How the Imps’ Cup heroics last term sparked a baby boom!
WHEN Danny Cowley sat in the Arsenal press room and explained how the FA Cup had helped the city of Lincoln fall in love with their football team again, he probably didn’t realise quite to what extent.
Back then, the Imps had just walked off the Emirates pitch with the noise of 9,000 fans ringing in their ears, having just become the first Non-League side to reach the quarter-finals in 103 years.
On the way to the remarkable milestone, the then-National League club had beaten Oldham, Ipswich, Brighton and Premier League Burnley.
Anyone who doubts the romance of the FA Cup wasn’t in Lincoln last season as the Imps planted a big smacker on the competition’s lips.
And, nine months on, the maternity wards have been busy, too, with a baby boom in the heart of Lincolnshire.
“It’s nice to have an influence on people’s lives!” Cowley smiles, as we settle down to speak in an executive box at Lincoln’s Sincil Bank home.
“But it’s great. The FA Cup run we had last year has definitely changed this football club and, I think, the city for the better. Our crowds have gone from 2,500 to near-on 7,000 sell-outs every home game.
“It just captured the imagination. I’ve always loved the FA Cup. It’s a special competition and we’ll be forever thankful for what it did for everybody last year.”
Boss Cowley says the Cup was the catalyst for their run to the National League title.
A team that had failed to finish in the top half of the table in their five seasons since relegation from the Football League swept all before them and were crowned champions.
“It brought the club to the forefront of people’s minds and, most importantly, the city. The experiences we all went through together kind of brought us closer together quicker. It increased that connection with our supporters.
“They’ve been brilliant. We were dead on our feet in April. They singlehandedly carried us to that title. We won seven games on the spin. I don’t think we played well in one of them. But they carried us.
“And they’ve been the same this year. They’re a really intelligent fan base. They understand the journey we’re on and we’ve made a good start.”
Chairman Bob Dorrian explains how the financial rewards of the cup run – north of £1m – helped pay off their overdraft and how a club that were hand to mouth for years are now thriving with companies keen to be involved.
“We paid off our overdraft. We basically don’t have one anymore. We’re existing on our income,” he says.
“It’s one of those rolling things where everybody wants to be involved as much as they can be. It just rolls on. Our home gates average more than 8,000, too.
“It’s quite remarkable what’s hap- pened at this football club. Two years ago I’d be sitting with the directors saying, ‘If we could just get 3,000 gates we’d break even’.”
Dorrian now gets stopped on the streets of Lincoln, even by non-football fans, for chats about how well the League Two club are faring.
For five years, it wasn’t like that as they – like so many other clubs – struggled to get to grips with the harsh realities of Non-League football.
Appointing two PE teaching brothers from Essex was the beginning of the rebirth. Danny and assistant Nicky are a ten-year overnight success.
After solid Non-League playing careers, management was next and three promotions took Concord Rangers from the Essex Senior League to the Conference South before a chance at Step 1 Town saw them guide a parttime side to a third-place finish. Lincoln weren’t the only ones interested in their services.
The best way to describe them is relentlessly hard-working. In fact, it’s an under-statement. As we make our way inside to have a chat, we pass their office, where Nicky is poring over an iPad.
He pops his head out and explains how he’s re-watching that morning’s training session before nipping off for a scouting mission at Doncaster Rovers in the evening.
“We’re just ordinary people in Essex,” Cowley says. “Our neighbours don’t know who we are! To come to Lincoln and have the media attention from the cup run – for everyone, the club and the players – it’s changed all of our lives. “You have to get used to that, manage it and make sure it doesn’t affect or influence the person you are. You have to keep your head down, keep working hard and remember what’s got you to this point.
“We’ve worked so hard to get here. We feel so privileged to get to the position where we are Football League managers.
“Not many people get to manage Football League clubs that haven’t played professional football, so we’ve had to work very hard and we’re determined to make the most of it.”
Dorrian reinforces the ethic they became known for in Non-League as they combined busy jobs at the Fitzwimarc School in Rayleigh with their other passion.
Cowley, whose wife Kate is also a PE teacher at the school, is back at his old work place to take a cross country run-
ning session every Wednesday morning. During his time there, the school regularly won national and international competitions in athletics and gymnastics.
“I’ve never seen managers who are so organised, who embraced so many new things and, most importantly, work as hard as they do,” Dorrian says.
“I, and the football club, feel very indebted to Danny and Nicky for what they’ve done for us. I’m ecstatic they joined us.”
The feeling is no doubt mutual as they’ve achieved their dream of Football League management. But, with all last year’s successes, they didn’t exactly make a quiet entrance into the top 92 and the bar has been set.
“Our supporters have been used to winning,” Cowley admits. “We’ve only lost one game here since last September so there is an expectation and we do have to manage that. It’s important because, if the expectation is better than the quality of the team, that can be when problems arise.
“But the supporters understand. It’s a tough league. You only have to look at the bottom.
“Chesterfield are a good team, whereas if you look at who was bottom of the National League this time last year you can see the gulf in comparative terms.
“We’re small – we’ve only got 19 players. We’re 15 players with four loans, so we’re probably the smallest group in the Football League. “We've got to add the right one or two in January. If we can do that, keep improving each individual and the collective, then we can be competitive again.” Keeping the spine together was key. They persuaded star midfielder Alex Woodyard to stay while Sean Raggett, who scored the winner at Burnley and was bought by Norwich, has returned on loan until January.
“We've kept the spine and the group together,” Cowley says. “That was really important because we've been through a lot together. Then we’ve added some good characters around that.
“We are always battling location here. People don’t travel through Lincoln so not many people know of us and where we are. And not many people know what a wonderful city it is, actually. It’s a wonderful city, a great place with brilliant people.
“We took the players to the cathedral last year. We want them to understand the DNA of the city, what makes the people of Lincoln tick. Once you do that, you can bring people together.”
THUMBS UP: Danny Cowley GLORY GOAL: Sean Raggett scores against Burnley in last season’s FA Cup run. Inset, Danny Cowley with chairman Bob Dorrian and the FA Cup plus Lincoln’s baby boomers