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

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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.


“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

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