A decade and a half ago, the 18-year-old Don Cowie made his professional debut for Ross County on the last day of the old Scottish First Division season in a 4-0 home victory over Raith Rovers. On the bench that day – 5 May 2001 – was Martin Canning, who, a year older than him, had already made the breakthrough the previous season.
The pair would remain team-mates for another five years, clocking up more than 100 appearances each for the Dingwall club in Scotland’s second tier. Canning left in 2006 to sign up for the Gretna adventure; Cowie departed County a year later to sign for Highland rivals Inverness. His stint at the Caledonian Stadium provided an unlikely launchpad for a fruitful seven years in England in which he became an established operator in the upper echelons of the Championship, briefly sampling the Premier League with Cardiff City and forcing his way into the Scotland squad.
When he initially returned to Scotland to join Hearts eight months ago, it looked as if Cowie’s powers may be on the wane. Not a bit of it. After overcoming a groin problem and enjoying a smooth pre-season, the 33-year-old has been as prominent as anyone in a maroon jersey, starting every domestic match of the current campaign and taking the captain’s armband from Alim Ozturk, who has spent most of the season on the subs’ bench.
At Tynecastle this Saturday, Cowie will again be at the heart of the action, with his old Dingwall colleague Canning watching on from the away dugout, trying to help Hamilton Accies find a way to curb the energetic midfielder’s influence and pull off a surprise victory over the in-form Jambos.
“I’m not surprised at all that Don’s still going strong at 33 because he was always one of the fittest players I knew,” the Accies boss told the Evening News. “I don’t see why he can’t continue to play for a number of years yet. He’s a really good professional who has always looked after his body. I was at the Inverness game a few weeks ago and he was excellent. He got up and supported the strikers really well and had two good finishes and two assists. He looks like he’s going to be one of Hearts’ main men this season. He’s picked up some really good experience down south and they’ve made him the captain.”
Canning and Cowie have kept in touch over the years. While some in the central belt were surprised to see the Invernesian hit the relative heights of Watford, Cardiff City and Scotland, the Hamilton manager noted from an early age that his old team-mate had the potential to go on and enjoy a stellar career.
“He’s a lovely guy – I got on great with him,” said Canning. “When I came up from Glasgow to sign for County, Don was still at school. Quite a few of us stayed in digs and Don was a local boy who stayed with his parents but he would come and play golf with us and occasionally stay over in the digs with us.
“He was always talented, even as a teenager, but physicality was his biggest issue early on. He was quite small in stature but obviously he worked hard on that side of it as the years went on. He was always super-fit and technically he was a good footballer. I could see him going to a higher level, even then. Him and John Rankin were the two I thought could make the step up because they were both so fit and had real quality. You just need to get the opportunity first and Don got it and made the most of it.”
Towards the end of their time at County, Canning and Cowie played under John Robertson, who had a brief spell in charge of the Dingwall club after leaving Hearts in 2005. The Tynecastle legend has been thrilled to see Cowie’s remarkable rise since working with him 11 years ago and compared his old charge to Colin Cameron, another dedicated professional who made his name as a high-energy midfielder in Gorgie a couple of decades ago. Robbo, who is currently head of coach education at Hearts, sees no reason why Cowie, who has amassed more than 50 career goals, can’t follow Cameron in playing on for several more years.
“He’s only 33,” scoffed Robertson, when asked how long the midfielder could keep producing for Hearts. “Colin Cameron played well into his 40s, and the two of them are similar types. Colin was extremely fit, box to box, played at a high intensity and looked after himself off the pitch. Don’s exactly the same – a model professional who enjoys his football and knows how to rest and look after his body. He’s over the injury he had when he first arrived and he’s absolutely flying now, showing everybody what a good player he is.
“It’s great to have seen Don Cowie the boy at Ross County and now see him at Hearts as a man, a fully-fledged internationalist and a mature leader. He’s been terrific for us this season, absolutely fabulous. It’s fantastic to see him getting the rewards for leading his life so well and putting in so much effort. The way he carries himself, the way he presents himself, the way he talks to people, it’s an absolute joy to see.”