Amid a dispiriting season for Hearts, Don Cowie’s boundless energy and ability to impact matches at 34 years old has been one of the clear positives.
Eyebrows were raised among supporters when the veteran former Scotland midfielder was given a three-year contract after arriving from Wigan Athletic 14 months ago. An underwhelming start, in which he was badly hindered by a “niggly” calf problem and unable to generate any momentum did little to aid the Invernesian’s cause in the opening months of his Hearts career. As Cowie was put through a separate pre-season to his team-mates and missed the bulk of their ill-fated Europa League foray in an effort to finally shake off the problem, few could have predicted that he would end the season as one of Hearts’ key men.
But, as the campaign nears the end, he has started 31 of Hearts’ 37 domestic matches – more than any other outfield player at the club. Such has been their reliance on the “The Don”, this tally would have been even greater if he hadn’t been stricken by freak neck and rib injuries sustained against Dundee and Hibs, respectively.
“It’s been a good season from a personal perspective in terms of the number of games I’ve played,” Cowie told the Evening News. “I was disappointed with last season, there’s no getting away from it. I wanted to come in and make an impact but I wasn’t able to do it because I had that niggly injury that I just couldn’t get right. Robbie [Neilson] was really understanding with me in the summer in terms of giving me time to get it sorted. With the help of the medical team, we managed to do get to the bottom of it, and I’m really enjoying my football again, so fingers crossed it stays that way. It’s been really good this season.
“The Europa League games weren’t the aim for me last summer. The aim was to be ready for the start of the Premiership season. I managed to get fit quicker than I thought and was involved in the Birkirkara game. Since then, it’s been a case of just going with the flow. I had the neck injury against Dundee and then picked up a horrible rib injury against Hibs which kept me out for a few games, but, barring that, it’s been pretty good. We’ve got six games left, so I just need to give it a big push between now and the end of the season.”
After a demoralising first six months at Hearts, Cowie admits he started to fret over whether his body, which had taken him to full international caps with Scotland and the top level of English football, would allow him to soldier on much longer. The former Ross County, Inverness, Watford and Cardiff player retained faith, however, that, if he was able to get himself injury-free again, he would still be capable of playing regularly in Scotland’s Premiership. It has been notable that, on the bulk of Hearts’ good days this season – and, despite the gloom, there have been a few – Cowie has been one of their most prominent figures. “I’m not going to lie, you have a wee bit of doubt in your head when you’re injured like I was last season,” he said. “It can be a bit soul-destroying, especially when it’s a wee thing like I had. If it’s a serious injury, you can maybe hold your hand up and accept it, but when it’s just a niggly thing, you start questioning why it’s happening.
“But I know when I’m injury-free that my fitness is my strength. I’ve played 60-odd games in a season before, so I know when I’m right that I’m able to play a lot of games. This season’s been good for me from that point of view. When I came in, I saw straight away that there was a lot of competition in the area I play, so I thought there might be times when I wouldn’t play. But fortunately for me, since the start of the season, I’ve managed to keep my place. There’s no doubting I’d like to have played better in some games – I’m not going to deny that – but over the piece it’s gone pretty well.”
As a 34-year-old high-energy, box-to-box midfielder, playing every week, and chipping in with the odd goal and his fair share of assists in the upper echelons of Scotland’s top division, Cowie is a rare breed. Only last week, he played all 270 minutes of action in a Sunday-Wednesday-Saturday sequence, and could be considered his team’s standout player over the course of this three-game series against Celtic, St Johnstone and Dundee. The Highlander understands the importance of keeping his body in prime condition.
“I like to think I’ve looked after myself well,” he said. “I’ve dedicated myself to football and made sacrifices in my career. Football is my life so I want to maximise it as best I can. In the past, I’ve probably not been the best player in my team, but I’ve always tried to make sure I train as well as I can every day to be in the forefront of the manager’s mind when it comes to selection. I treat every training day as if it’s a match, so I’m as well prepared as I can be. That’s the road I’ve tried to go down.
“Last week was hard, it was demanding, especially because in Saturday’s game, it was really hot. There was a lot of demand on the three games. But when you’ve been in England, a schedule like that is par for the course. You get used to it, and the club look after you. We’ve got great facilities now with the pool and the hot and cold baths. It’s part of football now that it’s all about recovery and making sure you’re ready for the next game
“Because I try to train the way I play, as I’ve got older, it’s not as easy to do, so you sometimes have to tailor the training a wee bit to look after yourself. That just comes with experience. The main thing at my age is making sure you’re prepared for the games. Between Robbie and Ian [Cathro], they’ve been very understanding with me in terms of helping me along the way.”
Despite being at an age when many of his peers have hung up their boots or slipped into the lower leagues, Cowie has no plans to slow things down and rein in his high-octane approach to matches.
“Becoming a sitting midfielder has been mentioned before but I don’t know if I’ve got the qualities for it,” he said. “I guess I’d just try and adapt if that’s the way I had to play. My energy has been my strength my whole career, there’s no denying that. When I was in the Premier League with Cardiff, there were players in the squad with a lot more ability than me, but when it came to match-days, I would generally be playing. I think managers knew they could rely on me to get up and down the pitch and do the defensive side when games go end to end. As long as I’ve still got my energy and I’m having an impact on games, I’ll keep playing as long as I can.
“I’ve got another year on my contract, so I’m just going to go with it and see how it goes. When you’ve played football as long as I have, you just want to maximise it and get as much as you can out of it. People say ‘you’ll know when it’s time to call it a day’, and I’m sure I’ll be no different. There will come a time when I can’t do things the way I want to, but right now I feel healthy, I’m enjoying my football and I’m at a great club. I want to be part of something special here. This year has been disappointing, but, come the summer, we can rebuild and I think it will be exciting times again.
“Being at Hearts has driven me on because of the number of good young players here who I believe can go on and have really good careers. Working with quality players like Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson, John Souttar, Callum Paterson and Jack Hamilton has helped me a lot this season. There’s no doubting that, with the quality they’ve got, they can go well beyond Hearts if they keep doing what they’re doing and make sacrifices and make the right decisions. If they want any advice off me, they know they can come and ask. I’m very open to speak to and I’ll aid them in any way I can.”
While Cowie is the clear old head of the Hearts dressing-room, he is able to take inspiration from his former Cardiff City and Scotland colleague Kenny Miller who, at three years his senior, continues to influence matches for Rangers. “When you see Kenny, physically, I don’t think he’s changed one bit over the years,” said Cowie. “He’s having a real impact and has probably been Rangers’ best player this season. To be having an impact at Rangers at that age is pretty incredible. It’s testament to how he looks after himself. It gives you encouragement when you see a guy like Kenny still going strong at 37, but everybody’s different. You need to be lucky to avoid injury. Hopefully Kenny can keep going a while longer – I’m sure if Rangers don’t re-sign him, many other clubs will want him. He’s a role model for any player, young or old, in terms of having a long and consistent career at the top level.”