With the National League title race looking to be one of the tightest yet, there is one manager who is looking to take his side all the way to the Football League. Tom Simmonds looks at how Danny Cowley has turned Lincoln City from National League long-stayers into serious champion material.
Much of the media talk this holiday period was once again, largely about the travails and grizzlings of the Premier League’s cabal of superstar managers. To divert discussion away from this, Tom Simmonds takes a look at the rise of a former PE teacher who, if his success continues at its current rate, will be rubbing shoulders with them before long.
Danny Cowley’s name is one which will need no introduction to non-league watchers. It is possible that his deeds in reviving Lincoln City to the point where they go into 2017 top of the National League and as the bookies’ favourites to secure promotion to the Football League has pricked the outer reaches of the wider consciousness. It is also possible that Lincoln’s trip to Ipswich in the FA Cup on Saturday could provide him with his first real taste of national exposure if Lincoln come away with a result. What does remain undoubted is how much Cowley’s achievements in the game have gone under the radar thus far.
The scenes of Cowley’s climb are both a little south of where he takes his team on Saturday, in Essex. Concord Rangers, a club who are seen as Canvey Island’s second team, appointed Cowley as manager in the 2007-08 season and, seven years later had won three promotions, getting as far as the National League South (where they finished 9th and 7th under Cowley), and three cups and appeared in the first round of the FA Cup for the first time ever, taking League Two Mansfield to a replay in 2014-15.
Cowley’s next stop was Braintree Town of the National League, who his Concord side beat in the final of the 2013-14 Essex Senior Cup. The Iron clearly knew what they were getting by appointing Cowley and his assistant, his brother Nicky, as the siblings led them to their highest ever league finish last season, bagging 23 wins and 81 points. Their hotly-contested play-off semi-final with eventual winners Grimsby Town, in which the Mariners had to reverse a 1-0 home defeat to progress to the final, saw Braintree ahead on aggregate until the last 15 minutes of the second leg. Had they managed to hang on, it is likely that Cowley would be an EFL manager now, rather than one in waiting.
That setback did not hurt his own career, as Lincoln noted his deeds at Cressing Road and deemed him the man to end their League exile, which began in 2011. It has been a move which has paid spectacular dividends so far, Lincoln have claimed 17 League wins out of 26 so far and are engaged in what promises to be an exciting title race with non-league giants Tranmere Rovers.
In terms of how he is doing it, Cowley is clearly employing the same thriftiness and ability to cajole more from his players-an every day requirement at the part time level of the game-at Sincil Bank. 10 of Lincoln’s players have played 22 games or more. That kind of continuity, while obviously requiring luck with injuries and suspensions, can only help a side and. While Premier League managers continue to moan about the need for a winter break due to player fatigue, Lincoln have managed to win eight of their last 10 league games and get to the third round of the cup in the midst of an even heavier schedule.
The team ethic among Lincoln’s players is clear too. This is a team who are sharing their goals around. While Matt Rhead and Nathan Arnold shoulder the biggest burden, several players have notched for the Red Imps this season, with defenders Luke Waterfall and Sean Raggett contributing 10 of their 55 League goals so far. Cowley has also brought players from Braintree who are high on their success of last season and who are familiar with Cowley’s methods-left back Sam Habergham and midfielder Alex Woodyard have stepped up to become regular fixtures in the team this season.
If Lincoln win, lose or draw at Portman Road on Saturday, it should not do anything to make the upward curve that Cowley’s career has been on for almost a decade deviate. Ipswich, the club where England’s two greatest national team managers forged their name as club managers, seems a fitting venue for this rising star of management to announce himself to the country at large. Even if it doesn’t happen on Saturday, at the rate he is going, it won’t be long before we see Danny Cowley in English football’s higher echelons.
Follow Tom on Twitter on @TallulahonEarth