Lincoln City Football Club, May 2016: After an underwhelming two-year spell, Chris Moyses ended his tenure as manager and was replaced by the little-known Danny Cowley, who was joined in the dugout at Sincil Bank by his assistant manager and brother, Nicky Cowley.
Some optimism surrounded the appointment, but there was not a huge amount of fanfare. After all, most probably assumed this would prove to be another false dawn – something the Imps’ fanbase had grown used to. Since the promise of the early days of Peter Jackson’s reign, which ended in 2009, the club had been through a succession of increasingly disappointing head coaches.
The club was relegated from the Football League in 2011, on Steve Tilson’s watch. Since then, David Holdsworth, Gary Simpson and Moyses had all failed to restore the club’s League Two status. By the time the brothers from Essex arrived, optimism was perilously thin on the ground.
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Lincoln City Football Club, May 2017: The Imps were crowned National League champions. The return to League Two assured with silverware to show for it. Optimism restored.
Few had heard of Danny and Nicky Cowley prior to their arrival at Sincil Bank, but their exploits in their first campaign with the club brought them to national attention. Not only did the pair guide City to promotion at the first time of asking, but the club also reached the FA Cup quarter finals – knocking out Premier League Burnley along the way – becoming the first non-league club in more than a century to reach that stage of the iconic competition. Not bad for a couple of former PE teachers not yet in their 40s. Danny was then awarded an LMA Special Achievement gong for their efforts.
The foundations for the their current success were laid years before though.
The brothers’ journey in management began back in 2007, when a series of fortunate events led to Danny being named Concord Rangers co-manager, alongside Danny Scopes – who didn’t last too long – in the Essex Senior League. Nicky joined the club as a player at the same time. Nicky quickly became a player-coach, before taking up the mantle as Danny’s right-hand man at the end of his playing days in 2014.
Three promotions in six seasons with Concord took the Canvey Island minnows into the dizzying heights of the Conference South. The Cowleys managed the whole thing alongside their day job as teachers in a local school.
In 2015, they stepped up to the National League with Braintree Town – whilst still working as teachers. In their only season in charge at Cressing Road they led the Iron to their highest ever finish of third, but missed out on promotion in the play-offs. Then, Lincoln – and full-time management – came knocking.
The rapid rise, and the pressures, stresses, and strains of football management would have torn many partnerships apart. Not so with the Cowley brothers, whose strength is borne out of their closeness. Danny even told FourFourTwo that he siphons off a chunk of his wages to his brother to ensure that they’re paid evenly, as “co-managers”.
Since restoring the Imps to the Football League, the Cowleys have only continued to shine.
Lincoln City Football Club, April 2018: Lincoln City played at Wembley Stadium for the first time in their 135-year history.
The occasion was the Checkatrade Trophy final, in which City triumphed over Shrewsbury Town. The Imps, and the Cowleys, got their hands on silverware again.
A third trophy could soon be on the way to the historic city of Lincoln too. The Imps are currently first-placed in League Two, by a five point margin, and with just nine games left to play. City haven’t been in the third tier this century. The Cowleys are now on the cusp of having taken them from the National League to League One in just three years.
Of course, their impact at Sincil Bank hasn’t escaped the attention of others. The pair will be offered bigger jobs and will eventually leave Lincoln. However, Danny has said that they’re in no rush to move on.
In 2018, the elder sibling told WFI: “we are really ambitious and we would like to manage at the highest level possible, but at the same time we have ambitions in this journey at Lincoln City. We always like to build something. I spent eight years at Concord Rangers and I had plenty of opportunities to leave in that period to better clubs and earn more money, but for us we like to build something. Once you build something, continuity is a rare thing in football and I value that.”
Just as a rare a thing in football as continuity is a managerial partnership that achieves sustained greatness. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor are mythologised in the history of the English game because of how unique relationships such as the one they shared are.
Of course, that particular coupling was dysfunctional in its way, and ended in a manner that the Cowleys will be determined to avoid. Yet, Danny and Nicky will be hoping to leave their mark on the game, as Clough and Taylor did years ago.
They’re certainly going about it the right way, and it’s hard to imagine that they won’t eventually get the chance to prove their quality at the very top.