Don Cowie played alongside established Premier League names like Danny Drinkwater, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Troy Deeney and Craig Bellamy in England.
When he names Jamie Walker as one of the most talented team-mates he has encountered, it is quite a statement.
Walker sought advice from his Hearts colleague Cowie before joining Wigan Athletic in a £300,000 transfer. The 34-year-old has no doubt about the winger’s aptitude to succeed south of the Border. A former Wigan and Scotland player himself, Cowie regards Walker as a future internationalist and says he is one of the most naturally talented footballers he has worked with.
“There is no doubting Jamie’s ability. He is one of the most gifted players I’ve played with in my career. He has everything,” said Cowie.
“You see him in training and, in terms of a midfield player, I’ve never really seen someone finish the way he does. All types of goals, too. In my time at this club I’ve just applauded the goals he’s scored. You think, ‘that’s special,’ but it’s up to him now to do it on a regular basis.
“It’s about trying to do that for a season and if he can do that, then the accolades come, Scotland call ups, etc.
“He’s different because he is so gifted. He’s not the quickest but he’s elusive and can go past players. He’s strong and doesn’t shirk away from a tackle. Maybe he needs to believe in himself a bit more.
“Maybe at Hearts he was in a comfort zone and knew if he was fit he would play. Now, all of a sudden, he’s got to become a man and really step up to the plate. If he does, the country has a great player on their hands.”
Despite the ten-year age gap, Cowie and Walker became close friends at Tynecastle. The latter’s departure for League One came after advice from an elder statesman who has experienced England’s Premier League and knows what is required to get there.
“Jamie is someone I’ve grown close to since I’ve been here. He’s a young player and he maybe looked at me and thought that I’d been in England and it was something he wanted to achieve.
“We got to know each other really well. He was speaking to me about it and I think it’s a good match for him. He needs to get himself fit now, it gives him a couple of weeks to do that and hopefully he’ll make a statement when he’s there.
“I know Wigan are in League One but it’s not long ago they were in the Premier League. It’s more a rugby town, they’re more focused on that, but they’ve got owners who want the club to do well. They might not have the biggest squad but it’s a chance to stamp his authority and get in the team.”
Hearts fans are certainly happier seeing one of their most revered idols head to England rather than along the M8 to Glasgow. Rangers’ pursuit of Walker last summer was well-documented and impacted on both the player’s morale and performance.
“He found it hard to deal with the transfer saga, especially in the summer and it’s maybe coincided with him having a few niggling injuries this year as well,” explained Cowie.
“I spoke to him. There was a lot made of it, the fact he had been at Hearts his whole career and he hadn’t been in that situation before. He is a Hearts boy and his family support Hearts so it’s tough.
“Social media and things like that are powerful. People and get to you and say things.
“Jamie maybe struggled a bit dealing with it and I tired to help him. It looked like he would move in the summer but it didn’t materialise.
“Once Craig [Levein] took over, I thought he handled the situation really well and started to play well again.
“I think this move is best for all parties. It’s now a chance for him to progress his career and get away from a club he’s been at for a long time and achieved a lot. He’s a special player and we wish him well. Hopefully he can fulfil the potential he has and break into that Scotland squad.”
Cowie’s own experience of Wigan as a club and town tells him Walker has chosen well. He spent 18 months there and knows the full potential of the place.
It is four and a half years since the FA Cup adorned the DW Stadium trophy room following that famous Wembley victory over Manchester City. The intervening period has not been kind, for the Latics now find themselves in the third tier of English football after two relegations. Nonetheless, they are rebuilding at a steady pace.
Manager Paul Cook is masterminding the renaissance and has guided the club to the top of League One, where they are expected to remain until the end of the season and secure promotion back to the Championship.
“They’re going strong and it gives Jamie that six months to get to know the club and the players,” Cowie pointed out. “Their end game is to get promoted and I think they’ll achieve that. Then he’ll be playing at a level he should be playing. I think it’s a chance for him to really test himself. He’s got the ability to do really well. There’s plenty of people from Scotland that have done it in the past.”
It may be predominantly a rugby town, but there remains a strong passion for football in the area. “The fans go to both,” said Cowie. “There would be a rugby game on the Friday then Saturday there was the football game, which wasn’t idea for the playing surface. The crowds come out in their numbers for both.
“When you think of rugby’s Super League, you instantly think of Wigan. They achieved a lot. I noticed how passionate they are about their rugby and the football is probably trying to play catch-up with that success, although they won the FA Cup.”
With Walker gone, Cowie and other experienced Hearts players like Aaron Hughes and Christophe Berra will continue playing father figures to the next generation of Hearts youths.
A clutch of teenagers are emerging from the Riccarton youth academy, led by 16-year-olds Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald. They don’t need babysat, just perhaps the occasional word of advice as their careers begin to flourish at senior level.
“They’re great boys and with the ability they’ve got you let them be right now. I don’t think you really need to say too much to them,” stated Cowie.
“They’re all pretty innocent and not really aware of what’s going on. They’re taking it head on and doing brilliant. There might become a time when you speak to them and help them out but right now it’s about letting them flourish.”
If they flourish the way Walker did in maroon, a career in England will surely beckon in the future.