Don Cowie stands inside a Mercedes showroom surrounded by prestige and quality. Which is entirely fitting when he begins talking about another high-performance operator.
Cowie believes his colleague and Hearts captain Christophe Berra is the leading candidate to be named Scotland’s Player of the Year. The veteran midfielder is at Newbridge on Edinburgh’s outskirts to promote the Mercedes-sponsored Hearts Player of the Year awards. However, he feels Berra deserves to be recognised as the outstanding footballer in the entire country, never mind Gorgie.
He admits to being biased but nor can he understate the impact of the 33-year-old’s return to Tynecastle. Since leaving Ipswich Town to go back to his formative club last summer, Berra has been the epitome of leadership, character and defensive resolve.
Hearts set a new club record of eight successive clean sheets during December and January with the Scotland centre-back their defensive linchpin. Cowie, at 35, is experienced enough to appreciate Berra’s influence.
“I would say Christophe has been Scotland’s player of the year. When you see what he’s done for us as a club, it’s easy to think that could happen,” said Cowie. “There are still three months of the season left so a lot could happen. In terms of defending, I probably wouldn’t swap him for anyone in the league. He’s been that good.
“That’s probably being a wee bit unfair on John Souttar beside him, who has been tremendous. He’s learning an awful lot from Christophe and Aaron Hughes. Christophe has a big shout for the awards at the end of the season, no doubt.
“I don’t think there’s been a real standout attacking player. Last year you had the likes of Scott Sinclair and Leigh Griffiths but they haven’t stood out so much this time. Ryan Christie has been very good at Aberdeen so he will maybe have a shout as well.
“Normally it’s people who win trophies or goalscorers who get the individual accolades. It’s probably unfair to pinpoint one person and say it’s down to Christophe, but he’s had a massive influence on all our clean sheets.
“I don’t want to curse him but he’s played every game, he’s there in every training session as a model of consistency. Hopefully he just stays healthy and fit till the end of the season because it’s been great to have him at the back.”
Berra’s imperious return north saw him command a starting place at international level before Scotland parted company with manager Gordon Strachan. His replacement, Alex McLeish, is now tasked with shaping the national team his own way over the next few months.
“I’d like to think Christophe will still be in the Scotland squads and I’d like to think a couple of others could join him,” said Cowie, himself the proud owner of ten senior caps.
“We have good players coming through, good players in form at clubs like Aberdeen and Hearts. Celtic have a great core of Scottish players as well. It can only be good for the national team.
“In the last ten years, the nucleus of the squad has come from players playing in England. Maybe now there might be a shift to a lot more Scottish-based players. That can be good for the league and the national team.”
Hearts’ own progress under Craig Levein means the club’s overall Player of the Year is likely to be contested by at least four candidates. It is quite a contrast from 12 months ago, when consistency was conspicuous by its absence.
“Last year it was probably a case of picking the bones out of it, really,” admitted Cowie. “This year will be tough. A lot of players have played consistently well and a few stick out, especially at the back – Christophe, John Souttar, Jon McLaughlin, then big Kyle [Lafferty] has been consistent with goals up front.”
Cowie is simply relieved to be part of a more settled dressing room having watched Riccarton’s revolving door go into overdrive in his two years there.
“A lot has happened even in my time at Hearts,” he smiled. “We have the initiation where new players have to sing in front of the squad. We were away overnight at Ross County last week so we’ve had a couple of new singers with Joaquim and others coming in.
“Myself and John Souttar were saying we’ve heard some amount of songs in the last two years. It doesn’t get any easier listening to them! It’s been up and down, a lot of people have come and gone, but it feels a lot more secure now.
“We have a real core group and not many players are out of contract this summer. Hopefully we can end with a trophy and win the Scottish Cup, maybe get into the Premiership’s top four as well. Come the summer, we want to really kick on and make the most of what we’ve done in the last few months.
“It’s been tough because the manager left on the eve of the league season. Players were coming and going as well. It just feels a bit different now. We’re a lot harder to beat and there’s a good feeling in the squad.”
Part of the reason for that has been the collection of academy graduates who have broken into the first team. Cowie is one of several established names the youngsters can learn from.
“We haven’t done too much in terms of advice because it’s a good group. We try to lead by example and hope they can follow suit, whether that’s preparing right before training or looking after yourself at the end of training.
“You just hope they pick up the good habits to make them better. Little sacrifices can make a massive difference in your career and that’s what you tell the young boys when they do ask for advice.”
• The Hearts Player of the Year awards ceremony, sponsored by Mercedes, will take place inside Tynecastle Park’s Gorgie Suite on Sunday, April 8.
Awards up for grabs include Players’ Player of the Year, Goal of the Season, Memorable Moment and Fans’ Player of the Year.
Trophies will also be given for Overall Young Player of the Year, Under-20 Player of the Year and Under-17 Player of the Year.
Tickets for the event go on sale this morning at 9am, priced £100 each plus VAT. They are available by calling 0131 200 7240.