Fireman Tom Cowan on life after Sheffield United with Dave Bassett, being spat on at Rangers and feeling the ire of Brian Clough

It was break time at the Birley fire station in south-east Sheffield and when the conversation inevitably turned to football, all eyes were suddenly trained on one man in the mess room.

Tuesday, 17th November 2020, 12:00 pm

"We were talking about a particular game from when I played in Sheffield, and I couldn't remember it," laughs Tommy Cowan, the former Sheffield United defender who now tackles fires rather than forwards.

"It was while I was at Rangers and I had to Google the game, to see if I played in it. There was a video of it on YouTube, and I watched myself cross the ball in for the first goal.

"It's great to look back at the good times, and even the bad. Because at the end of the day, that's all we've got left."

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Cowan, still only 51, took the rather unorthodox career move into the fire service after calling time on a playing career which began part-time at Clyde, while working an apprenticeship with British Steel, and later took him to three titles with Rangers, the Premier League with the Blades and trophy-winning spells at Huddersfield Town and Burnley.

From the beginning, he was a man in demand.

"I had only played 15 games for Clyde and suddenly, Nottingham Forest and Spurs wanted to sign me," Cowan, speaking to The Star from his home in Beighton, chuckled.

"I went to see Brian Clough and the first thing he said to me was: "You take that f*****g coat off when you're in my house, son".

Former footballer Tom Cowan now a firefighter with the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue service - Picture Chris Lawton 2008

He wanted to sign me but I said I had to speak to my mum and dad. So we flew back to Glasgow from East Midlands airport and there was a scout waiting for me at the other end.

"He asked me if I'd signed for Forest and when I said no, he gave me the phone and told me that Terry Venables was on the other end!

"He told me I'd play at Spurs, while I'd be stuck in the reserves at Forest. But London seemed a long way away, so I declined there and then. I regretted it a little because he signed Justin Edinburgh not long after, and he went straight into the team.

"But when Rangers came in for me, there was no question where I was going to go after that."

Tom Cowan in his days at Bramall Lane

It was another phone call that sealed the move to the Ibrox giants, in similarly bizarre circumstances.

"I was back at British Steel, weighing up the move to Forest, when one of the lads came up to me and said that it had been on Radio Clyde that I had to call home," Cowan added.

"Wind-up merchants were ten-a-penny in British Steel so I thought he was having me on. But he said: 'No, it's been on the radio - can Tommy Cowan ring home to his mum'.

"So I called her, and she told me that Graeme Souness wanted me to sign for Rangers.

Tom Cowan, Sheffield United footballer

"It was the start of the era when Rangers won nine titles in a row, and even though I didn't play much it was a brilliant time to be a part of."

After recovering from a broken leg, Cowan's hopes of establishing himself at Ibrox were dashed when Walter Smith, Souness's successor, spent almost £1million on David Robertson, Aberdeen's left-back who won 12 major honours with Rangers.

His options were moves to Hearts, Hibs and United. "I went to speak to Harry [Bassett] and signed straightaway," Cowan said.

Like the previous season, when they had four points on the board at Christmas, United had started the season slowly and won just two of their first 15 games.

It was those sluggish starts that later saw United host a Christmas party in August, in an attempt to coax better early-season results out of their players. But in Cowan's first season United recovered to eventually finish ninth, beating Sheffield Wednesday twice in the process for good measure.

"I played in the first derby at Bramall Lane, which we won 2-0, and it was huge in the city," Cowan said. "Especially because there hadn't been a top-division game between United and Wednesday in so long.

Tom Cowan swapped life on the pitch for a career fighting fires in Sheffield

"It wasn't quite on the level of Rangers v Celtic, but it was huge. And even better that we got the result.

"I played in the Old Firm games and there's always a bigotry in those games that shouldn't really be there. In one game at Parkhead, I was waiting to take a throw-in and it was only when I watched the highlights that night that I realised fans behind me were spitting on me.

"It was all over my back, but I didn't realise because I was so focused on the game."

Cowan made 23 appearances for United in the inaugral season of the Premier League in 1992/93, and joined Stoke and Huddersfield on loan after the Blades' cruel relegation at Chelsea on the last day of the following season.

"I think Harry had an eye on Roger Nilsen for left-back and wanted me out," Cowan said. "That's football - we're commodities and when you've served your purpose, you get moved on.

"But I have nothing but good memories of United. Harry created a team that was a team in the truest sense of the word. We would get fined if we didn't go out! That was the kind of culture we had.

"Harry organised golf days, we went bowling and paintballing. Anything to get people together and have a laugh. We didn't have the best team in the world - but my God did we believe in ourselves."

After hanging up his boots, Cowan considered staying in football but considered joining the fire service a more stable option for his family's security. Within a year of him joining, he was on strike as firefighters fought for better salaries and conditions.

"So much for stable," laughs Cowan. "I fell into it by accident, really. We lived next door to a fireman when me and my wife lived in Stannington for six months, and at the end of my career South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue did a recruitment campaign.

"I always had it in the back of my mind for if football went a bit t**s up. I went to Gretna in their football in the community department and when the money dried up there, I went in the first cull. So I decided to join the service.

"I always had in my mind that football could kick me in the nuts, which it did, and it's not a reliable industry in terms of coaching.

"Now, I love my job. I had seven or eight years at Mansfield Road station, where I saw it all and did it all, but now Birley is a lot quieter. I recommend it to anyone. It's a fantastic career."

Certainly an unusual one for a former Premier League footballer. Still, he will always have the memories. And YouTube.