Ryan McGowan may have been making his first appearance for Australia since 2017 on Friday morning, but the Sydney FC defender has said that the “family” spirit created in the Socceroos camp made returning significantly easier.
Logging a first on-field appearance for the Socceroos since starting against Chile at the 2017 Confederations Cup, McGowan partnered with Miloš Degenek at the heart of the Socceroos defence against Kuwait, playing a full 90 minutes in their comfortable 3-0 win.
Impressively on the Sydney FC defender's part, while his teammates in coach Graham Arnold’s XI had largely been able to acclimatize to the conditions in Kuwait thanks to a training camp in the UAE, McGowan’s A-League commitments meant that he had linked up with the squad just days before the game.
Initially, Arnold had intended for Trent Sainsbury to partner Degenek in the middle of his back four but when the KV Kortrijk man pulled up with back stiffness, McGowan was thrown into the breach.
“I’ve got to give a great accolade to Ryan McGowan,” Arnold said after the win.
“He arrived only two days ago and for him to do what he did and play 90 minutes and play the way that he did was great.
“It just shows you that we have a family culture in the Socceroos of mateship. It’s like a family that these boys hadn’t seen for 18 months and as soon as they come into camp it took them one day to reconnect.
“Listen, that’s only 20% of what you’re going to get from this team. I expect a big improvement from the players. At times they were a little bit rusty — turned over possession a bit easy. This team is only going to get greater and greater.”
Speaking in the wake of the victory - which leaves the Socceroos almost certain to advance to the next phase of Qatar 2022 World Cup qualification - McGowan admitted that he hadn’t been expecting to jump straight into the starting lineup when he left Australia for the Gulf.
“From a personal note, it was great for me to come back into the squad and not only come back but play the first game and we got off to a perfect start,” McGowan said.
“[McGowan was told he was starting] the night before the game, [Arnold] pulled me aside and said that I’d be in. I think the plan was to play [Trent] Sainsbury but he’d pulled up a bit sore and [Arnold] said that I’d be going straight in.
“I’ve kind of done that through my whole Socceroos career, a little bit, been thrown in at the deep end. From my point of view, I just made sure I was ready coming into camp and wouldn’t let them down. I think I did that last night.
“It’s been a long time between drinks, so I definitely wasn’t going to say I need a couple more days. It’s a massive opportunity to play for your country at any point. I was more than ready.
“The heat, I was struggling a little bit through certain parts of the game, I’m not going to lie, with the breathing and getting used to that. But I thought the whole team's performance was great.
“We kept them pinned in for long periods of time. It was probably one of the better performances that I’ve been in in a Socceroos shirt in terms of goals and the whole way we controlled the game last night.
“And like Arnie has said many times, it’s like a family. As soon as you’re back in you’ve played with or know most of the boys so you’re just wanting to get out there and do your best.”
‘Family’ and a sense of camaraderie have indeed been a constant theme of Arnold in the lead into the Socceroos return to the world stage - the Socceroos’ boss emphasising his belief that his side’s sense of togetherness would be able to quickly see off any rust and disconnect that had arisen over the 18-month break.
But family, of course, can mean many different things to many different people and working environments.
According to McGowan, the fraternal atmosphere that has built amongst the Socceroos has numerous factors, with the atmosphere fostered by Arnold highly influential.
Experiences of being far from home and away from those with similar lived experiences also provide a shared bond between teammates, as well as an impetus to ensure that none in the squad feel as though they are alone or the odd one out when they come into the camp.
“I think a lot of boys - I’m one of the few that played in Australia with fellow Australians - a lot of us previously were with Asian clubs or overseas clubs where you’re probably the only one, the only Aussie,” the Sydney FC defender said.
“Like everyone, you enjoy being around people of similar backgrounds and similar interests and I think all us Aussie boys have that.
“As soon as we come into camp we know we have to work hard but that environment we create is that we know everyone, everyone gets along with each other.
“We have daily quizzes after lunch with your little table, which is a good laugh and you can see the ones that listened at school and the ones that maybe left a little bit early.
“We have a really good environment. I think that comes from the boss and works its way down
“[The quizzes have] a bit of everything - the quizmaster is pretty good. My team’s myself, Andrew Redmayne, Rhyan Grant, James Holland and Mat Ryan. We’ve got a good combination of everything… Matty Ryan’s not brought anything to the table but I think we’re sitting top at the moment, so we’ve started off well.
“[First-time squad members] have to sing a song. It’s normally when you first come into the camp, you need to sing.
“But it’s been a little while since I’ve been in the squad so I don’t know if that’s changed or not.
“My one was actually a camp in Edinburgh, so mine was the first day, first night had to get up on my chair, Lucas Neill asked me a few quickfire questions and then I had to sing a song.
“That’s traditionally what it is. I think there’s a few boys this is their first call up so looking forward to some singing over the next couple of nights.
“But at the same time, last night’s performance was pretty professional, it was polished. And considering we’ve been away from each other for so long -- especially me at three or four years -- it felt like only after a couple of sessions we’d been together for ages.
“That’s the exact type of environment Arnie is trying to create.”