Don Cowie cleaned stands, swept stairways and hoovered the team mini-bus as an apprentice footballer at Ross County. Now he watches Hearts youth players strolling around Oriam’s plush new training centre at Riccarton and living in the lap of luxury.
It is very much changed days, but Cowie embraces the evolution in football as much as anyone. He encountered a stark contrast in preparation when he left Inverness Caledonian Thistle for Watford in 2009. Facilities have continued to improve since, with the new SFA performance centre the latest multi-million pound venue to open its doors.
Hearts have access to the complex, which is bolted on to their own training base at Riccarton. Cowie admits being overwhelmed by the new surroundings. Indoor pitches, outdoor pitches, a sports hall, fitness centre, a hydrotherapy pool and a rehab and medical suite are all state-of-the-art. Even for a player who experienced England’s Premier League, it is something beyond the imagination.
It certainly beats the days clearing wind-swept terraces in the Highlands. “This is beyond anything I’ve had at the clubs I’ve been at. It’s a real asset to have and when you show players around that you’re trying to sign, it’s going to be a real coup for us, that’s for sure,” said Cowie.
“As a kid, our astroturf was like concrete. With the weather up north as well it was pretty severe. You see the changes in the years and it’s frightening. To have this in the winter time, it’s going to be fantastic for us. You’ve got the indoor pool as well.”
Are modern players slightly mollycoddled, though? “Probably, yeah. From what I had to go through, it’s way and beyond,” continued the midfielder. “Everything in life changes, doesn’t it?
“There’s regulations and rules now. I would have been cleaning seats in the stand on a Monday, sweeping the stadium and putting the covers on in the winter. You’d be cleaning the bus but now it’s just cleaning the boots. It’s changed days, it just moves with time really and that’s what I had to go through.
“This place can only be a good thing, not just for Hearts but for Scottish football. I believe Scotland will be based here as well so it’s fantastic.”
Utilising the best equipment helps reduce the small margins between success and failure. It is the attention to detail Cowie was accustomed to in England before joining Hearts in January.
“Definitely, small details is a big thing in football. You see the recovery area we have now, the gym. It’s on our doorstep. The desire might not have been there to go to the gym but now it’s right there, you can’t hide from it. You’ve got to use it. It’s wee things that give you that attitude to do it.
“It’s one thing that got drummed into me when I was playing in England. Malky Mackay used to talk about it as a manager, it’s fine details and it’s fine margins. The one per cents can really make the difference come Saturday. If everyone is doing it, you add it up and it can be a big gain.
“Every day you’ve got your GPS. They can monitor how fast you run in training and how far you’re running so they can say the next day, ‘taper it off a wee bit, don’t do as much because your stats suggest you were overworked yesterday’.
“It’s wee things like that, whereas a few years ago you would go out and work as hard as you could every day.”
Hearts’ approach under head coach Robbie Neilson is to use the latest technology to optimise performance levels.
“Every morning we’ve got an app that we’ve got to log our wellness, how we’re feeling, our muscles – everything. That has to be done before you come in or you’ll get a big fine,” said Cowie.
“It shows Scottish football is catching up, that they’re really making an effort. It blew me away when I went to England how much detail there is. Obviously finances dictate as well. When I went to England, your protein shakes were there waiting for you. At Inverness and Ross County, you don’t know what a protein shake is.
“You come to a club like Hearts and they’re striving to be the best as well. It’s coming together nicely.”