Danny Cowley takes a deep breath and anticipates the moment when he will lead the first non-league football club in 103 years into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. “Facing Arsenal at the Emirates?” the Lincoln City manager says quietly just after eight o’clock at night in an empty Sincil Bank stadium. “Facing Arsène Wenger in the opposite dugout? A 60,000 crowd? The first game I managed at Concord Rangers [in the Essex Senior League in 2007] was watched by 62 people. Concord against Sawbridgeworth. We won 6-1.”
Cowley smiles as his words drift away. A rare pause for the 38-year-old feels significant. He has filled this interview with memories and insights as poignant as they are incisive – moving from the challenges of coaching a team of Albanian refugees in Essex to working until the start of this season as a full-time teacher and part-time football manager.
Five hours earlier, Cowley had just completed his weekly press conference with the local media. The Imps’ media officer is also their match-day announcer while every week one of the veteran local scribes asks Cowley questions that sound like pub quiz puzzles to test the manager. Cowley responds with humour and respect.
He also accepts the bruising demands of modern management. He wryly shows me his phone as it vibrates incessantly with calls from agents and scouts. He was still the head of PE at FitzWimarc secondary school in Rayleigh this time last year – as he and his brother Nicky inspired their students in the day and turned Braintree into a force in the National League at night. Cowley is now one of the most interesting managers in English football at any level. Nicky has also given up teaching to work as Danny’s assistant at Lincoln and, after the press conference, the brothers drive to Peterborough in the hope of signing a player.
Cowley promises he will be back for our interview and, after profuse apologies for the delay, he keeps his word. He soon forgets his earlier battle with a greedy agent and uncorks all his passion for a game that he says has consumed both him and Nicky since they were “tiny dots”.
“I’ve never been to the Emirates even if, as a West Ham fan, I went to Highbury,” Cowley says. “They showed me a layout of the Emirates. Wow – what a stadium. We took 5,000 supporters to Portman Road [where Lincoln drew with Ipswich in the third round before winning the replay]. When we walked out it took my breath away. Portman Road’s stands are so high and it was the first time I’ve managed in a really big stadium. Normally I take things in my stride but I had to catch my breath. That was a 16,000 crowd. 60,000 at Arsenal will be interesting.”
Cowley looks at me intently when asked how he would feel if Alexis Sánchez starts the game on Saturday – rather than sitting on the bench. “I’d love to see Sánchez from the start. I want to see all their great players up close. We have this one opportunity to face world-class players and I want to know exactly —what I’ve got to do as a manager to reach their level. I want to know exactly how far away we are from them.”
Could Lincoln beat Arsenal? “Yeah, we can,” Cowley says after a pause. “It might be one-in-1000 at the Emirates but we can. Against Burnley [whom Lincoln beat in the fifth round] we said it was one-in-100. I believed if we played Burnley 100 times at Turf Moor we’d draw four times and beat them once. But we went there genuinely believing it could be the one match we’d win in 100.
“We broke the match down into six 15-minute games. Play each 15 minutes as a whole game. Nicky and I are used to being underdogs. At Concord we had three promotions in three seasons and were always going up to a better division for the size of the club. At Braintree we were a part-time club playing in a full-time league. We’re used to climbing the mountain and taking one step at a time.
“We’re going to play nine 10-minute games against Arsenal. We’re playing 10-minute training games so they get used to this mentality. We understand that Arsenal could blow us away. We could play our very best and still get beaten 5-0 but we want to train the players’ minds for these 10-minute games. We might go three down in the first 10 minutes. If we do, then the players must draw a line and start at 0-0 for the next 10-minute game. How many 10-minute games can we be competitive? If winning at the Emirates is the only definition of success the likelihood is we won’t be successful. We’re trying to measure success differently using achievable goals. But we’re also professional and prepared. We might surprise some people.”
The Championship and Premier League managers he has outwitted this season – Mick McCarthy at Ipswich, Brighton’s Chris Hughton and Sean Dyche at Burnley – might have been surprised but Cowley stresses: “All three were so magnanimous in defeat. It’s difficult when you lose to a big underdog but they said really kind words and offered good advice. I’ll cherish those words for ever.”
Dyche took Lincoln seriously and watched them in person before Burnley’s defeat. Perhaps, if Arsenal were not playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League at the same time, Wenger might have gone to Lincoln’s game on Tuesday night at Braintree? “You never know,” Cowley grins, thinking of Arsenal’s manager arriving at the club he managed last season to third place in the National League. “It’s a unique little stadium at Braintree and not what he’s used to.”
Wenger seemed to relish Arsenal’s visit to Sutton United in the last round and said it reminded him of his football roots in France. “That’s one of the reasons I admire Wenger. He’s a special man and a pioneer of football in this country. I don’t think people will really respect the enormity of his achievement at Arsenal until he’s gone. That’s why I feel for him when he gets abused by his own fans.”Cowley shakes his head. “Football’s crazy, isn’t it? I wouldn’t dream of going to the dentist and telling him what to do or shouting abuse at my plumber. But people come into your profession and tell you what to do. Of course that makes football great. People love football and that brings passion – when you don’t think clearly or act normally. I know the Arsenal fans are passionate but I don’t like the way some of them treat Arsène Wenger.
“I still want to do well against him and everyone keeps asking if this is the biggest challenge of my life. It’s not. The biggest challenge is to get results at Aldershot [whom Lincoln drew with last Saturday to remain three points clear at the top of the table] and Braintree. Results in those games with the buildup to Arsenal would say so much about us as human beings. These two league matches before Arsenal are such a representation of us as people. The league is everything to us this season.”
Last season at Braintree also marked his and Nicky’s final years as teachers. “Teaching has held us in good stead and given us a skill set. Other teachers call it pedagogical skills but that’s a typical academic word to scare you off. It’s just a skill set that allows me to work with so many people from different walks of life. As a PE teacher you’re dealing with a Marmite subject. You either love PE or hate it. You’ve got to sell it to kids who really hate it and I found that challenging and exciting.
“At FitzWimarc we were voted State Sports School of the Year [in 2012] which is my proudest achievement. We beat 3,600 secondary schools. We also won the national athletics finals five years on the trot and went to the world schools championships and finished fourth. Crazy. It meant a lot because there were three Cowleys on the staff – me, Nicky and my wife Kate. Lincoln surprised me by bringing 50 kids from the school to watch us play Tranmere before Christmas. The kids were sprinting up and down when we scored just before the end.
“That’s why I love football at this level. It’s about human beings with whom you create a connection. We might not be a Premier League club at Lincoln but we have Premier League people. It feels so genuine. I fear a lot of that is being lost at the top end of football. The players are put on pedestals and earn ridiculous money. There is no reality or human connection. Football is a fantasy world now and, for me, it’s lost a lot. It’s a real shame. At least here we forge a real connection with the people of Lincoln. We give something back.”
That generosity explains why the Cowley brothers once coached a team of refugees in Essex. “I was a newly qualified teacher and Nicky was at university. Dad always wanted us to give back to the local community and these boys had been treated poorly. There had been racism. The mum of our friend James, who we played with at Gidea Park, asked us to help. We thought a lot of her and so we agreed.
“They were mostly Albanian boys, lovely kids, really highly-strung, very emotional. They needed discipline and boundaries, and a lot of man-management. They were so passionate. They would argue among themselves and you had to channel their energy. But we loved that team.
“I’ve always loved coaching. Dad coached us and, at 13, I started coaching a junior team at Gidea Park. I had an instant connection with the children. I got a buzz out of teaching the game. I was so appreciative of finding football I wanted to share it.”
Danny and Nicky Cowley’s ambition is also obvious. It seems clear that Danny hopes, one day, to manage at the highest level. “Yeah,” he nods. “You never want to be perceived as arrogant but we have that ambition. We believe in our work ethic and skill set. Many questioned our decision to go full-time. With teaching it’s a job that, unless you commit murder, you’ve pretty much got it for life. You’re giving that up for the wild world of football management? If Claudio Ranieri can get the sack what chance do the rest of us have? Nicky and I didn’t see it like that. We expected to be successful. Of course there are variables you can’t control but we still expect to be successful.
“We want to manage as high as we can go. But at the moment my ambition is in the journey and Lincoln City. We’ve shown huge potential and have a vision of where we can get to if we work hard. We’ve just scratched the surface here.”
Cowley smiles again. “We’ll find out, in front of 60,000, where we are compared to Arsenal. When I walk out I will catch my breath but then we’ll settle down. We’ve got nine 10-minute games to test ourselves. I think we’ll do pretty well.”
The Guardian Sport