Villa's Greatest Heroes: Gordon Cowans

"We should want the kids to know when they come here that Gordon Cowans was really a fantastic player once and not just the baldy-headed old coot that he is now," said Martin O'Neill as the finishing touches were put to the club's new training ground.

"We should have some pictures of the European Cup winners here. It should be celebrated."

The alliance between pride in a glorious past and hope for an equally glorious future is embodied in one man. League champion, European Cup winner and, just as importantly, youth coach: Gordon Cowans.

Cowans is a footballing one off; a well-travelled one-club pro. No-one would associate him with any club other than Aston Villa. He's as much a part of the place as the red bricks. But he was transferred ten times in his playing career. I can't think of any other player who fits that mould.

The omens were good from the moment a talented 15-year-old arrived at Villa Park in 1974. Soon afterwards, he was part of the side that won Aston Villa's first FA Youth Cup. It was an auspicious sign of what was to follow.

Not just in terms of the extensive silverware that Cowans would win in the first of his three playing spells at the club, but of the vital work he would do - and continues to do - shaping Villa's stars of the future.

Cowans' off-field contributions can wait, since even without them he would qualify for a place amongst Villa's heroes. The north-easterner gave 13 years' playing service to his adopted club. It wasn't an unlucky number. Cowans' talent left little up to luck.

The best midfielders - the Zidanes, the Figos, the Hagis of the world - may all have their own individual style, and completely different games to their peers. AC Milan teammates Andrea Pirlo and Kaka could not, on the face of it, have less in common.

But one thing sets them apart from the other players on the pitch - the time they have on the ball. 21 other players might be rushing around the pitch, but a world-class midfielder is still unrushed, unflustered and unmarked.

If the sign of a great midfielder is the ability to manufacture that time and space, then Cowans was up there with the best. He was the pivot point of what O'Neill described as "the most glorious times Villa have ever had."

If Ken McNaught needed to move the ball out of defence, there was Cowans. If Dennis Mortimer found himself under pressure in midfield, there was Cowans. If Tony Morley ran into a dead end down the wing and had to turn back, there was Cowans ... and the ball would be moved to the other side of the pitch and the attack would continue seamlessly.

But Cowans wasn't simply a master of spraying the ball around. Boy, was he willing to get his shirt dirty. If you watched every one of his 453 games in Villa's claret and blue, I'm willing to bet you wouldn't find a single instance of him bottling a tackle. It would cost him dearly.

In February 1983, nearly two years after helping Villa to the league title and eight months after that night in Rotterdam, Cowans earned his first call-up for the England side. It was a just reward not only for his sterling performances at club level, but for impressing in the 'B' side.

Some players take years to step up to the international game. Those who had watched Cowans blossom at Villa knew that wouldn't be the case with such an intelligent player. They were proven right when he slotted in effortlessly alongside Bryan Robson like his first cap was his 50th; he picked up six more in just five months.

Then disaster. The injury curse that had haunted the brightest stars of Cowans' first era at the club, blighting the careers of men like Gary Shaw and Brian Little, was always likely to strike a man as willing to put his body on the line as 'Sid'. Of all the games it could have been - European Cup finals, England matches, vital title-deciders - it was a meaningless pre-season friendly in Spain that saw Cowans suffer an horrific broken leg. He missed the whole season.

But he was never a quitter. After returning and proving his fitness under Graham Turner, Cowans - like David Platt half a decade later - was sold to a Bari side newly-promoted to Serie A and keen to establish themselves. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. The Italian side were relegated, and Cowans spent two years of what should have been his prime in Serie B - a testament to his desire not to duck out when the going got tough.

Still, you can imagine his joy when Graham Taylor brought him back to Villa Park in 1988. David Platt was the star of the time, as a rejuvenated Villa bounced back from relegation and established themselves firmly amongst the top teams in the land. But Platt himself attributed his success to Cowans; certainly, Platt would never have scored as many goals from Villa's midfield without the brain and work of his colleague.

Platt, of course, went on to captain England. There was more international recognition for Cowans too. He was recalled for his tenth and final cap (two having been won while in Italy) in November 1990, at 32 years old.

Exactly one year after that final international flourish, Cowans was on the move again. He played 50 times for Blackburn before returning for a third spell at Villa Park that saw him move past the 450-game mark for the club. He had found the net 49 times in those matches.

After his final spell as a Villa player, Cowans turned out for Derby, Wolves, Sheffield United, Bradford, Stockport and Burnley. And Villa have reason to be grateful to Burnley, because it was there that Cowans started a coaching career that could turn out to be as important to Aston Villa as ever his exquisite on-field performances were.

Along with the likes of Kevin McDonald and Tony McAndrew, Cowans runs one of the most successful Youth Academies in English football. The Villa squad for the last game before this article was written included Craig Gardner, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Luke Moore - all players who have served under Cowans' tutelage and gone on to earn international recognition at Under-21 level. Gary Cahill is on loan at Sheffield United, while the likes of Steve Davis and Darius Vassell have moved on for transfer fees that will pay for the Academy for years.

"This is a fantastic time for the club and for the Academy in particular," says Cowans, rightly proud of his work. "The fact that so many players have come through the Academy is important. It shows the lads here that we are committed to them and they can see some light at the end of the tunnel."

That is not just a boost for the morale of the youngsters knocking on the door of the first-team squad. It plays a crucial role in attracting the brightest stars from around the world. Villa's Academy currently plays host to players from as far afield as Sweden, Hungary and New Zealand, as well as nurturing two of England's own brightest youth talents, Harry Forrester, captured from Watford in the summer, and Nathan Delfouneso.

And Martin O'Neill was right; those kids should know that Gordon Cowans was a fantastic player. But the rest of us should remember that what he's doing for Aston Villa now is just as important.