With the captain’s band strapped to his arm and the freedom in his legs to mix it with the best players in Scotland in a high-octane match at a pumped-up Tynecastle, Don Cowie was in his element on Sunday.
Leading by example, harrying opponents and trying to get his team on the front foot with his high-tempo, energetic approach is what he was signed by Hearts to do in the last January transfer window. The intervening period hasn’t gone to plan for the 33-year-old former Scotland midfielder, with calf problems rendering him unable to operate at his best in his opening months with the Tynecastle side before eventually bringing his season to a premature end. For a man who prides himself on his fitness levels, Cowie was affronted at only being able to complete four full 90-minute outings, in February and March, before his season fizzled out in demoralising fashion.
After a close-season of total rest followed by an encouraging pre-season, in which he was nursed back into the fray at a gradual pace, Hearts were finally able to see something close to the real Don Cowie on Sunday. Although buoyed at being named his team’s best player in the 2-1 defeat by Celtic, the midfielder won’t be satisfied until he’s playing with such intensity and influence on a prolonged basis. In that regard, he is intent on maintaining his fightback by retaining his starting place for tomorrow night’s hazardous-looking Betfred Cup match away to St Johnstone.
“To be out there, getting about the pitch really well and having an impact on the game, I was really happy,” Cowie told the Evening News. “That’s as good as I’ve felt for a long time after coming through 90 minutes. Since I’ve been here I’ve not had the freedom physically to get forward as much I would like but there were signs on Sunday that I had that back. I was able to burst into the box at the end and try and get an equaliser, and that comes from six weeks of hard work since we’ve come back. But I’m not interested in doing it for one game. I need to do it for 15-20 games and then I’ll be happy. I want to play against St Johnstone on Wednesday now. When you’re a footballer, you just want to play. With how strong our squad is, when you get a chance, you know you’ve got to take it. I don’t feel like I need a rest.”
Although the obvious candidate as he is the only 30-something in a relatively young Hearts squad, Cowie, who assumed the role of captain in some pre-season friendlies in Fife, felt privileged to be asked by head coach Robbie Neilson to lead the team in the Premiership opener against Celtic in the absence of the suspended Alim Ozturk. “It was a real honour to have the captain’s armband,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve captained a team in a competitive game since I was at Ross County. I know I’m in the latter stages of my career, but to captain a club like Hearts, it was a really proud moment for me and my family. It shows the manager has faith in me. I know it comes across like I’m just trying to be nice to the manager all the time but I honestly can’t thank him enough for the understanding he’s shown and the belief he’s given me to help me get back to my best.
“Things haven’t gone the way I wanted since I came here, but since I’ve come back for pre-season, touch wood, it’s been great. I feel like the injury has gone now. I don’t want to jinx myself but I’ve been involved in every session, have played in a couple of friendlies, got on in a couple of the European games and am getting more minutes all the time.”
Cowie feels his cause on Sunday was aided by being asked to dovetail with fellow central midfielder Arnaud Djoum, the talismanic Belgian who last week signed a new contract tying him to the club until 2019. “The best thing that happened for us in the week leading up to the game was seeing Arnaud signing his contract extension because he’s a big part of our team,” said Cowie. “He’s a great person in the dressing room and it’s a real pleasure to play alongside him. He’s got so much energy, he can get in people’s faces and he’s also got real quality. Having him for another three years is a great bit of business.
“Someone said in the dressing-room after the game that they thought me and Arnaud complemented each other very well. When one of us was pressing high, the other one sat off a bit. Neither of us was in there to sit for the whole game. We were both in there to work together and do a bit of everything. There was plenty talking between us – we’re both experienced players who are there to command that area of what is a relatively young team. It was hard work but it worked well.”
The workrate of the midfield pair was crucial to an uplifting Hearts performance in which they matched Celtic for 80 minutes before succumbing to a late winner from £4 million debutant Scott Sinclair. Cowie was buoyed by the Jambos’ overall performance, but insists they will need to learn how to make sure such impressive displays reap tangible reward in future. “You don’t want to come off with a hard-luck story when you put so much effort and quality into a game,” said the former Watford, Cardiff City and Wigan Athletic player. “It’s disappointing that we’ve got no points to show for it, and that’s something we’ve got to learn from if we want to compete at the top level over the course of the season.
“To play the way we did against the champions is very positive, though. The plan was to play on the front foot and get after them as much as we could – it’s hard work doing that for 90 minutes, but I thought we managed it. In the second half, I thought we were in control. I didn’t think Celtic created too much, but that’s what these teams can do. You think you’re in control but that’s maybe when you’re at your most vulnerable. The fact the goal came from our own corner kick is very disappointing. Overall, though, there were very positive signs.”
The positive reaction from the Hearts support, who clearly enjoyed their team’s adventurous approach on Sunday, was in stark contrast to the previous home game, when Neilson and his players were loudly jeered off after crashing out of the Europa League against Maltese side Birkirkara last month.
“The response we got from the crowd was great,” said Cowie. “The fans are so important to us. When they get behind us, it gives us that extra couple of per cent that can make the difference. We were obviously disappointed with the way things went in Europe, but I hope the fans could see against Celtic that we’re over that and looking forward to the season ahead.
“When you set standards as a team like we did last year, expectations come from that. It wasn’t just the fans who were disappointed after Birkirkara – we were disappointed as well. These things can happen, though – the main thing is how you respond. The only way we can respond to it is to make sure we’re back in Europe next year to try and put it right.”
In the short term, the focus turns to tomorrow’s trip to Perth, where Cowie will be hoping to keep alive his hopes of winning a first major cup competition in his career. “St Johnstone finished fourth last year and they’ve started with a good point against Aberdeen, so it’s one of the hardest ties we could have got,” said Cowie. “But we’ve got a great squad and we want to make an impact in the cups. If we get through this one, we’re in the last eight, so it’s a massive game. One of the reasons I came here was that I believe we can challenge for the main trophies.
“The closest I’ve been to winning a cup before was when I played in the 2012 League Cup final for Cardiff against Liverpool and we lost on penalties. It was heartbreaking. Inverness and Ross County have both done well in the cups in recent years, but I didn’t really have any good runs when I was up in Scotland before. I’d love to win a piece of silverware with Hearts.”