Danny Cowley, Nicky Cowley
Lincoln City, 2016-2019
It was the longest 45 minutes of my football career.
Time just stood still.
We were 1-0 down to Arsenal at the Emirates and, a few minutes into the second half, it was clear things were only going to get tougher.
Arsene Wenger’s side had been a little bit too deliberate with their play in the first half. Slowed things down and allowed us to get into a good shape behind the ball.
But now they were passing forward much quicker, breaking our lines. Everywhere Mesut Özil went he made a one-on-one or a two-on-one. They just kept outnumbering us. Overloading us.
Arsenal were fully in their groove. Standing on the sidelines, me and Nicky felt a bit helpless.
It was like watching your best friend getting beaten up by a group of blokes, while you stand there holding the jackets.
The whole thing felt surreal.
It was only 10 months earlier that we’d moved away from our families in Essex. Left teaching careers lasting more than a decade. All for the opportunity we’d dreamed of, to work in football full-time.
We joined a club that was in pain. A club that was still reeling from being relegated out of the Football League six years earlier.
That pain wasn’t something we shied away from.
One of the first presentations we made to the group focused on the pain that Lincoln had suffered in previous years. Dropping out of the Football League had really hit the club hard, and we thought that if the players could see that – observe it with their own eyes – then it would become easier for them to understand what we were trying to achieve.
Sometimes in life, when things haven’t gone so well, you just need to hit the reset button and start again. That’s definitely what we were trying to do at Lincoln.
Living between Lincoln and Essex, where our families were, wasn’t easy. But, like Nicky said, when your dream and ambition since day dot has been to be involved in professional football, you feel that if you don’t take the opportunity, you’d live to regret it.
Especially when that opportunity comes at a club with real potential.
"We wanted to bring an enthusiasm and direction back to the club. Reconnect it with the people. To do that, we needed to learn quickly"
For us, this job is about much more than just the team. One of the reasons winning on a Saturday is important is because, as well as points, it buys you time.
The time you need to build a club, not just a team.
At our previous club, Braintree, we’d only been allowed to build the team, so we knew it was probably going to be a short-term venture. But at Lincoln, we were being given the opportunity to build the club from the bottom up.
And when we looked at the support and the fanbase, we believed that if we could get it right, it had a lot of legs.
Lincoln’s a little bit out of the way, geographically – it kind of stands on its own. So the people have such an allegiance... not just for the football club, but the whole city. They’re so proud to be Lincoln.
When we looked at other really experienced managers who’d been successful at the club – Graham Taylor, who started his career here, big Keith Alexander and Colin Murphy – all of them had made a connection with the supporters.
But when we came in, there was a disconnect between the club and the supporters. One that needed to be fixed.
It felt like a club that had lost its way. Six years after being relegated, it was still in mourning.
We wanted to bring an enthusiasm and direction back to the club. Reconnect it with the people. To do that, we needed to learn quickly. What are the people about? What do they identify as?
They’re down-to-earth. Really hardworking.
"We can’t have the resources or facilities that some clubs in the Championship or Premier League have. But what we do have is the same amount of time"
So, let’s find players who fit that. Players who supporters can align themselves with, understand, respect. Players the supporters can be proud of.
Once you get that connection it can be really powerful, because then it’s not just about 11 players driving a club to success. It’s about a whole group of people.
We spent a lot of time getting to understand the DNA of the city, but we also looked at what was going on inside the club.
We spoke to every single person there. Not just playing staff – everyone, no matter what their role was. We sat down with each one and asked them what the environment had been like previously, and how we could help them in their job.
After that, we knew we had some strong characters in the group.
And as the season went on, the squad evolved. It got stronger.
Once we started setting the standards of what we wanted to achieve, the players went about their work consistently to try and improve. If you have a real work ethic and a never-give-up mentality, then that gives you a real chance of getting on the right side of close games.
You need the right environment, too. If everything is in place and professional for the players, they feel better about it. And, from a coaching point of view, it takes the excuses away from them.
We understand that we’re a League Two club, so we can’t have the resources or facilities that some clubs in the Championship or Premier League have. But what we do have is the same amount of time as those clubs.
If you find a way of maximising that time and using it to your advantage, then that makes a big difference.
Initially, the aim was to try to get the club in the top 10 of the National League. That was the remit from the powers above, anyway.
But we know that if we can get the players into the right place mentally, if we train them physically well, day in, day out, and if we create the right environment, then anything is possible.
"It doesn’t matter if it’s a 100/1 shot or 1,000/1 – you have to believe you can win those games"
You have to be careful, as a schoolteacher, to talk about education or learning in football, because you can get the ‘teacher’ tag thrown at you. But, discreetly, that’s what we try to do – make the players good learners.
We try to get them to be open-minded, and to a place mentally where they want to improve every single day.
That stood us in good stead in the FA Cup.
When you’re a non-league side drawn against a Championship or Premier League side, it’s a bit like climbing a mountain: you stand at the bottom looking up, and if you’re not careful you can get completely overwhelmed by the task in front of you.
So we broke it down into parts.
In our second-round match against Oldham, we broke the game down into four matches of 22 and a half minutes each. In the fifth round against Burnley, it was six 15-minute segments.
And by the time we got to the Arsenal game, we’d broken it down into nine 10-minute matches, aiming to try and get through a certain number of those without conceding.
We knew that the longer the game went on, the more pressure there would be on the opposition, and the more aggressive they’d be with their approach. That would then hopefully create opportunities for us to pick them off and win the game.
First and foremost, though, you’ve got to believe you can win those games. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 100/1 shot or 1,000/1 – you have to believe you can do it.
Many people outside of Lincoln wouldn’t have given us much chance of beating Ipswich, which we did in the third round, Brighton in the fourth, or then Burnley – but inside the changing room we had a lot of belief in ourselves.
In football, when you’re an underdog, you can be very dangerous.
"Our message to the players in the dressing room was to hit back. Attack and get back into the game"
Danny and myself were used to that role. At our previous clubs, Braintree and Concord Rangers, we’d created a siege mentality that helped us a lot. During that FA Cup run, it proved useful again.
Before we went to the Emirates, we tried to take in a lot of information about Arsenal’s players. We wanted to alert the team to what ideas the opposition would have, and how we could not only absorb some of their strengths, but try to hurt their weaknesses as well.
If you’re going to war, you always want to know what weapons your rivals have at their disposal.
You want to know if they’ve got tanks or bazookas, or maybe just water pistols.
In Arsenal’s case, they certainly had some tanks. And bazookas.
I remember doing the oppositional analysis before the game. We had the flipchart out to go through opposing players’ strengths and weaknesses. Just basic information, like whether they were right or left-footed.
Most National League players are one-foot dominated, so normally, we put a little ‘R’ or ‘L’ in red marker pen to show if they’re right or left-footed.
This time, we just kept writing: “Both. Both. Both.”
We were used to players who either had real pace, but not so much end product, or those who had a good end product, but maybe not the pace. Now we were up against Özil, Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez – they’ve got pace, they’ve got end product, they can go left, they can go right.
It wasn’t easy formulating a plan that the players could actually believe in and buy into.
We almost made it to half-time with the score at 0-0, but just before the whistle blew, Walcott scored.
Our message to the players in the dressing room was to hit back. Attack and get back into the game.
Looking back, it was probably the wrong message.
"After any defeat, we try never to be too emotional or analyse too quickly. It’s easier to learn when you’re less emotionally attached to a game"
But it was an FA Cup quarter final, and we felt we owed it to our supporters – there were 8,000 of them at the Emirates that day – to give them something to shout about.
We probably left ourselves too open, though. And, tactically, Arsenal were excellent in the second half.
Like Danny said, it felt like a very long 45 minutes.
Arsene Wenger was brilliant with us that day.
He was under real pressure at the time – getting a lot of criticism from every quarter. And yet he still gave us 90 minutes of his time to talk about football after the match. He had so much passion and love for the game – it really impressed me.
We talked about selection headaches and training regimes. Even though we were polar opposites in terms of levels, it was really interesting that we faced similar problems and dilemmas.
But the one moment that will live with me forever was when Arsene pulled these yoghurts out and put them on his desk. Me and Nicky sat forward in our chairs, preparing ourselves for some in-depth tactical insights.
Then he just started drinking them.
That was 90 minutes that will live with us forever.
One thing is inevitable in football: you’re going to lose matches.
In the two weeks after the Arsenal game, we were knocked out in the semi finals of the FA Trophy and then lost our first league game in more than two months, to Borehamwood.
After any defeat, we try never to be too emotional or analyse too quickly.
It’s much easier to learn when you’re less emotionally attached to a game. Before we present to the group, we’ll watch the game back, digest the information and have discussions with key members of staff.
"It was the defining moment in our season – the moment when I felt we were in a really good position to realise our dream of promotion"
Our debrief sessions with the team are always about trying to tactically evolve and improve what we’re doing. So most of the points we make are for the collective – we’ll never dig an individual out in front of everyone else.
If that needs to happen, then it happens in a one-to-one conversation away from the rest of the group.
What’s most important after any defeat is that you learn. Once we’d digested the defeat at Borehamwood and taken on board what we could have done better, I felt confident we’d win our next game.
It was probably the first time in the season we had a little wobble.
Four days after the Borehamwood defeat, we had a game against Forest Green – who were second in the league at that time. It was a really important game for us, and the way we responded off the back of that tough period just said everything about that group of players.
For me, the 3-1 win that night was the defining moment in our season – the moment when I felt we were in a really good position to realise our dream of promotion.
By the time that actually happened, the players were dead on their feet. I had two boys waiting for operations and trying to play through – and, in terms of energy levels, we were on zero.
Somehow, we managed to win six games on the spin. We didn’t play very well in any of them, but we gritted it out. Showed real fortitude.
Then came our final home game of the season against Macclesfield. Another three points would secure us the National League title and promotion back to the Football League.
At half time, it was 1-1. But late in the second half, we scored a second.
Fifteen minutes to hang on.
"Things had come full circle since that day we’d shown the players footage of the club getting relegated. We’d put the club back in a position to build again"
We got deep. I could see the players waiting for the final whistle. Playing for the end instead of playing the moment.
Then Macclesfield had a chance. A really good one. I held my breath. The ball looked like it was going in... going in... going in...
And over the bar.
I breathed again.
It was like the football gods had blown the ball over the crossbar.
I had my eyes on the referee. I watched him as our goalkeeper put the ball down for a goal-kick. Tracked his positioning as he started to move towards the tunnel.
It was like time stood still.
Then, finally, there was the whistle.
Promotion completed a full turnaround for us.
Things had come full circle since that day we’d shown the players footage of the club getting relegated – and all the disappointment, loss of jobs and ripping apart of the infrastructure that came with that.
We’d put the club back in a position to build again.
To Danny and myself, that’s so important.
Nicky and I had been non-league boys all our lives.
Starting at the bottom gave us so many important learning experiences out of the limelight, but also some of the pressures that come with the job at the higher levels.
But reaching the Football League wasn’t the end of that learning. In many ways, it was just the start.
Morning, noon and night, we’re studying the game. Trying to figure out the formula that allows us to keep doing what we love: driving the club to success.
It’s not just about us, though. Just as it’s not only about the 11 players on the pitch.
It’s about a whole group of people. A city. A connection.
Author: Tony Hodson