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‘We used to call him Messi’ – Don Cowie preparing for two familiar faces when Ross County take on Kilmarnock

The Staggies interim boss Cowie knows both Gary Mackay-Steven and Danny Armstrong from his two separate playing stints in Dingwall.

Gary Mackay-Steven in action for Scotland against Portugal. Image: SNS
Gary Mackay-Steven in action for Scotland against Portugal. Image: SNS

Don Cowie and Gary Mackay-Steven both achieved the ultimate acclaim of winning Scotland caps after being handed the same starting point by Ross County – the pair took very different journeys to get there, however.

In 2007, a 24-year-old Cowie had agreed a pre-contract to join rivals Caley Thistle, who were the Highlands’ solitary top-flight presence at the time.

It was a move which accelerated Cowie’s career progression, as a switch to Watford in 2009 led to George Burley handing him the first of 10 Scotland caps in a friendly against Japan later that year.

As Strathpeffer-raised Cowie was preparing to say his farewells at Victoria Park, six years after making his debut for the club, a 16-year-old Mackay-Steven was setting out on his own path.

That same year, without having played a senior match for County, Mackay-Steven earned a stunning move to Liverpool.

It was the stuff of dreams for a young player from Thurso, whose family had made training and playing in Dingwall possible by constantly making the 200-mile round trip.

A 15-year-old Gary Mackay Steven after being selected for Scotland schoolboys in 2005.

Injuries put paid to Mackay-Steven’s hopes of progressing at Anfield, which forced him to start afresh.

A short spell in the Second Division with Airdrie led to him joining Dundee United, where the winger gained instant attention for his trickery and flamboyant attacking play.

He went on to have spells with Celtic, Aberdeen and Hearts, along with a short stint at MLS outfit New York City, and he won the most recent of two Scotland caps in 2018.

Gary Mackay-Steven celebrates scoring for Aberdeen against Dundee in 2018. Image: SNS.

Mackay-Steven has now reunited with his former Dons boss Derek McInnes at Kilmarnock – who Cowie’s Staggies will face at Rugby Park this weekend.

‘We nicknamed him Messi’

Cowie says Mackay-Steven left a lasting impression during their short time playing together in the Highlands.

He said: “I know Gary well. We nicknamed him Messi at the time because he was this naturally small, left-footed, very technical, great dribbler of the ball.

“I was here in his early stages, and he is someone I always make a point of speaking to when I come up against him.

“Gary has done brilliantly. He got the move very early from here to Liverpool, and he responded really well after the challenges he had with injuries there.

“He dropped back to Airdrie, and then kicked on again to get his move to Dundee United. Then he went on to Celtic and did ever so well to win trophies and win Scotland caps on top of that.

“He has had an excellent career. He has been blighted a little bit in the last few years with injuries, but it’s good to see he’s back involved at Kilmarnock again.”

Armstrong has found new lease of life at Killie

Cowie will also encounter another familiar face this weekend, from a much later stage of his career.

At the age of 35, Cowie returned for a second spell with County, following the club’s relegation to the Championship.

Midway through the campaign, winger Danny Armstrong was one of four new faces brought in to help the Staggies get over the line to secure a top-flight return at the first attempt.

Although they succeeded in doing that, it proved a frustrating spell for Armstrong, who made just four starts and substitute appearances.

His only goal came on his debut, in the IRN-BRU Cup semi-final victory against East Fife which set the Staggies up to win the competition against Connah’s Quay Nomads.

Danny Armstrong and Lewis Spence celebrate winning the IRN-BRU Cup in 2019. Image: SNS.

After returning to Raith Rovers that summer, Armstrong went on to thrive again, and earned a move to newly-relegated Kilmarnock in 2021.

Similar to his time with County, he initially struggled to make an impact, making just three league appearances in the Ayrshire side’s Championship-winning campaign.

Armstrong has found a new lease of life under McInnes in the Premiership, however.

Following a return of 12 goals last season, the 26-year-old has so far provided nine goals and 13 assists this term.

Winger was a big character in Staggies’ promotion

Cowie insists he never doubted the quality Armstrong possessed, and considers him a major threat this weekend.

He added: “Danny was probably a little bit unfortunate. At the time we had a really experienced group in the Championship, and he didn’t get the opportunities he probably felt he deserved.

Danny Armstrong in action for Ross County in 2019. Image: SNS.

“What I would say is he was an incredible character for the dressing room at that time.

“He helped us to achieve what we did, in getting promoted, and he was a big part in that.

“What he has done since then has been incredible. Even with Kilmarnock in the Championship, he didn’t really play – it’s only really in the last two years since they have been in the Premiership.

Danny Armstrong celebrates scoring for Kilmarnock against Aberdeen. Image: SNS

“The consistency he has shown has been frightening. The end product, whether it’s scoring, assisting or creating opportunities.

“He’s a real threat, and one we need to keep an eye on going into the weekend.”