From the Archives: Star Cowan fakes injury to win athletics race
Legendary Villa secretary George Ramsay was not averse to using some questionable methods if he was determined to sign a particular player.
The circumstances surrounding his recruitment of half-back James Cowan [pictured right on the photo] in 1899 are a case in point.
Cowan had originally left his native Vale of Leven club to attend a trial with Warwick County, based in the Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston.
But Ramsay, upon hearing that a highly-regarded fellow Scot was headed for Birmingham, met Cowan at the railway station, took him to the Old Crown and Cushion Inn which served as the club's headquarters in Perry Barr and refused to let the player until he had agreed to join the Villa.
Once Cowan had been 'forced' into signing for Villa, he settled down into the first team and became by common consent the finest centre-half of his day.
Not only was Cowan fierce in the tackle and an excellent header of the ball, he was one of the quickest footballers the club has ever fielded.
So fast could Cowan run that, during the early part of the 1895-96 season, he began to entertain thoughts of winning a lucrative sprint race held in Edinburgh - the Powderhall Sprint Handicap.
The big problem with this idea, according to the entry in the Aston Villa Miscellany, was that the race took place in January, during the height of the football season and Cowan knew that his club would never allow him time off to return to Scotland in order to undergo the necessary training.
He, therefore, complained of a back injury and insisted on being sent to his native Jamestown, in the Vale of Leven, to recover.
The club reluctantly agreed to Cowan's request and let him return home with orders to be examined by a local doctor.
The doctor insisted that he could find nothing wrong with Cowan's back but equally felt unable to accuse such a famous footballer of malingering and so informed the Villa that the player was, indeed, injured.
Had the doctor not been short-sighted he would have soon found all the evidence he needed to substantiate his initial suspicions, for Cowan, unfamiliar with the area after several years away, later admitted that he ran past the medical man's house one evening while on a training run.
Luckily for him, the doctor failed to recognise the player and was, therefore, unable to congratulate himself on the quickest recovery from injury ever known in medical science.
By the time of the race, word had reached Birmingham of Cowan's subterfuge and several of his team-mates, including Charlie Athersmith, Bob Chatt and Albert Evans, had travelled to Edinburgh to support their colleague.
As an 'unknown' sprinter, Cowan received the maximum start of twelve and a half yards in the 130 yard race - and won the first prize of £80 with ease.
His Villa colleagues were less fortunate. They should have made more than enough money betting on the race to pay for their excursion but unfortunately Cowan proved to be the only the second-quickest man in Edinburgh that day as the bookmaker with whom the Villa players had laid their bets scarpered and left them penniless.
Cowan returned to Birmingham to face the wrath of a Villa committee furious at the way in which they had been tricked.
He was promptly suspended for four weeks.
But even Villa's autocratic patriarchs had to appreciate the ingenuity and the suspension was soon lifted, enabling Cowan to take his place in the double-winning side the following season.
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