Don Cowie was relieved to come through a full 90 minutes against Cowdenbeath on Saturday as he bids to banish a demoralising start to his Hearts career.
The 33-year-old midfielder moved to Tynecastle at the start of February but, after featuring regularly in his first six weeks with the club, he soon found himself frustrated as problems with his calves meant he could only feature in four of the closing nine games of last season. On the rare occasions he did play in the last two months of the campaign, he was unable to last a full match without being plagued by pain. After a close-season of complete rest, Cowie is being eased back into things as he bids to rediscover full fitness in time for the start of the domestic season in just under five weeks.
The former Scotland and Cardiff City player has been excused involvement for both legs of the Europa League first qualifying round tie against FC Infonet but was thrilled to complete his first 90 minutes in almost four months as he captained a young Hearts side to a 1-1 draw with League Two side Cowdenbeath in a friendly at Central Park.
“It’s been a tough time for me since I came to Hearts,” said Cowie. “I didn’t envisage it going the way it has. I’ve had problems with both of my calves which I’ve not been able to get to the bottom of. I’d been feeling really good in training but then when it came to games, it wasn’t feeling right. It came to a head towards the end of the season.
“I’ve seen a couple of specialists in London and Edinburgh but I’ve not had any operations. I think it’s just a case of having to strip things back a bit. For the last two seasons, I wore insoles, which people tell you that you need to wear, but I’ve decided to take them out and get back to what I was doing for the previous 13 years before I started wearing them.
“When I came back for the start of pre-season, I had done nothing at all for six weeks, no running or anything. Since we came back, it’s really progressed well. I’ve not missed any training sessions.
“I got half an hour against Aberdeen last week, so it was a real step-up minutes-wise to go from 30 to 90. It was a real step in the right direction for me getting 90 minutes against Cowdenbeath. We’ve got another friendly against Dunfermline on Saturday which will be a great opportunity for me to get more minutes. Fingers crossed, hopefully that’s me on the road to recovery.”
Cowie admits to being “pretty low” as his calf problems denied him the chance to generate any early momentum with Hearts. The Invernesian is well aware that, with Perry Kitchen, Arnaud Djoum, Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben and Angus Beith providing stiff competition for a central-midfield place, he needs to rediscover full fitness if he is to have a chance of featuring regularly in a side with lofty ambitions for the season ahead.
“The Hearts fans are definitely still to see the best of me,” he said. “I know that, and it’s up to me to rectify that and show why I came here. I’ve got plenty time before the domestic season starts, so my aim is to make sure I’m fully fit for that.
“There are a lot of very good central midfielders here, but that’s what you expect at a big club like Hearts. If we really want to push the likes of Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen this season, we need quality and quantity. We’ve got a really good squad here and that’s good for competition. We all want to play on a Saturday, so that means we’ve all got to be bang on it Monday to Friday and make sure we’re fit. If you don’t perform, then come Saturday you’ll probably find yourself out the team, and that’s where I find myself just now. I need to make sure that I’m fit and raring to go so that I do myself justice when I play because when you’ve got these young whipper-snappers up against you, you’ve got to be on your game.”
The team Cowie skippered at Central Park had only one player – Billy King – who featured in the 2-1 victory over Infonet last Thursday, although the presence of Igor Rossi, also easing his way back in after injury, Jordan McGhee and Juwon Oshaniwa ensured it was still a reasonably experienced side. Canadian duo Dario Zanatta and Marcus Godinho, as well as Liam Smith, were among the standouts for Hearts in a low-key encounter in which there were few clear chances at either end.
Hearts’ trialist goalkeeper, Viktor Noring, had little of note to do aside from picking Kris Renton’s 24th-minute strike out of his net. Bulgarian striker Niko Todorov had a couple of decent opportunities to equalise before Zanatta secured a draw with 11 minutes remaining when he netted a penalty after being tripped by Fraser Mullen, one of several players with Hearts links in a Cowden side managed by former Jambos youth coach Liam Fox.
Cowdenbeath: McGurn, Mullen, Rutherford, Sives, Trialist, Trialist, Brett, O’Brien, Renton, Johnston, Moore. Subs: Sneddon, Glen, Trialist, Robertson, Trialist, Trialist, Trialist.
Hearts: Noring (Trialist), L Smith (Currie 62), McGhee, Rossi (Baur 62), Oshaniwa, King, Godinho, Cowie, Zanatta, Todorov, Buchanan. Unused sub: Gallacher.