Danny Cowley takes a deep breath and awaits the moment when he leads the first non-league football club based in 103 years, in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. “With Arsenal at the Emirates?” Lincoln City manager says quietly, shortly after eight o’clock in the evening in an empty Sincil Bank stadium. “To Arsène Wenger in the opposite dugout? The 60,000 crowd? The first game I did it at the Concord Rangers in the Essex Senior League in 2007], it was observed by 62 people. Concord against Sawbridgeworth. We won 6-1.”
Cowley smiles as you drift off his words. A rare break for the 38-year-old feels significant. He has this interview with memories and insights, is filled, as poignant, as you are incisive of the challenges of coaching a team of Albanian refugees working in Essex, until the beginning of this season as a full-time teacher and part time football manager.
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Five hours earlier, Cowley had just had his weekly press conference concluded with the local media. The Imps, ” the media officer is also their match-day host, while each week, one of the veteran local scribes Cowley asks questions that sound like pub-quiz-puzzles to test manager. Cowley responded with Humor and respect.
He also accepts the bruising requirements of modern management. He gave her a crooked smile, showing me his phone as it vibrates incessantly with calls from agents and scouts. He was still the head of PE at the FitzWimarc school in Rayleigh this time last year – as he and his brother Nicky inspires your pupils in the day and put Braintree into a force in the Bundesliga in the night. Cowley is now one of the most interesting Manager in English football at every level. Nicky has also given up teaching to work, as Danny’s assistant at Lincoln and, after the press conference, the brothers drive, Peterborough, in the hope that the signing of a player.
Cowley promises that he will be back for our interview and, after extensive apologies for the delay, he keeps his word. He forgets soon, his previous fight with a greedy agent, and all uncorked his passion for a game he says has consumed him and Nicky, because they were the “small points”.
“I’ve never been to the Emirates, even if, as West Ham fan, I went to Highbury,” says Cowley. “They showed me a layout of the Emirates. Wow – what a stadium. We took the 5,000 Fans at Portman Road [where Lincoln drew with Ipswich in the third round before winning the replay]. When we went out, it took my breath away. Portman Road is so high and it was the first time I’ve done it in a very large stadium. I usually take things in my step to catch but I had my breath. This was the 16,000 crowd. 60,000 at Arsenal will be interesting.”
I know the Arsenal fans are passionate, but I don’t like the way some of them treat Arsène Wenger
Cowley looks at me and asked curious of how he would feel if Alexis Sanchez starts the match on Saturday instead of sitting on the bench. “I would love to see the Sanchez from the beginning. I want to see your big players from the vicinity. We have this opportunity to face world-class players and I want to know exactly what I have to do to reach as a manager. I would like to know exactly how far away we are from them.”
Lincoln against Arsenal could be? “Yes, we can,” Cowley said after a pause. “It could be that one-in-1000 in the Emirates, but we can. Against Burnley [who Lincoln beat in the fifth round], we said it was one-in-100. I believed that if we draw Burnley played 100 times at Turf Moor, we would take you four times and hit it once. But we were really believe, could it be that a match would we win in the 100.
“We broke the game down into six 15-minute games. They play every 15 minutes for a whole game. Nicky and I used to be the underdogs. In the case of the Concord, we had three promotions in three seasons and were always up to a better division of labour for the size of the club. In Braintree we were part-time club playing in a full-time League. We are used to mountain climb and take one step at a time.
“We play nine of 10 games against Arsenal. We play in the 10-minutes-training games, so that you can with this mentality. We understand that Arsenal could blow us away. We could play our best and still get beaten 5-0, but we want the players to train the minds for this 10-minute-games. We may go three down in the first 10 minutes. If we do, then the player must draw a line and start at 0-0 for the next 10-minutes-game. How many 10-minute games we can be competitive? If the win in the Emirates is the only definition of success, the probability is that we will be successful. We try to measure success differently with achievable goals. But we are also professional and prepared. We could have some surprise.”
The championship and Premier League Manager, he has outwitted this season – Mick McCarthy at Ipswich, Brighton Chris Hughton and Sean Dyche at Burnley – maybe surprising, but Cowley emphasized: “All three were so magnanimous in defeat. It’s hard when you lose a big underdog, but she said really kind words and offered good advice. I will cherish these words forever.”
Danny Cowley, left, and his brother, Nicky, send your Lincoln players during the remarkable FA Cup fifth-round victory at Burnley. Photo: Anthony Devlin/AFP/Getty Images
Dyche took Lincoln seriously and watched them in person prior to the Burnley defeat. Maybe if Arsenal were not Bayern Munich playing in the Champions League at the same time, Wenger would have been Lincoln ‘ s game on Tuesday night in Braintree? “You never know,” Cowley grin, thinking of the Arsenal manager on arrival at the club he managed last season in third place in the Bundesliga. “It is a unique, small stadium in Braintree and not what he is.”
Wenger seemed to enjoy the Arsenal recalled the visit of Sutton United in the last round and said it was him to his football roots in France. “This is one of the reasons why I admire Wenger. He is a special person and a pioneer of football in this country. I don’t think people really respect the enormity of his performance at Arsenal until he’s gone. That’s why I feel for him, if he is abused by his own fans.”
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Cowley shakes his head. “Football is crazy, isn’t it? I would not go in a dream to the dentist and tell him what to do, or to shout abuse at my plumber. But people come into your work and tell you what to do. Of course, football is great. People love soccer, and brings passion, if you 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 want to still against him, and everyone always asks if that is the biggest challenge of my life. The it is not. The biggest challenge is to get results in Aldershot [who Lincoln moved last Saturday to remain three points clear at the top of the table], and Braintree. The results in these games, with the build-up to Arsenal would say so much about us as human beings. These two League-ahead of Arsenal is a representation of us as people are playing. The League is everything for us this season.”
In the last season with Braintree, the last few years will be characterized and Nicky as a teacher. “Teaching has held us in good stead and made us a skill. Other teachers call it pedagogical skills, but this is a typical academic word to scare you. It’s just an ability that allow me to work with people from so many different walks of life. As a PE teacher, you deal with a Marmite theme. You either love or PE hate it. You have to sell it to kids that hate him, and I found that challenging and exciting.
“At FitzWimarc we were as a state sports school of the year , this is my proudest achievement. We hit 3,600 secondary schools. We also won the national athletics finals for five years on the trot and went to the world schools Championships and was fourth. Crazy. It meant a lot, because there were three Cowleys on the staff – me, Nicky and my wife Kate. Lincoln has surprised me, by 50 children from the school to see us Tranmere before Christmas. The kids were sprinting and down when we score a goal just before the end.
“This is why I love football at this level. It is human beings with whom you create a connection. We could a Premier League club in Lincoln, but we have Premier-League-people. It feels so real. I’m afraid a lot of that is lost at the top end of football. The players put on pedestals and earn ridiculous money. There is no reality or human connection. Football is a fantasy world, is now, and that is lost for me much. It is a real shame. At least here, we forge a real connection with the people of Lincoln. We give something back.”
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This generosity explains why the Cowley brothers trained a team of refugees in Essex. “I was a freshly minted teacher, and Nicky at the University. Father always wanted, that we had to give back to the local community and these boys were badly treated. It was racism. The mom of our friend James, who we played with to Gidea Park, asked us to help. We thought a lot of her and so we agreed.
“They were mostly Albanian boys, lovely children, really very tense, very emotional. They needed discipline and boundaries, and a lot of man-management. They were so passionate. They would argue with each other, and to channel, you had your energy. But we loved it-team.
“I’ve always loved coaching. Dad trained with us and, with 13, I started coaching a junior team in Gidea Park. I immediately had a connection with the children. I have a buzz when teaching the game. I was so grateful for the discovery of football to share the I wanted to.”
Danny and Nicky Cowley’s ambition is also evident. It seems clear that Danny hopes to one day manage at the highest level. “Yes,” he nods. “You never want to be arrogant, but we have ambition. We believe in our work ethic and skills. Many questioned our decision to full-time. With the teaching it is a job, unless you murder, you have pretty much got it for life. You to give that up for the wild world of football management? If Claudio can get Ranieri the sack to do what chance have the rest of us? Nicky and I don’t see it that way. We expect to be successful. Of course, there are variables you can’t control, but we still expect to be successful.
“We want to be able to go to the administration as high as we can. But at the moment my ambition is in the journey and Lincoln City. We have shown that there is a huge potential and a vision of where we can get if we work hard. We have only scratched the surface here.”
Cowley smiles again. “We’ll find out, in front of 60,000, where are we compared to Arsenal. When I walk, I catch my breath, but then we are going to let us down. We have nine 10-minute games test us. I think we will do pretty well.”