Don Cowie has no plans to hangs up his boots any time soon, hence his recent decision to sign a three-year contract with Ross County that he hopes will keep him playing at a good level well into his late 30s.
When he does eventually call it a day, however, the 35-year-old Invernesian will have plenty fond memories to look back on. From representing local clubs Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle with distinction, to spending seven years in England’s top two divisions with Watford, Cardiff City and Wigan Athletic, to winning ten full Scotland caps, Cowie has plenty to be proud of. Playing for and captaining Hearts will feature just as prominently as any of those feats when the midfielder looks back on his personal highlights reels.
In two-and-a-half rollercoaster years, which ended last month when he moved to Dingwall amid increased competition for midfield places at Tynecastle, he scored five goals in 84 appearances under three different permanent managers and alongside dozens of different team-mates. Despite the seemingly constant of state of flux at the club, Cowie is delighted to have been a part of it.
“There were obviously a lot of ins and outs, and a lot of uncertainty in terms of the management changing a few times, but I wouldn’t have changed being at Hearts for the world,” Cowie told the Evening News. “I absolutely loved it. It’s a brilliant football club, run by special people in Ann Budge and Craig Levein. The highlight for me was just playing for Hearts. I’m from the north of Scotland and I probably didn’t appreciate how big a club it is until I joined. I had only been at Ross County and Inverness before – two very small teams in terms of Scottish football – so I had never seen what it was like to play in one of the biggest teams in the country. Once I was there, I just loved it, how passionate the fans are. I felt really lucky to be able to play for the club for two-and-a-half years and also to captain the team on a number of occasions – that was one of the highlights of my career. I’ve got some special memories from my time at Hearts for when I retire.”
Cowie’s time at Hearts can be divided into three phases. The first was under Robbie Neilson. After his early months – at the tail end of the 2015/16 season – were written off by injury, Cowie played almost every game of the following campaign. The season was shaping up well, with Hearts in second place and just starting to find real momentum when Neilson departed.
“Under Robbie we were going along nicely until MK Dons prised him away,” reflected Cowie. “That was really disappointing at the time because I felt we had a really good squad and had a great harmony in the dressing-room, and I felt we could have finished comfortably in the top three, top four that season. We had a steeliness about us and didn’t lose many games.”
Then came eight months under Ian Cathro when Hearts completely lost their way. With captain Perry Kitchen one of several of Neilson’s players who became marginalised under the new head coach, Cowie, as the senior member of the squad, tried his best to lead a new-look team through a desperately difficult period.
“Ian came in and obviously a lot has been said about his tenure at the club but I’ve got positive things to say about him,” said Cowie. “I learned things from him that I’ve not learned from other managers in my career, very fine details that he was very good at. But the reality is it was his first job and he was still learning. It was difficult because there was a big turnover of players in the January and we just never managed to get going. We had a couple of results here and there, against Rangers for instance, but not enough for a club like Hearts to be producing.”
Cathro was eventually sacked at the end of July last year, but by then the tone had already been set for what would prove another difficult campaign as Craig Levein stepped into the breach to try and steady the ship. Although Hearts finished sixth, Cowie noted enough last season to sense that they were heading back on the right road.
“Craig took over as manager at the end of the summer window but pre-season had gone by then and you can’t underestimate how important a pre-season is to set you up for the season ahead,” said Cowie. “It’s hard to catch up fitness-wise throughout the season because early in the week the boys are fatigued from the game on the Saturday so it’s hard to do hard work, then later in the week you’re preparing for the next game so it’s hard to fit it in. The intensity Craig wanted to play was different to how Ian wanted to play, so the sports scientists have to look at that because if you suddenly change the intensity, that’s when injuries happen. It was difficult last season but you could tell the model of the team that Craig wanted to have, and there were signs of it. You only had to look at how much he improved the team defensively, then this year he was able to sort out the rest of the team, such as the midfield and going forward, and the proof’s in the pudding now with how well they’ve started.”
The influx of new midfielders over the summer led to Cowie, by now 35 and a half, falling down the pecking order before he fixed up a move to County. Supporters were sad to see him depart, recognising that he had given everything for the cause and done more than most to try and keep the team on an even keel throughout a testing period for the club.
“I know what I am as a footballer,” he said. “I was never going to get the ball and take on three players and score a goal – that’s not me. I’ve got strengths that other players don’t. Yes, there were occasions when I’d like to have played better but, as a professional footballer, you have to give 100 per cent in every game and that’s something I’ve always done and will continue to do. Sometimes you play well, sometimes you play badly – that happens. But when you play badly you’ve got to at least make sure your opponent is also having a bad game. When the fans see a player working as hard as they can when they wear their strip, they appreciate that, and I think that was the case at Hearts.”
Cowie’s influence at Hearts was perhaps best underlined by a touching tribute from burgeoning team-mate John Souttar. “An incredible professional, player and man! Changed the way every young player at the club lived their life when he came in and made us all better players for it. Can’t thank him enough for everything I learnt off him,” tweeted the 21-year-old once Cowie’s move to County was confirmed.
“I had to pay him for that tweet,” jokes Cowie, whose respect for Souttar is reciprocated. “We signed the same day and even though there was a big age group, John was equally comfortable with the older boys or the younger boys in the squad. We just hit it off from the start and I still speak to him most days. I’m absolutely delighted for him because from moment one I could see how good a player he was. Yes, he was a bit raw at first and maybe not strong enough, which everyone’s highlighted, but people forgot how young he was when he signed. He’s only 21 now and he’s already got over 150 first-team appearance and now he’s in the national team. He’s got a massive future ahead of him.”