“You could always tell there was something special about Danny, and he was destined to go a long way, so it is no surprise to me to see him doing so well. He’s very smart. He always had a plan.”
Steve King, Concord Rangers
They’ve been the most talked about management duo in England’s lower leagues since taking non-league Lincoln City to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 2017. Their arrival at Sincil Bank in the summer of 2016 revitalised a club that had fallen to the lowest ebb in their history. But all good things must come to an end and, after a summer of speculation surrounding vacancies at various clubs in the Championship, Huddersfield Town won the race to prise the Cowley brothers away from the Imps. It’s a move that has left many Lincoln fans bereft; concerned for the future of their club on the field after an impressive start to life in League One, and watching on as the board search for a replacement that can continue the brothers’ good work. But what was so special about Danny and Nicky Cowley’s stint at Lincoln, and where do the club go from here?
A member of the youth setup at Wimbledon in the late-80s and early-90s, Danny Cowley enjoyed a solid career as a non-league midfielder with a handful of clubs in Essex, not far from his home borough of Havering on the outskirts of London. Injury curtailed his career at the age of just 29, but an opportunity soon arose to work as part of a management team at Concord Rangers, the last side Danny had played for before a ruptured hamstring tendon called time on his playing days. In eight years at the Canvey Island club, alongside their work as PE teachers, the Cowley brothers oversaw a remarkable three promotions, lifting Rangers into the National League South, and steering them to their first ever appearance in the FA Cup First Round Proper. Word soon began to spread about the hottest coaches in non-league football, and Braintree Town pounced to bring the duo into the National League. In their only season at Cressing Road, the Cowleys took Braintree to within three games of the Football League, but were knocked out by Grimsby Town in the playoffs. Then Lincoln City came calling.
“They’re archetypal of the forward-thinking, energetic and ambitious young managers we sought to attract from the outset.”
Bob Dorrian, Lincoln City chairman in 2016
The Imps had been a staple in the lower reaches of the Football League for their 130 year existence. One solitary season in League One aside, the club had been operating in the fourth tier since 1988, but a run of poor managerial appointments eventually saw them slip into the Conference in 2011. For the next five seasons, they would flirt with further relegation, working their way through five managers before the appointment of Danny and Nicky Cowley. The pair arrived at Sincil Bank with a plan, and armed with state-of-the-art management techniques, and a willingness to work as hard as it took to turn the sinking ship of Lincoln around.
Their first port of call was to win back a fanbase that had slowly drifted away from the club the further down the pyramid it fell. From the crowd of 8,000 that had seen Lincoln relegated from League Two against Aldershot Town, just 2,000 had regularly attended games in the season prior to the Cowleys’ appointment. The answer to filling Sincil Bank up again was simple – win games. Their first home match in charge ended in a 6-1 victory over North Ferriby United. From there, they never looked back, finding themselves in the hot seat for automatic promotion early on in the season. By the last home game of the season against Macclesfield Town, 10,000 fans were cramming into Sincil Bank to get a glimpse of the reborn Lincoln City.
That famous cup run help galvanise the local support too, with victories over Ipswich Town and Brighton and Hove Albion played out in front of packed home crowds. By the time Sean Raggett had headed a stoppage time winner at Burnley to add Lincoln City’s name to the history books, the Cowleys’ had become household names.
When it came to the bread-and-butter of winning football matches, the tactical flexibility of the Imps management team also played a key part in their success. More than happy to feed long balls up to a bruising target man like Matt Rhead, the Cowleys also encouraged the short passing and possession play of a Guardiola side, and utilised the high-intensity, high-pressing game associated with Jurgen Klopp. Towards the end of their promotion campaign, the art of eeking out tight victories became key to Lincoln’s success, but that didn’t stop their involvement in the occasional seven-goal thriller or 4-0 pasting of lesser sides.
Their early-adoption of technology provided the Cowleys with a further edge over their competition, as the pair embraced the performance analysis app Hudl, which had been predominantly used in American Football, providing each player with feedback and offering interactive video clips to aid development. As one of the few clubs in the National League employing a full-time Performance Analyst, City reaped the rewards.
Any expectation of the Cowleys’ settling for consolidation in Lincoln’s first season back in the Football League were wide of the mark, as the Imps marched on to the playoffs, losing out to Exeter City in the semi-finals. Supporters had to settle for just the one visit to Wembley, as they watched their side lift the Football League Trophy following a 1-0 victory over Shrewsbury Town. After some savvy work in the transfer market, Lincoln flew out of the traps the following season, losing just four games before Christmas and occupying top spot in all but five matchweeks. In three seasons, the Cowleys had notched up two promotions and a trophy, and there looked to be little let up when the Imps won their opening three games on their first return to the third tier since 1999. Defeat at Wycombe Wanderers would be the Cowleys’ last game in charge.
We caught up with Gary Hutchinson, former club mascot and now editor of the award-winning Lincoln City fanzine The Stacey West, to discuss the Cowleys’ legacy and departure, and what happens next for Lincoln City.
“The Cowleys’ departure was a shock, pure and simple. Nobody was prepared for them leaving. They’d always preached integrity and loyalty, something we felt they would show us this season. Danny often mentioned how he couldn’t leave a club during the season and work with other managers players, nor would he bring players to a club and then leave before they’d settled. I felt they’d see out their contract and then go, but football is a fast-moving game. I got wind on the Friday before that something was amiss and within 72 hours or so it was confirmed and they’d gone.
“Their success is down to hard work. They’re relentless. They sit up watching videos and dedicate their entire lives to being the very best versions of themselves. That finds its way into the player’s mentality, even the fans. My own ‘rise’ as a writer has coincided with their arrival at the club and having spent time with Danny, I can’t help but feel enthused by his energy.
“There’ve been other factors besides the Cowleys that account for Lincoln’s success. Good management off the field, without a doubt. Chairman Clive Nates is a great bloke with a real passion for the game. He’s studious, understated and great at bringing in investment and good staff members. We’ve grown hugely as a business off the field and yet maintained a link with the supporters.
“The other obvious answer is the players, pure and simple. We’ve got good players, Danny always signed good characters as much as anything, and that shows through. He’s always had good senior pros, Nathan Arnold and Matt Rhead in the National League, Michael Bostwick and Neal Eardley in the first season back, Jason Shackell and Michael O’Connor last year. These players add stability and an assurance on the field as well as the training ground.
“I think the Cowleys’ job, to a degree, was done. We could attract good players, we have good facilities and the staff had got into a great rhythm too. They were custodians of the pattern, not innovators anymore. As managers, they had to keep the ship sailing, but as a vessel it was already built.
“The only way we can progress further than we have done already is investment, pure and simple. Without money for player and resources, we’re a League One side. Had they stayed and the investment hadn’t come in, I can’t say we’d be anywhere other than where we are right now. We’re achieving as much as we can and that is perhaps why they left.
“All of which means a the new man can be successful. The current trajectory is stable I think; we really can’t imagine being in the Championship until investment comes in, which means any manager simply has to keep doing what we’re doing.
“We’ve got good players, a good approach, a thriving fanbase and great facilities now; who wouldn’t be able to work with that? We’ve got the right tools for a great job to be done, we just need someone willing to come in and not change a huge amount. If they can do that, then we’ll be top ten this season.”
At the time of writing Lincoln City have yet to name a successor, but the Cowleys’ have already taken charge of their first game at the John Smith Stadium, in Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday – coincidentally another side that had courted the management duo over the summer. It’s clear that the task in hand for Danny and Nicky is a big one, with the side that David Wagner developed and took to the top flight having been torn to shreds and sapped of any momentum. Gary Hutchinson thinks the Terriers are in safe hands, though.
“Under the Cowleys Huddersfield will be aggressive, press high and work really hard. It’ll be interesting to see how Danny works with lads on huge wages; he’s not done that before. Their recruitment will be very good, they work tirelessly to get the right players into the right positions. They’ll hunt bargains, players with capability but who are perhaps low on confidence or reputation.
“Most of all, they’ll get respect in press conferences, a no victim attitude and, unless something goes horribly wrong, they’ll get success too.”
Some may have been surprised that the pair jumped ship to manage a basket case as the wrong end of the Championship, but the opportunity to stamp their mark on the club and make wholesale changes may play into their hands. After all, that’s how they became the hottest property in the Football League.
Thanks to Gary Hutchinson for providing the Lincoln City perspective for this piece. You can follow The Stacey West fanzine on Twitter, and also find Gary’s work on The Real EFL, which provides in-depth insight into Leagues One and Two.