SIGNS are Don Cowie is gradually growing into his Hearts shirt. Saturday witnessed his best performance yet in the 1-0 win over Partick Thistle.
Energy and tenacity helped the Scotland internationalist stand out in midfield and he admits to feeling more like his old self after a run of games. He now intends to further justify himself in the remaining weeks of the campaign.
Cowie, 33, joined Hearts on transfer deadline day last month notably short of match practice. He missed pre-season with former club Wigan Athletic last summer after having surgery to remove his appendix. That left him toiling physically and, by the time he left Lancashire for Edinburgh, he had managed to play just seven times.
He has now amassed the same number of appearances in maroon and is starting to find form. Scampering around the Tynecastle pitch with will and intent against Thistle, he looked more like the player who represented his country ten times between 2009 and 2012. He won tackles and showed an impressive reading of the game to stifle potential attacks.
With Hearts closing in on second-placed Aberdeen and likely to secure one of the Ladbrokes Premiership’s European spots, Cowie’s emergence is timely. His influence in central midfield, not to mention in the dressing-room, could be vital over the coming weeks.
“I’ll let other people judge how I’ve played,” he told the Evening News. “It’s been a difficult 12 months for me physically. I’ve had appendicitis and had to have an operation so I missed pre-season. Since I’ve come to Hearts I’ve trained every session and I’m feeling stronger every day. That can only help me in the long run. Hopefully, you can see that this season. Then I can get a pre-season this summer and kick on again next year.
“My fitness levels are good but you only get stronger playing competitive football. I can only be honest and say I’ve not played enough competitive football in the last year. I think you can see that, for every game I play now, I’ll get stronger and better. I want to show the fans what I can really do.
“That [energy] is one thing I pride myself on. People say I’m really professional and things like that but where I’ve been in the game is because I take pride in myself. I try to be the best I can and be as fit as I can. Gradually, I’m building momentum and getting stronger. Hopefully I can be part of this club for a long time.”
Three home victories and three clean sheets inside a week brings European qualification sharply into focus. Beating Kilmarnock, Inverness and Thistle brings a welcome nine-point boost. Hearts aren’t content just to finish third, though, despite this being their first season back in Scotland’s top flight. They are merely six points behind Aberdeen.
“I’ll be honest, our focus right now is Aberdeen,” continued Cowie. “That is all we’ve said, focus on Aberdeen and try to put as much pressure on them as we can. We’ll try to win as many games as we can. To get three wins in a week gives us real momentum going into next week’s matches.”
Cowie’s experience tells him there is still room for improvement, both personally and collectively. Scotland’s extended winter has taken its toll on Premiership pitches, meaning attractive football, just like thick grass, can be thin on the ground. Hearts’ recent displays haven’t been laced with quality and the midfielder is honest enough to acknowledge so. He feels there is good reason why.
“I think you’ve got to put it in perspective,” he said. “At this time of the season, with the winter we’ve had, the groundstaff do a great job but conditions are difficult. Obviously, we want to play better football but sometimes you’ve got to play the surface and play the game.
“Throughout the last three games, the football probably hasn’t been pretty on the eye but to get nine points in a week and not concede a goal, anyone in football would take that. We know we can do better in terms of quality. It’s great when you’re winning games but you know there’s stuff you can still improve on.”
As has been well-documented, not every Hearts fan is willing to remain patient. The few who clubbed together on Saturday to hire a plane and banner demanding head coach Robbie Neilson’s sacking took things to extremes. Cowie makes the worthwhile point that Neilson is not only ahead of schedule with rebuilding plans, he is also committed to blooding young players at the same time.
“It [the plane] wasn’t even spoken about in the dressing-room. It’s pretty ridiculous when you think where this club was two years ago. Robbie has come in under those circumstances. He’s won a very difficult Championship last year ahead of Rangers and Hibs, now Hearts are third in the league and really pushing Aberdeen in second place. I think he’s done an outstanding job.
“Callum Paterson got injured last week. Some managers might have gone for the easy option, rejigged things and put big Blaz [Augustyn] in at centre-half and moved someone out to right-back. But no. He [Neilson] puts Smithy [Liam Smith] in at right-back and you’ve got to take your hat off to that.
“That’s what Robbie is trying to do at this club – really enforce the young players. You see Smithy, Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker, Jordan McGhee and even John Souttar, although we bought him. How you can’t be proud of your club right now is frightening, really.”