ALAN TEMPLE, MALTA – @CCP_Sport
Hearts midfielder Don Cowie is determined to provide a welcome fillip for Scottish football against Birkirkara tonight after vowing not to wilt in searing heat for a second time in his career.
This nation’s standing in Europe took another hammering on Tuesday evening when Celtic succumbed to a chastening 1-0 defeat against Gibraltar part-timers Lincoln Red Imps.
The Hoops utterly failed to deal with the plastic pitch and stifling in the tiny British outpost as they fell to arguably their worst ever continental result.
With the mercury hitting 37-degrees Celsius in Malta yesterday, Hearts will be required to deal with similarly testing conditions, albeit the grass surface at the Hibernians Stadium is far superior to the 3G shocker in Gibraltar.
Cowie, 33, is no stranger to a humbling reverse in suffocating heat and humidity, having represented Scotland in an ill-judged friendly against the United States in Jacksonville in May 2012.
The 5-1 defeat under former boss Craig Levein – now director of football at Tynecastle – still haunts Cowie.
“I played in the – and not that I’m proud of it – game against America a few years ago in the summer,” rued the 10-times capped midfielder. “It was pretty humid and hot and stuffy and difficult circumstances. That was 5-1 in Florida.
“It was end of the season, America were in qualifiers at the time, their training was a bit more intense and they were more used to the conditions. It was really hot. They were used to it, we weren’t. That’s the reality.
“There has to be game management. There will be times when you can’t dictate the tempo and you just need to go with it. When there’s a chance to slow it down or take an extra few seconds at a throw-in, it all counts.
“That all comes from experience and it’s something our players will learn as they go along. We’re used to being up and at it with a high tempo for 90 minutes but we all know that’s not possible here. It’s going to be hot.
“That’s European football and why we all want to be in it. You want to test yourself in different circumstances and conditions and pit your wits on scenarios you don’t get on a weekly basis.”
And, now at the ‘veteran’ stage of his career, Cowie displays a sense of perspective regarding the European exploits of Scottish sides and the national team.
He was hurt by Scotland’s status as the only Home Nation not to reach Euro 2016 and took no pleasure from watching Celtic’s shock at the Rock.
The former Inverness and Ross County star is desperate to do the nation proud tonight and hopes Hibernian, Aberdeen and, eventually, Celtic can follow suit.
“If we get to the group stage it would be a great achievement for the club and the country,” Cowie continued. “That’s what we’re aiming for. It will be difficult but we’ve got to aim for that.
“On the back of Scotland being the only home nation not at the Euros – you see how the other nations did – then [Celtic on] Tuesday night is a setback. If they don’t turn it around then the criticism should come.
“The good thing about European football is it’s two legs. The cream will rise to the top over the two legs.
“Hopefully they’ll do the job and get to the group stage. For our country, that’s what we want. It’s not just about us, it’s Celtic, Hibs and Aberdeen as well. You want them all to do well.
“That can inspire you as a club. If we see others achieving things, it might help us on our run.”
With Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson keen for experience and players with an ability to retain possession in the searing heat against Birkirkara, Cowie could be in line for his first start of the season.
He has shaken off a persistent calf complaint and played the full 90 minutes in both recent friendlies against Cowdenbeath and Dunfermline.
He is relishing the opportunity to finally realise his dream of featuring in European competition – but is acutely aware of the test Birkirkara will pose, noting ‘there are no minnows any more’.
“That’s one of the reasons I came to Hearts. It’s a great thing to experience,” added Cowie.
“It’s exciting. I’m maybe a bit older than some of the players but we learn. It’s fresh to me and I’m really looking forward to it.
“But we know it will be tough. When I was growing up, you’d see so-called minnows losing 8-0 and 9-0. Very rarely does that happen now. It’s not as often as it used to be. The weather and pitches are all levellers and it’s difficult.”