Don Cowie is a European football novice aged 33 but he knows plenty of cautionary tales about Scottish football on the continent. Celtic’s defeat in Gibraltar is merely the latest in a long list of embarrassing results, and Cowie is determined there will be no ignominy in Malta.
The Hearts midfielder is awaiting his European debut against Birkirkara in Paola this evening. The 35-degree Mediterranean heat is rather different to what he grew up with in the Scottish Highlands. In fact, it conjures memories of another game of woe.
Cowie played in the Scotland team scalded 5-1 by the United States in Jacksonville, Florida, in May 2012. His manager that night, Craig Levein, is now his club’s director of football. The temperatures and humidity were similar to what Hearts will face at the Hibernians Stadium in the first leg of the Europa League second qualifying round.
Cowie at least has some idea of what to expect, then. He is also conscious that Birkirkara will wrongly be dismissed by some as no-hopers because of their league’s lowly European ranking. Hearts are the seeded team in this tie but the Maltese, under the wily Croatian coach Drazen Besek, carry a multi-national squad which is both hard and experienced.
The visitors anticipate a stern test of their European credentials. Cowie believes the term “minnows” is very much outdated and, in any case, Birkirkara would not deserve such billing.
Celtic’s 1-0 Champions League qualifying loss to part-time Gibraltan club Lincoln Red Imps less than 48 hours ago is the perfect warning. Aberdeen’s narrow 3-2 aggregate victory against Fola Esch of Luxembourg just last week serves as another alarm.
“When I was growing up, you’d see so-called minnows losing 8-0 and 9-0 but very rarely does that happen now. It’s not as often as it used to be,” said Cowie. “The weather and pitches are all levellers and it’s difficult. These are the circumstances you have to deal with. Unfortunately, Celtic weren’t able to do that the other night.
“The good thing about European football is it’s two legs. The cream will rise to the top over the two legs. The minnows don’t exist any more. You’ve got to go out with the right mindset to play these teams and show them respect. The Malta national team aren’t high in the world rankings but you’ve got to give them the respect they deserve. You’ll come unstuck if you don’t.”
Cowie wants all Scotland’s European representatives to progress to boost our national game. “Definitely. On the back of Scotland being the only home nation not at the Euros, then you see how the other nations did, then Tuesday night is a setback with Celtic,” he added. “They will get an opportunity again in a week’s time. If they don’t turn it around then the criticism should come. Hopefully they’ll do the job and get to the group stage. For our country, that’s what we want. It’s not just 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.”
After overcoming a calf problem which forced him to see a specialist, Cowie is eager for some competitive action. “That’s European football and why we all want to be in it,” he said. “You want to test yourself in different circumstances and pit your wits against things you don’t get on a weekly basis. The heat is something we’re not used to. I’m here, I’m involved, which is the main thing for me. If I get some game time I’ll be delighted.
“I had a training camp in Spain once which was pretty intense heat. I played in the – not that I’m proud of it – game against America a few years ago. 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.
“This is my first taste of Europe so 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.”
Cowie has a strong chance of starting tonight’s match. Injury meant he missed Hearts’ first round ties with Infonet of Estonia, but the midfielder insists he is now fully fit. He went to great lengths to cure the calf problem which spilled over from last season. Part of the reason for seeking help was a burning desire to play for Hearts in Europe.
“That’s one of the reasons I came to the club. It’s a great thing to experience,” he stressed. “If we get to the group stage it would be a great achievement for the club and the country. That’s what we’re aiming for. It will be difficult but we’ve got to aim for that.
“I’ve managed to play the last two friendly games and got 90 minutes in each of them. Gradually, I’ve been feeling fitter and fitter. It was disappointing missing the first round but the positive is I’m probably further on than I thought I would be at the end of last season.
“I was looking for answers at the end of the season. It was a gradual thing that was taking its toll on me. I was disappointed it just wouldn’t clear up. I saw a specialist in the summer and it seems to have been really good since then, touch wood.”