THERE’S NO prizes for guessing who’s likely to pick up lots of accolades this season – of course it will be Danny and Nicky Cowley of Lincoln City, and quite rightly so.
Lincoln City have restored faith in the creaking old FA Cup and although we don’t associate the Imps with non-league, they have given the game outside the Football League a big boost.
Lincoln could win the National League and also lift the FA Trophy. Add to that their monumental FA Cup run and they are already making a bid for team of the year. And they owe much of their success to the Cowley brothers.
I first came across these Essex boys when they were managing Concord Rangers. The fact that Canvey Island was able to produce a second club that rose through the ranks hinted that Cowley had something special to offer. Then our team assistant at work told me one day that her brother-in-law was manager of Braintree Town and that the duo were “very ambitious” and “full of new ideas”. Young Sophie was not wrong.
Danny Cowley went from Concord to Braintree in 2015, signing a two-year deal to step into former West Ham midfielder Alan Devonshire’s shoes. As a Hammers fan, he must have liked that. Brother Nicky joined him as his number two. Braintree finished third in 2015-16, their best-ever placing in the National League and lost-out in the play-offs.
In May 2016, Lincoln came calling and Cowley was lured away. Not everyone was happy about this and Braintree’s chairman suggested that Lincoln were not necessarily a bigger club, but there was no stopping the brothers heading north.
But it has probably taken the FA Cup to really cement the relationship between the club and its dynamic management team. In October, just a few months after arriving at Sincil Bank, there was talk that Grimsby Town were interested in taking the Cowleys to Humberside.
What is the secret behind the success of Danny and Nicky Cowley? Admittedly, this is non-league football, but Lincoln will probably be back in the Football League come May and then the real test will begin – that’s if someone has not come in and taken them elsewhere. Why are these characters so coveted?
Danny Cowley – the last five years
|2016-17||Lincoln City||NL||34||22||6||6||67||32||72||1st **|
** As at March 12, 2017
We’ve known for some time that the science behind the game has changed in recent years. Arsene Wenger brought broccoli to English football along with new coaching and lifestyle ideas for players. The rise of sports science at schools and universities has brought a different type of person to the game. Cowley is not the only result of a changing mindset – over at Stevenage, Darren Sarll, a product of Hitchin Town’s youth scheme in the 1990s, has started to do an excellent job at the new town club. Sarll was a protégé of Robbie O’Keefe, an innovative coach and advocate of a more cerebral and measured approach to the game, and has succeeded where bigger names like Teddy Sheringham have failed at Stevenage.
Cowley was an unknown, but it is doubtful if he will get through the season without enquiries from curious clubs looking for a different way to skin a cat. Lincoln’s chairman, Bob Dorrian, told the media in the build-up to the Arsenal FA Cup tie that he had “never seen two guys run a football club the way they’re running Lincoln City”. That “way” includes intense rather than lengthy training and intelligent use of data to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. You might expect such methods at a Real Madrid or Barcelona, but at a non-league club where resources are not exactly plentiful.
Promotion back to the Football League will probably stave off some enquiries in the short-term, but the question is, come August will Danny Cowley still be Lincoln City’s manager? At 38, he may feel he has to grasp every opportunity, but if you look at the average age of, for example, Premier League managers, it is 50. In League Two, which if he stays at Lincoln, looks like being his next stop, the average is 44. Cowley has time on his side to develop into an established Football League manager.
But if Danny Cowley is the next “bright young thing”, history tells us that promoting somebody too fast can have a devastating impact on a career. Take André Villas-Boas, who arrived at Chelsea in a wave of expectation that a fresh new talent had been unearthed. AVB may well have had something unique, but we never found out and now he finds himself it just 39, in China, undoubtedly very rich but surely professionally unfulfilled.
Conversely, football does have the habit of being impatient and refusing to wait for talent to be nurtured at its own pace. If there is a scent of something unique about the Cowleys, and there certainly seems to be at present (you can beat one League team by sheer luck, but four is something else) somebody will tempt them with the chance to manage at a higher level. In the “here today, gone tomorrow” world of football, nothing is permanent, so taking a punt on a pair of sparky youngsters in tracksuits is not signing away the family jewels.
What would be a shame, however, was if Danny and Nicky Cowley get tempted away too soon. They have to prove themselves in the Football League and show that Lincoln’s FA Cup giant-killing exploits were not simply the romance of the competition carrying along a band of brothers led by a couple of extremely good motivators. But let’s play along here – these fellows seem different, let’s see how they fare one step up, and then applaud them as their careers continue on an extraordinary trajectory. If nothing else, their part in reminding us what the FA Cup was all about, deserves our admiration.
*Title courtesy of The Bewlay Brothers by David Bowie