The most interesting period in Aston Villa history is probably the 1890s. Not only were Villa the dominant team of the period, but nearly every player in that period has an interesting story. James Cowan is no different.
Cowan was born October 17, 1868 in Renton, Scotland. He spent his early football career playing for Vale of Leven in Scotland. In 1889, Cowan came to Birmingham with the intentions of going on trial for Warwick County, who were a club based in the Birmingham suburbs. Villa secretary/manager George Ramsay would not let that happen and intercepted him at the train station. Ramsey took him to the Villa headquarters, where he pestered Cowan until he signed for the club.
Cowan would quickly become an integral part of that dominant Villa team of the era. In his time at Villa, Cowan would win five First Division titles and two FA Cups. He would also receive a Scotland cap.
Cowan's best quality was his speed. He was so fast that in the 1895-95 season, he began to entertain the idea competing in the Powderhill Sprint Handicap, a prestigious race held in Edinburgh in January. However, January was during the middle of the football season. In order to compete in the race without Villa finding out, Cowan came up with a plan. He complained to the club that his back was injured and asked to be sent home to Scotland to recover. The club was a bit confused but agreed to send him home, on the condition that he be examined by a local doctor.
The doctor could not find anything wrong with Cowan, but didn't want to accuse one of the best footballers of the era of lying. The doctor reported back to the club that he was indeed injured. So Cowan remained in the area and began training for the race. At one point in his training, Cowan said he accidentally ran past the doctor's house without realizing. It was close, but Cowan remained undetected.
However, by the time it was race day, word had reached Birmingham and several of Cowan's Villa teammates came up to watch him compete. Cowan easily won the race and the £80 first prize. The Villa higher-ups waiting for Cowan back in Birmingham were not particularly pleased with the stunt. He was suspended four weeks and fined the wages for those weeks.
Despite that incident, Cowan was still one of the best and most highly thought of players of the era. He would play 14 years for Villa making 354 appearances for the club.
He retired from football in 1902. After a few years of working in Birmingham, Cowan was hired as Queens Park Rangers manager in 1907. After a fairly successful stint at QPR, he left the club in 1913. He returned to Scotland, where he passed away two years later.
James Cowan is still one of the most important players in the heyday of Villa success. Even if he did play a little hooky once.