Gordon Cowans’ cruel decline worth remembering as former sides meet

Gordon Cowans of Aston Villa with the First Division League Championship trophy during their Civic Reception in Birmingham, 3rd May 1981
Cowans is recognised as perhaps the greatest player Aston Villa's history - Getty Images/Bob Thomas Sports

Aston Villa posted a photograph on Friday morning of the unmistakable Gordon Cowans, grinning in a claret jacket, while he held aloft the European Cup.

Cowans was soon trending across social media and memories were instantly shared of the heart of Villa’s finest side and a player who, in a poll of the club’s greatest players, finished at the very top of the pile.

“Over 15 yards or 50, the midfielder’s delivery of a football oozed poise and precision,” said the accompanying citation on the Villa website, describing Cowans as their ultimate “prodigal son” following his three spells at the club.

Alan McInally says that it was like having Tom Brady, the legendary NFL quarterback, behind you whenever Cowans had the ball, such was the unerring precision of his delivery to the strikers.

David Platt would also say that, “I’ve yet to make a run that Gordon Cowans hasn’t spotted” in respect of the almost telepathic understanding that they forged even in the autumn of Cowans’ career.

Villa will host another of Cowans’ former clubs, Wolverhampton Wanderers, at Villa Park on Saturday, and so it feels timely to reflect not just on his stellar career but the cruelty of yet another footballer living with dementia at such a young age.

Cowans was only 61 when his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was made public back in 2020. He remained outwardly upbeat and determined still to make the most of life, whether on the golf course, with his ‘Dogs for Good’ charity work, or still regular trips to Villa Park, and he has been contributing to a forthcoming book about his life. Cowans’ condition, though, has inevitably worsened over recent years.

A flurry of updates appeared on social media over recent days and a statement was released by his children, Jenna and Henry, initially via the ‘For the Love of Paul McGrath Podcast’ on Friday, in an attempt to bring some clarity.

“Gordon is suffering from a deteriorating illness, and it is progressing,” said the statement. “He has entered a care facility because his welfare is paramount. There is a long-term health plan in place, formulated with specialists in the field of his illness. It is reviewed regularly to ensure Gordon’s needs are best served and provided for. Considering all he faces, he is doing well, both physically and mentally.” Friends also report that the 65-year-old is still in good humour.

Between three seasons in Italy at Bari, Cowans was a Rolls Royce of a two-footed player in the Villa midfield from the late 1970s until the early 1990s, helping the team to not just become champions of Europe, but also win the old Division One title, the League Cup and the European Super Cup.

There was even briefly a third spell in 1993-94 before moving to Wolves for the 1994-95 season, where he struck up a great understanding with Steve Bull, before various stints on the coaching staff at Villa Park.

Gordon Cowans of Wolverhampton Wanderers in action during an FA Carling Premiership match at the Molineux Grounds in Wolverhampton, England. The match ended in a 1-1 draw
Gordon Cowans made 37 appearances for Wolves after signing in December 1994 - Allsport/Mark Thompson

It was during one of those periods that he got to know Stan Collymore who, for all his appreciation of Cowans the player - “majestic … no fuss, just oozing class and composure” - also delivered an insight into the humility that underscored his popularity.

“He was the only one on the coaching staff who didn’t judge my mental health issues,” said Collymore. “A quiet word here, a chat there, a ‘well done big man’ when I was at my loneliest and weakest showed me the man he is.” Collymore saw Cowans - a man he describes as “the very best of the sport we love” - at Villa Park recently and was struck by how, despite the illness, he instinctively paused to pose for photographs and autographs with still adoring fans.

The tragic backdrop of course is that, after numerous players from the 1950s and 1960s were afflicted with dementia, the same fate is now following far too many heroes from the next generation. There is no obvious end in sight and, for a sport awash with cash for players not in Cowans’ class, a fully resourced football-wide care fund cannot come soon enough.

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