The humour is still there. ‘To begin with, I laughed it off,’ says Gordon Cowans.
‘But there are only so many times in an hour you can misplace your glasses or wallet, without thinking that there might be something wrong. Although, I should say, the wallet one worked in my favour, particularly when it was my round!’
The determination, which played no small part in European Cup, League Cup and First Division triumphs with his beloved Aston Villa, also remains.
‘Now we know what is wrong, we can make the best of the “good time” I have,’ he explains.
After a long career in football, Gordon Cowans was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s aged 61
‘I have had to make some changes, such as only drinking the non-alcoholic stuff, but it has not been that difficult. If you had told me before my diagnosis that I would not be able to enjoy a drink with family and friends, I would have called you mad. I take the medication prescribed, play my golf and, when Covid-19 allows, carry on with life in much the same way I did before.’
There is also, however, reality. ‘I know what this disease is all about,’ adds Cowans. ‘I have watched my friend and former Villa colleague, Chris Nicholl, bravely battle it for years, so I know what is coming. Big Chris has fought it in the same way he played the game, with a no-nonsense approach, but it’s not a fair opponent. It plays dirty and, until there is a treatment, it will be the only winner.’
It all sounds sadly surreal. In 1997, Cowans was still playing league football for Burnley. In 2016, he was working for Villa’s academy. There is an argument, from those who continue to refuse to confront what is becoming increasingly obvious, that the increased rates of dementia in footballers is down to the fact they tend to live longer thanks to their athletic lifestyles.
Cowans, an Aston Villa icon, pictured holding the European Cup at Villa Parkin November 2014
Cowans is 62. When he was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s in March, he was 61 and this is the first time he is speaking about it since the news was broken via an upbeat message on Villa’s website. That it did not come as a surprise should sound more alarm bells.
‘Did it come as a shock?’ he asks. ‘I am not sure it did. I have never had the best of memories, but you begin to realise that the constant, same old issues must be more than just a coincidence.
‘My family pushed hard for me to get tested because of the worry it was causing and I am glad they did,’ he explains. ‘Now we know what is wrong, we can make the best of the “good time” I have.’
Cowans knows all about the good times. A playmaker blessed with guile and creativity when both traits were in short supply in the game, he made his Villa debut at 17. He was born in County Durham, but Birmingham would be the city where he became loved.
Known universally as ‘Sid’, Cowans tasted European and domestic glory in a momentous, era-defining two years at Villa Park. He had three spells with the club, won promotion with Blackburn Rovers and picked up 10 England caps, which should have been more. There was also a stint in Italy, with Bari, when most on these shores lacked the technical skills to play on the continent.
‘I had a great career and played with some incredible players, for incredible teams, under great managers,’ says Cowans. ‘I have played football in Italy, represented my country, scored for my country and, because of football, travelled extensively.’ There is more to be grateful for. ‘I have a loving family, daughter Jenna, son Henry and my partner Vicci,’ he adds. ‘I have three fabulous grandkids and some great friends.’
Cowan knows what to expect after seeing former team-mate Chris Nicholl (right) suffer with Alzheimer’s after also contracting the disease following his playing career
There is, however, sadness over how things played out at Villa — and you sense that the pages of his soon-to-be-written book will shed more light on proceedings.
‘It is fair to say that towards the end at Villa, I had a tough time and for a time I found myself in a pretty dark place, but I am fine now,’ he says. ‘We are writing the story of my life, which we hope will be out in the new year. Just reliving the many memories makes me realise that, all in all, I am a lucky man.’
Cowans no longer works but he continues to raise funds for others. ‘I enjoy my charity work and have hosted two golf days for “Dogs for Good” in the last two years,’ he says. ‘The proceeds have covered the cost of buying and training two assistance dogs, one named Sid, my nickname, and another named Birchy in honour of my old mate and colleague at Villa and Wolves, Paul Birch, who we lost 10 years ago.’
Cowans refuses to not embrace the future. He is keen to back Sportsmail’s campaign calling on football to tackle its dementia crisis.
‘I am very proud to lend my name to this extremely important campaign,’ he says. ‘The footballing world can no longer look the other way and now must play its part in tackling this issue, without any further delay. It is important we do all we can to support the ex-players suffering.’
Cowans is close to John Stiles, son of Nobby, who is also a key backer of this newspaper’s seven-point plan.
‘The time for change is long overdue and I am sure this campaign will bring it about sooner rather than later. I take my hat off to John Stiles, the Top Soccer Star Republishing and the other lads leading the campaign. John played alongside another great friend and ex-colleague of mine, Brendon Ormsby, who himself has suffered terrible ill-health, when they were at Leeds United.
After hanging up his boots Cowan spent several years on the coaching staff with Villa
‘Along with his uncle, Johnny Giles, they gave their support to a day organised for Brendon and his family. John understands the benefits of strong team-work. The PFA and players — former or current — should all be playing for the same team when it comes to fighting this disease.’
Cowans’ attitude is inspirational. But he wants to point out he is following the brave path set by former Southampton and Walsall boss Nicholl. ‘Chris has always been an inspiration to me, on and off the pitch,’ he says. ‘I intend to fight this disease with the same determination he has.’
They are words to cheer the Holte End. They are words to cheer all of us.