BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Hearts midfielder Don Cowie believes the prominence of homegrown talent at Tynecastle is good news for Scottish football as he urged his youthful teammates to knuckle down and realise their aspirations for club and country.
The 33-year-old insists he has been taken aback by the quality of youthful first-team regulars Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson and Jordan McGhee, despite being aware of their burgeoning reputations prior to his arrival last month.
Cowie, capped 10 times himself, largely during the tenure of current Hearts director of football Craig Levein, is particularly enthused by Paterson, who he reckons has the ability to be a long-term successor to Alan Hutton at right-back for the national side.
As well as boding well for the Jambos, he is adamant the whole country should be toasting the emergence of a batch of kids which, he believes, could be in Gordon Strachan’s thoughts next month.
The national boss will name two different squads for the friendlies against Czech Republic and Denmark as he experiments ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign.
“Watching from afar, I was aware of some of the talent in the squad. But now, seeing it close hand, the club is in a great place – and Scotland, as a whole, is in a great place,” lauded the former Wigan and Cardiff star.
“Sam Nicholson, Jamie [Walker], Callum [Paterson] and Jordan [McGhee] are really fantastic young players who are playing at a great level week-in, week-out and that can only be good for Hearts and Scottish football.
“I would not be surprised if one or two players from Hearts do not make at least one of those squads next month.
“I think they need to have those aspirations. Callum has already made that breakthrough by being in a Scotland squad and really needs to push himself because there is probably a gap there if he is determined to take it. He has great attributes and could go on to be a top player.
“The other boys are no different. If they really want to dedicate their lives to football then these are the rewards they could get. It won’t come easy at all, but if they apply themselves day-in, day-out then it is something that can happen for them.”
Cowie appears to reveling in his role as elder statesman in the Hearts dressing room as he seeks to ensure the youngsters in Gorgie fulfil their undoubted potential, extolling the virtues of an unsurpassed work ethic.
He is, after all, speaking from experience.
Cowie estimates the amount of players who were considered more naturally talented than him in the relatively modest youth ranks of Ross County at “double figures”, yet drive and determination took him from Dingwall to the heights of the English Premier League.
“When I was at Ross County in my first two years as an apprentice, I probably came across 30 or 40 players,” Cowie recalled. “I don’t think there are any of them still playing football.
“The number who probably thought they were better players than I was will be in double figures, but I knuckled down. I gave it everything I could, doors opened and I got fortunate.
“Those are the wee things I try to plant in their heads in a subtle way. You put it across to them that, if they want to achieve things in their football career, it’s there for them. There’s no doubt the ability is there.
“Playing at a club like Hearts week in and week out is a lot more than I was doing at their age. If you’re doing well in Scotland or England, someone will come and sign you.”
While he is certain the future at Hearts is bright, a more immediate concern for Cowie is the visit of Kilmarnock, as the Jambos attempt to bounce back from successive defeats against Hibernian and Dundee United to cement third place in the Premiership.
To do so they will need to overcome a Killie side managed by Lee Clark, a firefighter extraordinaire, according to Cowie, and a manager whose qualities have been vouched for by one of his closest friends, former Cardiff teammate Joe Lewis.
“The clubs Lee has been at have been in difficult situations, last season at Blackpool it was especially tough,” he added. “At Birmingham, financially, I believe it was really hard. But he has still produced organised, determined teams.
“Perhaps that is one of the things that really ticked a box when he applied for the Killie job. He is renowned for being able to deal with difficult situations in England, I remember when Birmingham basically survived in the Championship [in 2014] with the last kick of the ball.
“The job at Blackpool was also very difficult. But one of my good friends, Joe Lewis, was there at the time and enjoyed his time under Lee. I expect it to be a really tough game against them.”