Belfast Telegraph

Our Sporting Lives with Stevie Cowan: With Sir Alex Ferguson it was hell. You would get a blast every day. Ronnie McFall never really blew his top very often

Ports legend Stevie Cowan on glittering career under two greats

Memories: Stevie Cowan (right) and other Portadown legends at a gala dinner in the Seagoe Hotel in 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the double
Memories: Stevie Cowan (right) and other Portadown legends at a gala dinner in the Seagoe Hotel in 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the double

By Stuart McKinley

Impressing Sir Alex Ferguson and being offered a contract is something that even some of the best footballers of the last 40 years failed to do.

Doing enough to be signed on two occasions by the man considered by many to be the greatest manager of his generation can therefore be viewed as something of an achievement.

Stevie Cowan - who would go on to earn legendary status in the Irish League with Portadown - is in a quite exclusive club.

Even Jim Leighton and Gordon Strachan, who Ferguson took with him to Old Trafford just a few months after leaving Aberdeen for Manchester United, were already part of the Dons squad when he arrived at Pittodrie having been signed by his predecessor.

After Ferguson left his first full-time manager's job at St Mirren to join Aberdeen it wasn't long before Cowan made the same journey from Paisley to the north east of Scotland - despite a trial game going horribly wrong.

"My uncle Billy knew Fergie from a social point of view and being the great manager that he was he was always asking if he knew any good young boys and my uncle Billy thought he'd put me forward," explained Cowan.

"I went down at 13-years-old and that was the first time that I came across Alex Ferguson. I must've done alright, because three weeks later he signed me and I spent three years there under him."

It was during that time Cowan also came up against another future legend of the Scottish game. Ally McCoist was taking his first steps in what would be a trophy-laden career with Rangers.

The two didn't quite hit it off, however, and what could well have been a prolific strike partnership never got off the ground following a training ground bust-up.

"Ally McCoist trained at St Mirren for a few weeks while I was there and we had a fight one night," Cowan, who celebrated his 56th birthday last weekend, recalled.

"Fergie came out and grabbed both of us - and you can imagine what he was saying. He threw us both in his car because we were all from East Kilbride and he dropped McCoist off and then dropped me off and Ally McCoist never came back to St Mirren after that.

"I always say that I cost Fergie £400,000 because Ally signed for St Johnstone and then Sunderland bought him for £400,000."

If Cowan was surprised to get a call from Ferguson a few years later asking him to go on trial at Aberdeen, he was shocked when he was then told the move was on.

"It was a call out of the blue. He said he wanted me to go up for a trial. I went up, had an absolute nightmare and thought I had no chance of getting signed, but he said to me 'go home and pack your bags, I want you back up here on Sunday night to start training on Monday morning'," Cowan revealed.

"It really was as quick as that. I felt blessed that he must have seen something in me because I had a complete shocker in the trial game."

Cowan joined a list of names that is like a who's who of Scottish football, with many making an imprint on the game further afield.

Steve Archibald, Gordon Strachan, Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, Jim Leighton and Mark McGhee were all part of the squad that was ripping up the script in Scottish football in the 1980s and taking silverware away from Celtic and Rangers.

Injury problems began to set in and separate knee operations meant Cowan wasn't involved as they shocked Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983, followed by the Super Cup a few months later.

He came out of six years at the club with a league championship medal from the 1984-85 season before joining Hibernian.

His first season at Easter Road saw Cowan come out on top in another battle with his old adversary McCoist, pipping the Rangers man to take the top goalscorer award.

Despite it being a World Cup year Cowan knew his scoring feats were never going to get him on the plane to Mexico.

"There was no chance, because Fergie had taken over the team after Jock Stein's death and there was no way he was going to take somebody that he'd sold to a World Cup, but even though I'd scored the goals I wasn't good enough," he said with typical modesty.

Cowan was just 23-years-old at that time, but despite hitting those heights his full-time career would come to an end within three years.

It wasn't the end of his glory days though. If anything they only started when he made the move to Portadown - a club he had never heard of - midway through the 1989-90 season.

And had the Ports played in a different colour of kit he may still never have heard of the Shamrock Park side.

"I had fallen out with Tommy McLean, the Motherwell manager," said Cowan.

"I was playing in the reserves and Colin O'Neill, who had joined Motherwell from Portadown shortly before that, had been asked by Ronnie McFall if there were any players and he asked if I would be interested in getting a few games at Portadown. I think by that stage I'd had five knee operations and things were starting to mount up against me. I think people were thinking 'he's maybe done' but mentally I was still really sharp and had a great hunger and desire to do really well.

"I had heard nothing about Portadown. Nothing whatsoever. I didn't even know where Portadown was. I found out they played in a red strip, like Aberdeen, and I thought 'that'll do for me'."

Within a few months Cowan's goals helped the Ports to their historic first league title win and he wrote his name further into the club's folklore by scoring twice in an Irish Cup final success over local rivals Glenavon as they completed a double 12 months later, his exciting partnership with fellow Scot Sandy Fraser being one of the most prolific Northern Ireland football has ever seen.

"Knowing this was the first title for the club, it meant everything to me," said Cowan, who will be back in Portadown later this year to be inducted into the club's Hall of Fame.

"The Irish Cup final win over Glenavon was unbelievable. We had a couple of massive European games. To go and play against Red Star Belgrade, who were the European champions, was surreal - but brilliant. Those are the obvious highlights. We'd some great derbies against Glenavon. I scored a hat-trick against them on New Year's Day once as well. I have loads of great memories."

The careers of the respective Aberdeen and Portadown managers mirrored each other. Ferguson was appointed at Manchester United just weeks before McFall took over at Shamrock Park, and they both won their first silverware in 1990 before leading their clubs to unprecedented success during reigns of almost 30 years.

Cowan, however, remembers the iconic bosses as having varying characteristics, having been on the end of Ferguson's infamous hair-dryer treatment.

"In my experience Sir Alex and Ronnie McFall were totally different. With Alex Ferguson sometimes it was hell. You would get a blast every day. Even if you did well you would get a blast - and it really was a blast," he said.

"You had to put up with that and only the strong survived it.

"Ronnie made things simple. It was 4-4-2, win your physical battles and then go and play. I thought it was great. A simple football philosophy. Ronnie never really blew his top often. Ronnie would rather talk than shout."

The Portadown fans had plenty to shout about in the early 90s though - thanks to Cowan and the red kit that tipped the balance in his decision making process.

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