being in a good position.”
Just as Hearts’ strived for survival as an entity back then, the years that followed for McGowan were about staying in the game. His quest to do so led him to cross borders and continents, bringing adventures he could never have imagined as a youngster in Edinburgh.
“Portugal was a bit of a culture shock. Boys were smoking in the changing room and I was thinking I’d cruise it if they’re all sitting there not really caring. Then we go out on the pitch and I’ve never seen a better group of players with the ball!
“South Korea was weird as well. They’re only allowed five foreign players and wherever you go you have an interpreter with you. They’d stand with you in training. When I was doing passing drills, he’d run next to me, and my wee guy was one of the fittest people you’ve ever seen. He’d be running and I’d be telling him to slow down because I was getting shown up by my interpreter!”
Before his globetrotting truly began though, McGowan managed to find himself right back where he started. A successful return to his hometown immediately after leaving Hearts saw the defender win a league title with Adelaide United in 2016, valuable experience he hopes to bring to his new home of Rugby Park.
“Winning games breeds confidence, and that’s what happened that year with Adelaide. It’s one of those things you don’t really appreciate it until you step away from it. Getting the chance to go to another club that wants to win a league was an option too good for me to turn down.”
It was in Adelaide he grew up with older brother Ryan, formerly of Hearts and Dundee, together igniting a competitive fire that still burns brightly within their stomachs, from battling in the back garden to supporting opposing Aussie Rules teams. After years of practice, Sydney would be the backdrop for their first official, and quite literal, head-to-head.
“The last two years we’ve both been playing in Sydney. I signed for Western Sydney Wanderers and I think it was three days later he signed for Sydney FC. We laughed at how that just sums us up – sign for two rival teams and just go against each other. We’ve always been like that, but it’s healthy rivalry and there’s good respect.
“I knew he was coming. It crosses your mind, ‘if he’s comes over the top of me and bullies me to put one in, I can’t live this down.’ I don’t think I’ve ever jumped as high in my life.
“We’ve played with each other in big games and now against each other in big games, so it’s something we can look back on when we’re both finished and have a right laugh at.”
So close is their bond that it seems fitting Ryan would play a part in one of the biggest moments in Dylan’s career. Warming up together at the 100,000-seater capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground, during a friendly with Brazil, there was a shout of ‘McGowan’ from the sideline, and Dylan made sure it was he who answered it.
“I don’t know if he meant Ryan, but I just paced it to come on.
“One cap wonder – that’s what I am! If you’re only going to get one, it’s probably a good one to get…I was buzzing to get on. I think representing your national team is the culmination of a lot of hard work and it was a special moment for myself.”
The manager who gave McGowan that fateful shout was a name unbeknown to Scottish football just a few months ago, but now, lies at the very epicentre of it: Ange Postecoglou.
“He’s got a fantastic reputation in Australia and in Asia. Everyone thought he was going to get a job in Europe, they just weren’t sure of the size of job. You see his beliefs, how strong he is in the way he thinks.
“I was always confident he’d come here and do really well, and I still think that. The fans can see what he’s trying to build and if he gets it right, he’ll be a good addition for them and the league. He has a real presence and authority about him. He’s very much in control and as a player you just go off that.”
Authority and control in the Australian game were altered significantly in 2017, as the A-League became the first top-level domestic division in the world to implement VAR. For McGowan, it’s a case of reprogramming himself to maximise his game in the absence of technology.
“You’re very conscious of it. I’m starting to get used to being able to get away with a few more things over here now. You’re constantly on edge. I think we must have conceded ten penalties over the first 30 games it was used.
“I’m very sceptical of how it works in Scotland. I can’t see a five-minute, up on the screen saying ‘pending decision’ and a penalty being awarded and not seeing a riot at some point,” he laughs. “If they start making tweaks then, of course, it could work in Scotland. But for now, it’s probably best it’s not here, especially with the fans and the way the game is here.”
Apart from his desire to escape the watchful eye of VAR, McGowan has found that his choice to uproot from sunny Sydney to Killie has been met with a degree of bemusement. Impressively laidback and self-assured, he’s happy to leave people baffled.
“I was staying right next to my brother not too far from Bondi Beach…I get some stick at Killie. I had a year left on my deal in Sydney and I chose to come to Kilmarnock, maybe not many people can understand that.
“I suppose it shows the way that I’m wired. The chance of winning a league and doing well for this club brought me here, and whether people understand that or not, I’m not too bothered,” he explains with a bright grin on his face.
Dylan McGowan isn’t on the hunt for vindication of his decision, but should he hold the Championship trophy aloft come May, those 10,539 miles will undoubtedly become miles worth having travelled.