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The making of Luke McCowan: How kid who ‘wasn’t very good’ went from 5am lifeguard shifts to Dundee stardom and Celtic link

The 26-year-old enjoyed a standout first season in the Premiership as a Dee.

Luke McCowan in his East End United FC boys club days in Greenock. Image: Luke McCowan
Luke McCowan in his East End United FC boys club days in Greenock. Image: Luke McCowan

There is a tried and tested way to make it as a professional footballer.

Talent is spotted at a young age playing kids football, is plucked out and placed in a club academy, then works up through the age groups.

That’s the traditional template for modern day players.

Dundee’s Luke McCowan is different.

His most recent season was his best yet; notching 10 goals in the Scottish Premiership while becoming a key man for the Dark Blues, whom he captained for the final five matches of the season.

He has been linked with Celtic and there were even suggestions he could earn a surprise Scotland call-up ahead of the Euros, such had been his impact on the top flight.

Luke McCowan, captaining Dundee, greets Celtic’s Callum McGregor before the Dark Blues’ clash with the champions at Dens Park last season. Image: SNS

McCowan’s background, though, is different to the vast majority of players he comes up against week-in, week-out.

In his own words, he “wasn’t very good” as a teenager.

McCowan couldn’t get a game for his boys club, East End United in Greenock. He couldn’t get a game for his school team and ended up playing in goal for an entire season just to get into the team.

He had drive, though.

A drive to progress in life and a drive to become a better footballer. Not to become a professional – he had designs on becoming a PE teacher – but to prove people wrong.

His drive won him a part-time contract out of the blue at Ayr United. It got him a pro deal at Somerset Park and then a move to Dundee.

Now he’s shining at the top level in Scotland.

This is the making of Luke McCowan as a Premiership star, in his own words.

Luke McCowan (right) celebrates Dundee sealing a top six Premiership place with manager Tony Docherty. Image: Rob Casey/SNS

‘I wasn’t very good!’

McCowan did have football talent in the blood. His uncle John Paul Dow had made it up through the ranks at Celtic and played for Scotland in the Victory Shield.

But there was nothing other than a vague schoolboy’s dream of making it as a footballer.

“I always played football but I wasn’t massively into playing pro-youth or any of that rubbish,” McCowan exclusively told Courier Sport.

“I was just a normal wee guy who kicked a ball about on a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in a boys club.

“East End Boys Club was right next to where I lived. I was there from about 13 to 17.

“I loved it there. That was with all my mates and we went and won the Scottish Cup at boys club level.

“I played with the school team and that was unreal.

“But I wasn’t very good! I just got better as the years progressed.”

McCowan (centre) celebrates scoring to make it 1-1 during Dundee’s clash with Kilmarnock in May. Image: SNS

McCowan’s assessment of his own ability could just be seen as modesty or humility, but he insists his coaches agreed.

And he points to an unsuccessful club awards night as a moment that lit the fire under him.

“Wee Fin Robertson and Lyall Cameron were all playing first-team level at 16,” McCowan says of his younger team-mates at Dundee.

“I was going out running at 16 before school and after school. I wasn’t very good.

“I think the year before, I played in goal for the school team because I was that bad.

“We didn’t have any goalies and I was the first sub so they just said: ‘Do you want to jump in goal?’ Even though I was the smallest guy!

“We had big defenders, though, so it was alright!

“But you get to the end of season awards and when I was 15 or maybe 16 I didn’t win a thing.

Lyall Cameron and Luke McCowan celebrate at Dens Park - the pair had brilliant seasons for Dundee. Image: David Young/Shutterstock
Lyall Cameron and Luke McCowan celebrate at Dens Park. Image: David Young/Shutterstock

“And I was thinking I can’t do this again, I was home crying. A wee teenage guy raging you didn’t win something.

“I vowed from that day I never wanted to feel that again.

“So I was out before school, after school, training with the boys club Tuesday, Thursday. I trained with my uncle’s junior team when I was 15 on Mondays and Wednesdays, had a rest day Friday and then played boys club on a Saturday.

“I knew if I did that I’d have a chance. All I wanted to do was get better than the person who won the awards at that time.

“I didn’t want to be a football player, I wanted to be a PE teacher.

“I never really thought about football because hardly anyone I knew had done that, apart from my uncle.

“He was the only person I’d ever heard of getting there. I never thought I could get anywhere near it, then I got a wee chance at Ayr.”

‘Cleaning the sauna windows’

Chance is the word.

Because it was entirely by chance that McCowan got his big break at Ayr United.

“I didn’t sign for Ayr until I was 18. Luckily, a scout came to watch someone else when I played for East End,” McCowan recalled.

“We played in a Scottish Cup game against an Edinburgh side. The scout told me he was watching their number seven but came away wanting me – I was the number seven for East End.

“Where I lived, I was a kick of the ball away from Morton. So when Ayr approached me, Morton then showed interest just because someone else wanted me.

“They left it a bit late – I’d been sitting on their doorstep for five years.

“That’s how my life kickstarted at Ayr, I was just lucky enough to get noticed.”

McCowan signed part-time at Somerset Park and quickly learned the brutal reality of professional football.

He did so quickly, while working part-time as a lifeguard at a leisure centre.

Luke McCowan at Ayr United. Image: SNS

At 19, he signed his first full-time contract and made his Ayr United debut in July 2017. He got his first goal in just his second appearance, finishing off a 5-1 win at East Stirling in the Challenge Cup.

“My missus canes me all the time for talking about being a lifeguard. Roasts me all the time!” McCowan joked.

“But I’m still getting memories on my phone from six years ago of cleaning the sauna windows.

“It is a big eye-opener when you think it wasn’t that long ago when I was doing that at six, seven in the morning.

“Circumstances change and your motivations become different but early on I know when I was at Ayr I knew I didn’t want to go back to part-time.

“Early doors, I was making sure I didn’t go back to that.”

‘Quarter-of-a-million price tag’

McCowan admits he was “scared to death” of Ian McCall, his manager at Ayr.

But the structure and the philosophy was perfect for him at Somerset Park.

McCowan credits David White for helping him at reserve level, Tommy Tait around the first-team and coach Neil Scally, too.

Standards were high and that suited McCowan.

Ian McCall was McCowan’s manager at Ayr United. Image: Shutterstock

Of Scally, McCowan said: “He’d call people ‘session-wreckers’. If you’d wrecked a session because you couldn’t pass it or anything. He’d take you out so boys knew you had to be at it.

“We had to stay back to clean up and all that but he’d also do extra drills with us. He enjoyed it as well.

“Ian McCall was the first-team manager as well and I think his style was perfect for somebody like myself – be free and show as much personality on the pitch as possible.

“He was a winger obviously and he’d come in going: ‘Quarter-of-a-million price tag right here, one day you’ll get to that!’

“You were scared to death of him as well. I think that helped the young boys to know you had to be at it.

“Standards had to be really high.”

‘I feel like I’ve only just started’

Any Dundee fan watching McCowan in action will have seen how high he sets his own standards.

Current boss Tony Docherty has said the midfielder can be too hard on himself.

It’s clear that very attitude has driven him on from a “wee teenage guy raging” at missing out on an award to hot property in Scotland’s top league.

But how has coming into the game late affected him?

“I think it’s probably worked in my favour,” he said.

Luke McCowan with the Player of the Year trophy. Image: Dundee FC.
Luke McCowan with the Dundee player of the year trophy. Image: Dundee FC

“I’m 26 but I still feel like I’ve only just started. It’s mental to say. I don’t feel like I’ll burn out.

“Coming in later I think you can retire a bit later. I think I’ve still got another eight, 10 years at a really good level.

“The good thing was I could enjoy a normal upbringing. I was playing with all my mates until I was 16, 17 – not many players could do that.

“It was fun. I didn’t have to worry about moving away from home or anything. I was staying with mum and dad and playing for my school team, things like that.

“I don’t have any bad things to say about coming in late.”