THE COWLEY BROS.
Computer whizzes are loving the real thing
FOR most of us, Championship Manager was a mighty fine way to avoid homework or while away rainy summer holidays.
Joyful hours could be wasted leading Scunthorpe into the Champions League or turning Neil Lennon into a Ballon D’Or contender.
For Danny and Nicky Cowley, however, it was all rather more serious. In the mid-90s, operating under the name Dannic Cowley, the duo played the original Amiga 500 version until the floppy disc wore out. Then there were the props.
“I started with a briefcase,” said Nicky, the younger by three years. “Then I got a long, ankle-length Ron Atkinson Umbro coat. Then I decided to build a dug-out using the Z-bed. I was just trying to make it more realistic.”
It didn’t stop there either. On car trips to see relatives, the pair would sit in the back seat with a notepad, compiling a list of transfer targets.
Post-match, they would retire to the back room of the family home in Essex to reenact scenarios from their team’s matches. “Nicky would be the forward holding it up and backing in,” said Danny, now 36. “I’d be the defender trying to win the ball.”
Then, as now, football was all that mattered. At ten, Nicky could name all 92 League grounds. At school, teachers used league tables to engage Danny in maths. “That was actually my suggestion,” said dad Steve. “I knew it was all he was interested in.”
Today, at the helm of Lincoln City after two decades in the business, that dedication and obsessive attention to detail burns just as bright.
Data analysts feed back detailed statistics on players and opponents. Nutrition is specifically tailored. Even in the early days, managing Concord Rangers in the Essex Senior League while working as a PE teacher, Danny never let standards slip.
“This was Non-League, but Danny never treated it like that,” said Danny Scopes, his joint-manager at Concord. “He wanted the balls pumped to a certain level, and the water had to be the right temperature in the bottles. He was on top of everything.”
Officially Danny’s assistant at Sincil Bank, Nicky is de facto joint-manager (the pair even share wages) and has been since he hung up his boots. At Concord, he was skipper and a goalscoring sensation to boot.
Both Cowleys had talent. Coached by dad Steve at Gidea Park Rangers, they won the Echo Junior League three times and regularly beat the vaunted Senrab, of John Terry and Jermain Defoe fame.
Danny was even on the books at Wimbledon in the early 90s but was hamstrung by Osgood-Schlatters Disease and failed to win a scholarship.
“We were good players,” said Nicky. “But not quite good enough.” As happens so often, good players would make great teachers.
Having coached junior teams from the age of 13, Danny studied Physical Education at the University of Greenwich, swiftly followed by Nicky. Both emerged with first class honours, then qualified as teachers.
By day, Danny was head of PE at FitzWimarc School in Rayleigh, with Nicky in charge of Boys PE. By night, the pair were leading Concord Rangers.
The long hours did not go unrewarded. FitzWimarc was named state sports school of the year in 2012 (Danny’s proudest achievement), nine months before Concord won the last of three promotions in five years.
Next came a move to Braintree and more success. Despite being a part-time side watched by fewer than 1,000 people, the Iron finished third in the National League in 2015-16.
“Danny had this philosophy of facing down any obstacle,” said chairman Lee Harding.
“If we can’t go above it or under it, we’ll go round it. Everyone bought into it.”
Both men have spoken effusively of their passion for teaching, of the pleasure they took from cajoling unenthusiastic kids into taking enjoyment from sport. “It gave us a lot of knowledge,” said Danny. “And the more knowledgeable, the more you are able to help people.”
It has also made them open and approachable, aware of the wider world. In the early noughties, they coached a team of 13-year-old Albanian refugees
Yet the dream of being fulltime managers, nurtured in that mangled Z-bed, had never faded. And, when Lincoln came calling in 2016, the Cowleys left FitzWimarc and went all in.
So far, the gamble has paid off spectacularly. Not only did Lincoln charge to the National League title last season, they also became the first NonLeague side to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for 103 years.
Ipswich, Brighton and Burnley were beaten along the way. Suddenly, two PE teachers from Essex were household names, sitting in the Match of
the Day studio and plastered across every national paper.
Asked for the secret of their success, they spoke of psychologically dividing games into 15-minutes ‘matches’, of using data to turn football from an art into a “controllable” science.
Mostly, though, the answer was each other. “We are different personalities with broad skill sets,” said Danny. “And the trust we have in each other is very important. In football trust is hard to find.”
So far, it has got them to League Two. Steve King, a player at Concord, says the journey is far from over. The Cowleys could soon be playing Championship manager for real, he thinks.
“Danny was always smart,” said King, who remembers the squad being handed a summer exercise schedule. “He always had a plan, an eye on the bigger picture. Nicky too. It is no surprise to me to see the pair of them doing so well. It’s only a matter of time until some really big clubs take notice.”
INSEPARABLE: Danny, left, and Nicky Cowley enjoying life as fulltime bosses, and inset below, Lincoln City players celebrate after beating Oldham