Cowans the essential quality controller

Graham Taylor's perpetual playmaker keeps rolling on. Phil Shaw reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
David Platt once praised the man whose precision and vision created dozens of goals for him by stating that his ambition was "to make a run that Sid doesn't read".

Gordon Sidney Cowans has been stuck with the moniker since an Aston Villa colleague spotted his passport on a youth tour 20 years ago. The funny thing is that many who have followed his career over the past two decades - from the first of his three spells at Villa Park to his current renaissance with Wolverhampton Wanderers - would swear that quality is his middle name.

Graham Taylor is clearly a believer, having bought the perpetual playmaker twice and famously, some might say infamously, preferred Cowans to Paul Gascoigne in one of his first matches as England manager. Their latest project is to restore Wolves to the front rank of British clubs, though the pursuit of promotion will be temporarily relegated in their priorities today.

Wolves visit Crystal Palace in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. This is the competition from which Cowans - at 36, the oldest outfield player left in - needs a winner's medal to complete a remarkable set. As well as gaining 10 caps, he figured in League championship, League Cup and European Cup-winning sides at Villa, so it would seem simple to surmise what his remaining ambition might be.

Simple, but wrong. "In the short term, what I want to achieve more than anything is to play in the Premiership again," Cowans said. "Eventually, I'd like to follow Bryan Robson, Terry Fenwick and Steve McMahon into management. So far the opportunities haven't arisen, and I'd just like to stick it out on the playing side as long as I can."

This is his resilient streak, the part of his character which helped him recover from a double fracture of a leg 11 years ago, and to re-establish himself at Villa after a three-season stint with Bari. Sticking it out, though, suggests a compromise in standards, something Cowans has managed to avoid since Taylor paid Derby £20,000 for him in December.

"I'm sure a lot of Wolves fans were wondering why he was bringing in someone closer to 40 than 30 and saying I was past my best," Cowans said. "I hope I've surprised them with my form and my fitness, and I think the Molineux crowd warms to a trier."

More undue modesty. For while Cowans covered every blade of mud in Wolves' Cup victories over Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester, his distributive skills compared favourably with those of vaunted whippersnappers like Chris Bart-Williams and Mark Draper. Feeling appreciated, he explained, was important.

"At my age you need people to show faith in you. It's fair to say that I probably wouldn't be with Wolves now if Graham Taylor wasn't in charge. He knows exactly what I can and can't do."

The Sid pro quo is informed by observation of his manager in the daily routine of club football, Taylor's natural habitat. Cowans believes he has purged his traumas with the national team. "He has mellowed slightly and doesn't get as worked up as he used to, though he still has a passion for the game and desperately wants to take this club into the Premiership.

"Steve Harrison [Taylor's coach, previously with Palace] takes a lot of the training, but once we get towards the weekend the gaffer will come out and start working with us. He's more thorough in his organisation and preparation than anyone I've played for, and always knows the opposition inside out."

Praise indeed given that Cowans shared in Blackburn's rise under Kenny Dalglish, who is renowned for attention to detail. Yet he admitted he was as surprised as he was delighted in 1990 when Taylor picked him ahead of Gazza in Dublin. "Like thousands of others," he said, "I still don't understand his reasons for bringing me back."

His task now is to strike up a rapport with Steve Bull. Wolves' serial scorer is radically different in style from Platt, who in his Villa days would surge into the goal area from deep positions, almost unnoticed. Bull likes to spin off his marker on to balls hit over the top.

Which is where Cowans, a master of the 40-yard pass, comes in. He argues that it is too simplistic to characterise such service as another example of Taylor's adherence to the long-ball game. "I don't think he would have brought me here just to hoof it forward hopefully," he said.

Provided Bull recovers from a "dead leg", the tie at Selhurst Park will be only the fifth time he and Cowans have played together. While Harrison has warned Wolves of the pace a youthful Palace side possess, Cowans is encouraged by the absence of Chris Armstrong, and believes they may have a vital edge in experience.

As well as the injury to Bull, Wolves lost John De Wolf, probably for the season, in a midweek win over Sunderland which put them third in the First Division. That still leaves the know-how of David Kelly, Peter Shirtliff and Cowans himself, though he cautioned: "We also have to show we've got the hunger."

For Cowans, who has never progressed beyond the last eight, an appetite for the fray has never been a problem. The morning we met, practice had been conducted in the face of snow, hail and a bone-chilling wind. So what keeps "Sid" running? "The fact that I enjoy it so much...the training, and performing in front of full houses.

"In that respect, coming to Wolves has been a real kick up the backside for me. I'm grateful that I still have the opportunity to do what I love doing."