Football Play-Offs: Experience of Cowans is key for McFarland's men: Jon Culley reports on the veteran midfielder whose creative influence is vital for Derby County

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The Independent Online
IN two and a half years, Derby County have spent close to pounds 12m in their attempt to win a place in the Premier League, dealing in sums which make pounds 75,000 seem like small change.

They paid that to Aston Villa for 35-year-old Gordon Cowans last February, the figure representing less than 1 per cent of the total drawn on Lionel Pickering's bank account since he released the club from the late Robert Maxwell's grip. A trifling amount. But if today's First Division play-off final against Leicester City at Wembley goes Derby's way, many will take the view that no other proportion of their extravagant owner's outlay was better spent.

In 21 matches since Cowans brought his creative influence to their midfield, Derby have suffered only four defeats and the consensus among those best placed to judge is that this is no coincidence. The experience gained winning League Championship, European Cup and League Cup medals with Villa, not to mention a play-off final with Blackburn - against Leicester - two years ago, and 10 England caps, has equipped him to pull together Derby's expensive but sometimes disparate parts.

'His impact has been immense,' Roy McFarland, Derby's manager, says. 'When I took over this job from Arthur Cox, I was looking from the outset for somebody in Gordon's mould and I can't be more pleased that I actually did get him.

'His enthusiasm is tremendous, so much so that after half a dozen games we had to rein him in and say: 'Steady on, Gordon, you're trying to do everybody's job.' I think he felt he needed to do that but he was getting involved in too many things.

'It is unbelievable to be talking about a player of his age in this way. He is a fine professional and his influence, on the training ground as well as the pitch, has rubbed off on a very young squad.'

For his part, Cowans sees today's game as a wholly unexpected climax to the season - and a way back on to the major stage, where he still believes he can perform.

'When I returned to Villa from Blackburn, I thought my career would end there,' he said, 'and I would have liked it to have done.

'But Ron Atkinson signed me with Europe in mind and once we were knocked out I was rarely getting a game. Whether he thought I could not do it in the Premier League, I don't know. I felt I had done reasonably well.

'I appreciated the chance to go back to Villa but at my age being in the reserves or sitting on the bench was no good.'

Cowans rejected the overtures of two Pemiership clubs in favour of Derby, whom he feels have high potential. 'There are a lot of young players here with a lot of ability. If we can get into the Premiership, I don't think we'll be struggling like Swindon were. I'm sure there'll be some more money for the manager to spend.'

His contract has another year to run and he sees no reason why advancing years should hamper his own contribution to the re-establishment of Derby, twice League champions in the 1970s, as an important force.

'If you go back a few years, people tended to think you were finished at 30 but there are some tremendous examples of players making a nonsense of that - Gordon Strachan, Ray Wilkins, Kevin Moran, John Wark and more.

'I'd be delighted to go on as long as they have and I can't see any reason why I shouldn't. Stamina-wise I feel as strong now as I ever was. I do all the training, all the physical work that everyone else does. And at times the pace is probably quicker in the First Division than in the Premiership, where you are shown a little bit more respect on the ball.'

McFarland jokes: 'I'm not sure he is the age he says he is. The way he runs about, I think he's 25 really and is kidding us on.'

But Cowans will need only to look at the opposition bench today to be reminded of his true vintage. As an 18-year-old he played alongside Brian Little, Leicester's manager, in Villa's League Cup winning side of 1977. Five years later, in Rotterdam, he was sharing European Cup glory with Allan Evans, now Little's assistant.

The consequences of victory or defeat will be great, in financial terms, for today's teams: too great, in the view of this player, who does not favour the play-off system. 'It is very exciting for everybody and you have to accept the way it is and get on with the job.

'But you do your work over the season and third place is a lot higher than sixth, where we finished. We beat Millwall to get here but, really, they are the team that deserved to go up.'

(Photograph omitted)