Foreword by Andy Martin, author and professor of French at the University of Cambridge
Lee Child once made a bargain with himself. It was on a Saturday, late in 1984, on the train to Leicester. Aston Villa were playing an away game against Leicester City. At the time Leicester had a particularly strong team, with an attack led by Gary Lineker, star centre-forward for England. As the train rolled into Leicester, Lee vowed that he would forever give up smoking if only Aston Villa could be granted a victory. It was a pact with God, to foreswear nicotine henceforth and for all eternity, if only…
In the event, Aston Villa lost 5-0. They were slaughtered. So either there was no God, or he was an evil bastard who took pleasure in tormenting his own children (and one Child in particular). He felt betrayed. Naturally Lee took revenge by smoking even more on the way back to Manchester. And has loyally, implacably, continued to do so ever since.
These are Lee’s reflections on his favourite player ever to don the famous claret and blue of Aston Villa.
I saw my first game at Villa Park at the age of seven. Which was fifty-three years ago. Which means I have seen the whole modern era in football. And during all that time the Villa have had just one genuine world-class-genius player.
And that was Gordon Cowans. He was a teenage prodigy who suddenly became an ever-present and completely vital part of the team that won the League and the European Cup.
He was extravagantly talented physically, and he had a crazy imagination. He was a skinny kid, but he was as good as anyone in the European game. And he had an extra something I have seen only in truly elite athletes – a kind of crazy determination.
Remember the quarter-final against Juventus? One-nil down after forty seconds? Time was ticking away, and we needed an equaliser, and we needed it now, so Cowans sprayed the ball left, and from that point on I knew that wherever the resulting cross went, Cowans would be on the end of it and we would score.
He would have run through their entire team to get there. And he did. One-all. He needed all that crazy determination when he broke his leg.
It was a horrific injury. You or I would have walked with a stick the rest of our lives. But Cowans came all the way back, and then he went to Italy, and then eventually he returned.
He was the same guy, but different. Not a skinny kid any more. He was a solid adult, and a kind of elder statesman. He had learned that lots of people can run and hustle, but only players like him can have whole games at their beck and call. All through sheer skill.
Remember Platt’s goal against Inter Milan? It is perfectly logical to say there has never been a more perfect pass in the history of football. I mean, can you name one? Although I thought Platt’s goal against Arsenal was better. That pass came out of some serious mayhem – remember Arsenal’s defence back then?
Platt said his ambition was to make a run that Cowans didn’t see. It never happened.
Cowans was coaching even then. But I’m a novelist, and we live by “what if” questions. What if Cowans hadn’t broken his leg?
Don’t forget that two other things had happened in 1983. The minor thing was that Tony Barton bought Steve McMahon, a perfect match in what would have been one of the all-time-great midfield pairings. The subsequent four years might have been very different for Villa.
But the big thing was that at long last Cowans had been picked for England. And from his first minute he looked like he was born to it. He scored in his second game, and by the end of his third he was undroppable – far more real-world useful than Glenn Hoddle, and far more real-world durable than Bryan Robson.
I think Cowans could have been in the England team for a long, long time – right up there with Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, literally. I’m serious. But he broke his leg. So we got less of him than we might have, but what we did get was spectacular – as it should have been, from our one and only genuine world-class genius.