Com­puter whizzes are lov­ing the real thing

The Football League Paper - - CHRIS DUNLAVY - By Chris Dunlavy

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.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

INSEPARABLE: Danny, left, and Nicky Cowley en­joy­ing life as full­time bosses, and inset be­low, Lin­coln City play­ers cel­e­brate af­ter beat­ing Old­ham

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