The Cowley brothers on Lincoln heroics and their FA Cup dreams
Football’s No.1 dugout-dwelling siblings have gone from the ninth tier to the Emirates Stadium – but Lincoln’s Cowley brothers still crave FA Cup glory
Arsene Wenger hasn’t had a great year – his Arsenal team were thrashed 10-2 on aggregate by Bayern Munich in the Champions League, then failed to qualify for this season’s competition, with pressure from supporters and the press growing all the while. Still, at least he hasn’t ever had to take a training session having spent a long day teaching secondary school pupils PE, or split his wage packet with his brother. The same cannot be said of the men who sat in the Emirates Stadium’s away dugout on one Saturday evening back in March. Nominally, Danny and Nicky Cowley are the Lincoln City manager and assistant respectively, though Danny insists the pair “are co-managers, really”. When they began last season’s FA Cup campaign with a 0-0 draw at home to Guiseley in the fourth qualifying round, they could never have guessed the famous competition was about to make them household names and take them to Arsenal.
The Essex-born brothers saw their side scrap to a 2-1 replay win over their National League counterparts, booking the Imps’ place in the first round proper. Further victories against Altrincham, Oldham, Ipswich and Brighton set up a fifth-round trip to Premier League Burnley. As you will know by now, City won, becoming only the second non-league outfit to win an FA Cup tie against a top-flight club since Sutton in 1989, and the first non-league team to reach the last eight in 103 years.
Perhaps more impressively – if not as widely celebrated – they also led the men from Sincil Bank back into the Football League after a six-year absence, the Cowleys’ fourth promotion in 10 years.
As FFT arrive in Lincolnshire to meet the duo, Danny is addressing the local media ahead of the start of this season’s FA Cup adventure, which kicks off with a trip to Kingsmeadow to face AFC Wimbledon.
Kingsmeadow is more familiar to the Cowleys as the former home of Kingstonian. They faced the K’s many times throughout their own playing careers in non-league, as well as during their maiden managerial posting at the helm of Essex outfit Concord Rangers, which began in somewhat unconventional circumstances.
“Nicky had lots of clubs after him, but Concord Rangers were desperate to sign him,” says Danny of his younger brother’s career prospects back in 2007. “By then I’d had to retire through injury, but I went along with him one night so that he could chat with them. By the end of the evening I was their co-manager.
“They’d just brought in a young manager, Danny Scopes, and he was looking for help, so he and I became joint managers. I was then able to talk Nicky into signing, which I’m not sure he would’ve done otherwise.”
Though not the first time they’d been at the same club – the duo speak fondly of times spent together in midfield for Hornchurch, culminating in an ‘Essex Treble’ in 2005-06 – it was the start of an upward trajectory that shows no sign of tailing off.
With Ronald and Erwin Koeman sent to the managerial scrapheap, say hello to football’s new No.1 dugout-dwelling siblings.
The grand surroundings of the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium were a world away from the Cowleys’ humble football beginnings.
“We started in the ninth tier – the Essex Senior League,” says Nicky of the brothers’ early days at Concord, the club based on the reclaimed land of Canvey Island. Promotions in their first, third and sixth terms with the Beach Boys resulted in them climbing to the Conference South – clearly still a substantial source of pride.
“Getting such a small club into that division was a big shock,” admits Nicky. “Possibly a bigger shock than Lincoln winning away at Burnley. It was uncharted territory for Concord – when we first went there, we were basically known as a social club.”
Given the club’s position on the lower rungs of the football ladder, the Cowleys naturally continued in their roles as teachers at the Fitzwimarc School in Rayleigh, Essex.
“I was a teacher for 15 years,” says Danny. “Nicky and I taught in the PE department. We finished fourth at the 2013 World Schools Athletics Championships in Prague, so we had some real success there.”
Brothers at home, colleagues in their day job, manager and player on a Saturday afternoon – this constantly shifting dynamic would do untold damage to countless relationships, but the Cowleys are, and always have been, unquestionably close. They’ve even spoken of how they split their two wage packets evenly between them (“Our wages are different, but we share them so we get half each,” Danny has revealed). But did they ever come to blows when Cowley the gaffer decided to drop or substitute Cowley the player?
“No, Dan always made good decisions,” laughs Nicky, even if not all of those decisions have benefited his brother financially.
“He was my captain,” says Danny. “He scored 27 goals from midfield in our first promotion season... but then I had to start paying him a bit less.”
Nicky takes up the story. “We were worried one of our best players was going to leave for another club, so we decided between us that he should get the captaincy and a bit more money to keep him sweet.”
It was at that point Nicky officially took on a player-coach role and he became Danny’s No.2 for the first time upon retirement in 2014. Scopes having long since stepped down as Concord’s co-manager. A year later, with Rangers now an established force in the Conference South, the pair stepped up a division to the rebranded National League with Braintree Town. “We felt we’d gone as far as we could with Concord,” says Nicky.
“WENGER WAS REALLY HONEST AND OPEN. HE WAS TELLING US HOW MUCH HE LOVED TECHNICAL PLAYERS – HE ACTUALLY SAID THAT WAS PROBABLY HIS WEAKNESS”
“We have always wanted to play and manage at as high a level as we can.” The pair led Braintree to third-place in their first campaign – the Iron’s highest-ever league finish after coming 14th the previous season – before losing narrowly in the play-off semi-final to eventual winners Grimsby Town. Their impressive campaign caught the eye of Lincoln, who had finished 10 places and 20 points below the Essex minnows but had a vision to drag themselves back up into the Football League. They just needed the right management team.
“We are absolutely delighted that Danny and Nicky have agreed to become our new management team,” announced Lincoln chairman Bob Dorrian upon the duo’s arrival in May 2016. “They’re archetypal of the forward-thinking, energetic and ambitious young managers that we sought to attract from the outset.” For the Cowleys, this was a small step back to take a big leap forward. “The unique thing about Lincoln is the fact we are geographically in the middle of nowhere – there aren’t many other clubs nearby so the people are really pro-lincoln,” explains Nicky. “Looking out at that huge ground and comparing it to what we had when we started at Concord, it was a massive thrill to know we’d landed at a big club.”
And, as it happens, their first season with the Imps went rather well.
On New Year’s Day – after another win over Guiseley – Lincoln went two points clear at the top of the National League, having claimed 25 of the 30 points available from their previous 10 league games.
In this time they had also knocked League One Oldham Athletic out of the FA Cup to set up a third-round tie at Ipswich Town. The Cowleys talk of the trip to Suffolk as the first time they had managed at a ‘big stadium’, but neither they nor their players were overawed and came away with a 2-2 draw. An injury-time goal from Nathan Arnold sealed a 1-0 win in the replay 10 days later, with Brighton beaten in the fourth round to set up that now near-legendary visit to Turf Moor.
“Ironically, in the fifth-round draw, we had wanted Arsenal,” chuckles Nicky. “But we got Burnley, which we thought was the hardest possible draw as they were like a brilliant version of a non-league side in terms of the way they play.
“At Concord it had suited us to be underdogs, but any time we were big favourites we would struggle. Our whole game plan had to change because all of a sudden we’d be on the ball and have more possession – that’s maybe the problem Burnley had against us.”
The Imps certainly frustrated their hosts. Despite having 60 per cent possession, the Clarets managed only five efforts on target – not that Lincoln were raining in shots at the other end.
Sean Raggett’s 89th-minute header was their first and only attempt to hit the mark. But it was all rigorously planned.
“I like taking things from other sports, and lots of our throw-ins and corners have been developed from basketball moves,” explains Danny. “The corner we scored from at Burnley was something we developed having watched movements in basketball. There were a few runs and movements that created the space.”
Suddenly the Cowley brothers were everywhere – newspaper and TV coverage became a regular occurrence. No wonder, given they’d now got the draw they’d wanted in the previous round – Arsenal.
“The Emirates was just unbelievable,” enthuses Nicky. “The changing rooms, the pitch, there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place. We stayed at a top hotel in London, the Landmark, and the general manager was a Lincoln fan – it was surreal.”
“Bayern had stayed there on the Wednesday before their Champions League game,” adds Danny. And the shadow of the Bundesliga giants had loomed large over the Imps’ preparations.
“We always watch videos of the opposition’s recent matches, so we were sat there watching Arsenal play against Bayern Munich,” laughs Danny. “That was certainly different!”
The pre-match team talk was of managing the occasion by ‘breaking the game down into 10-minute matches’. Lincoln drew the first four of those matches 0-0, but couldn’t quite hold out until half-time.
“We were starting to look a little tired just before the break and were praying that we could get in level, but then we went 1-0 down.” Nicky turns to his older brother. “We probably regret our half-time, don’t we? I think if we had it again we’d go more defensive, but we thought: ‘Are we going to be here again?’ We had 9,000 of our supporters there – we wanted to go down fighting.”
There was certainly no shame in losing 5-0 to a side featuring Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil, and Arsene Wenger was impressed.
“We chatted with him for about an hour and a half after the game,” says Danny. “He’d had a really tough time. They had just lost heavily to Bayern and he’d been getting pelters from the media. Given the week he’d had, he was brilliant with us.
“He was really honest and open. He was telling us how much he loved technical players – he actually said that was probably his weakness.”
Lincoln’s FA Cup run – and ongoing interest in the FA Trophy, in which they reached the last four – left them with a fixture pile-up, imperilling promotion. But after a minor wobble, they won seven straight league matches in April to seal the National League title.
The Cowley boys were heading for the big leagues.
Lincoln may have fallen at the FA Cup’s first hurdle this term – losing 1-0 at Wimbledon – but the Imps’ fairytale shows no sign of petering out. The Sincil Bank side have adapted well to life back in the Football League and managed to drag themselves as high as fifth – a play-off spot – in mid-september.
Given the recent history of clubs bagging back-to-back promotions from what is now the National League to League One – in the last 15 years, Doncaster, Carlisle, Exeter, Stevenage, Crawley and Bristol Rovers have all done it – it’s not inconceivable that Lincoln could go up again. Yet, in the longer term, the Cowleys’ sights are set even higher. “We’d quite like to win the FA Cup,” reveals Nicky, while Danny adds: “We’ve been one game from Wembley five times. We had an amazing record in the FA Vase with Concord – we kept going close. Then there were the National League play-offs at Braintree and FA Cup at Lincoln.” But what of league matters? “The aim is just to climb as high as we can,” says Nicky. “If we keep working hard and learning at the rate we have up to now, the rest will take care of itself.” The question is, will they always be a double act? “We’ve been so successful we’re wary of changing it,” admits Danny. “It’s a joint effort.” He pauses long enough to flash a boyish grin at his younger sibling. “I always make the tea, mind,” he adds with a smirk. “He makes the tea, I pick the team,” responds Nicky, quick as a flash. Brothers, eh?
Above “Get the kettle on!” Successful Cowley siblings Danny (left) and Nicky led Lincoln to the last eight of the FA Cup last term, and dream of lifting it one day