Arsene Wenger hasn’t had a great year - his Arsenal side were thrashed 10-2 on aggregate by Bayern Munich, then failed to qualify for this season’s competition, with pressure from supporters and the press growing all the while.
Still, at least he hasn’t ever had to take a training session after a long day of teaching secondary school pupils PE, or split his wages with his brother. The same can’t be said of the men who sat in the Emirates Stadium visitors’ dugout on one Saturday evening back in March.
Nominally, Danny and Nicky Cowley are Lincoln City manager and assistant respectively, although Danny insists the pair “are co-managers, really”. When they began last season's FA Cup with a 0-0 draw at home to Guiseley in the fourth qualifying round, they could never have guessed the competition was about to make them household names and take them to Arsenal.
The Essex-born brothers saw their side scrap to a 2-1 replay victory over their National League counterparts, booking the Imps' place in the first round proper. Wins over Altrincham, Oldham, Ipswich and Brighton suddenly set up a fifth round tie away to Premier League Burnley. As you’ll know by now, the Imps won, becoming only the second non-league side to win an FA Cup tie against a top-flight club since Sutton in 1989, and the first non-league team to make the last eight in 103 years.
Perhaps more impressively - if not as widely-celebrated - they also led the men from Sincil Bank back into the Football League after a six-year absence - the pair’s fourth promotion in 10 years.
As FFT arrive in Lincolnshire to meet the duo, Danny is addressing the local press ahead of the start of this season’s FA Cup adventure, which begins with a trip to Kingsmeadow to face AFC Wimbledon.
Kingsmeadow is more familiar to the Cowleys as the former home of Kingstonian. They faced the K's many times during their own playing careers in non-league, as well as during their maiden managerial posting at the helm of Essex outfit Concord Rangers, which began in somewhat unconventional circumstances.
“Nicky had lots of clubs after him, but Concord Rangers in particular were desperate to sign him,” Danny says of his younger brother’s career prospects back in 2007. “By then I’d had to retire through injury, but I went along with him one night so he could chat with them. By the end of the night I was their co-manager.
“They’d just appointed a young manager, Danny Scopes, and he wanted help, so he and I became joint managers. I was then able to talk Nicky into signing for the club, which I’m not sure he would’ve done otherwise.”
Although not the first time they’d been at the same club - the pair speak fondly of times spent together in midfield for Hornchurch, which culminated in an ‘Essex Treble’ in 2005-06 - it was the start of an upward trajectory that shows no sign of tailing off.
With Ronald and Erwin Koeman now on the managerial scrapheap, say hello to football’s new No.1 dugout dwelling siblings.
The grand surroundings of the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium were a world away from the Cowleys’ humble football beginnings.
“We started in the ninth tier - the Essex Senior League,” Nicky says of the brothers’ early days at Concord Rangers, the club based on the reclaimed land of Canvey Island. Promotions in their first, third and sixth seasons with the club same them reach the Conference South - clearly still a substantial source of pride.
“Getting such a small club into that division was a big shock,” says Nicky. “Maybe a bigger shock than beating Burnley. It was unchartered territory for Concord - when we first went there, we were basically known as a social club.”
Given the club’s position on the lower rungs of the football ladder, the Cowleys naturally continued in their roles as PE teachers at the FitzWimarc School in Rayleigh, Essex.
“I was a teacher for 15 years,” says Danny. “Nicky and I taught in the PE department. We went to the 2013 World Schools Athletics Championships in Prague and finished fourth in the world, so we had some real success there.”
Brothers at home, colleagues in their day job, manager and player on a Saturday afternoon - this constantly shifting dynamic would do untold damage to countless relationships, but the Cowleys are, and have always been, unquestionably close. They’ve even spoken of how they split their two wage packets evenly between them (“Our wages are different, but we share them so we get half each," Danny has revealed).
So did they ever fall out when Cowley the manager dropped or subbed Cowley the player?
“No, Dan always made good decisions,” laughs Nicky, even if not all of those decisions have benefitted his brother financially.
“He was my captain,” says Danny. “I think he scored 27 goals from midfield in our first promotion season...but then I had to start paying him less.”
Nicky takes up the story. “We were worried one of our best players - a lad called Tony Stokes - was going to leave for another club, so we decided between us that he should get the captaincy and a bit more money to keep him sweet.”
It was at that point that Nicky officially took on a player-coaching role, eventually becoming Danny’s No.2 for the first time upon retirement in 2014. Scopes having long since stepped down as Concord's co-manager.
A year later, with Concord Rangers now an established fixture in Conference South, the pair stepped up a division, to the rebranded National League Premier, with Braintree Town. “We felt we’d gone as far as we could with Concord,” says Nicky. “We always wanted to play and manage at as high a level as possible.”
The pair led Braintree to third-place finish in their first season -the Irons' highest-ever league finish - before losing narrowly in the play-off semifinals to eventual winners Grimsby Town. Their impressive campaign clearly caught the eye of Lincoln, who had finished ten places and 20 points below the Essex side, but had a vision to drag themselves back into the Football League. They just needed the right management team.
"We are absolutely delighted that Danny and Nicky have agreed to become our new management team," announced Lincoln chairman Bob Dorrian upon the pair’s arrival in May 2016. "They're archetypal of the forward-thinking, energetic and ambitious young managers we sought to attract from the outset.”
For the Cowleys, this was a small step back to take a massive leap forward.
“The unique thing about Lincoln is the fact we are geographically in the middle of nowhere - there aren’t many other clubs nearby, so the people are really pro-Lincoln,” explains Nicky. “Looking out at that huge stadium and comparing it to what we had when we started at Concord, it was a massive thrill to know we’d landed at a big club.”
And, as it happens, their first season with the Imps went rather well.
On New Year's Day, after another win over Guiseley, Lincoln went two points clear at the top of the National League with two game in hand, having taken 25 of the 30 points available from their previous 10 league matches.
In this time they had also knocked League One Oldham Athletic out of the FA Cup to set up a third round tie away to Ipswich Town.
The Cowleys talked of the trip to Suffolk as the first time they had managed at a ‘big stadium’, but neither they or their players were overawed, coming away with a 2-2 draw. An injury-time goal from Nathan Arnold sealed a 1-0 win in the replay 10 days later, with Brighton beaten in the fourth round to set up that near-legendary visit to Turf Moor.
“The ironic thing, is that in the fifth round draw, we actually wanted Arsenal,” Nicky chuckles. “But we got Burnley, which in a way we thought was the hardest possible draw, because they were like a brilliant version of a non-league team in terms of the way they play.
“It’s funny, because at Concord it really suited us when we were the underdogs, but anytime we were big favourites we’d always struggle. Our whole gameplan had to change because all of a sudden we’d be on the ball, have more possession - and that’s what happened to Burnley against us.”
Lincoln certainly frustrated their hosts. Despite having 60% possession, the Premier League side only managed five shots on target - not that Lincoln were raining in shots at the other end; the 89th minute Sean Raggett header then ultimately won the game was their only attempt to hit the mark.
“I like taking things from other sports, and a lot of our throw-ins and our corners have been developed from basketball moves,” the forward-thinking Danny explains. “The corner we scored from against Burnley was something we developed having watched movements in basketball. There were a few runs and movements that created the space.”
Suddenly the Cowley brothers were everywhere - national newspapers, radio and television coverage became a near daily occurrence. No wonder, given they’d now got the draw they’d wanted in the previous round, Arsenal.
“The Emirates was just unbelievable; the changing room, the pitch - there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place,” enthuses Nicky.
“We stayed at a top hotel in London - the Landmark. There’s a Lincoln City supporter working there as general manager and he helped us out. It was surreal,” the younger Cowley adds with a wistful smile.
“Bayern Munich had stayed there on the Wednesday before their Champions League game,” adds Danny. And the shadow of the German champions had loomed large over Lincoln’s preparations for their own battle with the Gunners.
“We always watch videos of the opposition’s recent matches, so we were sat there watching Arsenal play against Bayern Munich. That was certainly different,” Danny laughs.
The pre-match talk was of managing the occasion by ‘breaking it down into ten-minute matches’. Lincoln drew the first four of those matches 0-0, but couldn’t quite make it to the interval.
“We were starting to look a bit tired just before half-time and we were just praying we could get in level, but then we went 1-0 down.” Nicky turns to his older brother. “We probably regret our half-time, don’t we? I think if we’d had it again maybe we would’ve gone a bit more defensive, but we thought ‘are we going to be here again?’ And don’t forget we had 9,000 of our supporters there - we wanted to go down fighting.”
There was certainly no shame in losing 5-0 to a side that included Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. After all, the Gunners had also put five past Southampton and West Ham in recent weeks. And Arsene Wenger was impressed.
“We chatted with him for about an hour and a half after the game,” says Danny. “Considering the week he’d had, he was brilliant with us. He’d had a really tough time, they’d just lost heavily to Bayern Munich, he’d been getting pelters from the media, but he still clearly had a real passion for the game.
“He was just really honest and open with us. He was telling us that he just loved technical players - he actually said that was probably his weakness.”
Their FA Cup run - as well as their ongoing interest in the FA Trophy - had left the Imps with the kind of fixture congestion that has derailed many a title push. But after a minor wobble, they won the first seven straight league matches in the first three weeks of April to seal the National League title.
The Cowley boys were heading for the big leagues.
Lincoln may have fallen at the FA Cup’s first hurdle this time around - they lost their match at Wimbledon 1-0 - but the Imps’ fairytale show's no sign of petering out.
The Sincil Bank side have adapted well to life back in the Football League, and even managed to drag themselves as high as fifth - a playoff spot - in mid-September.
Given the rich recent history of clubs earning back-to-back promotions from what is now the National League Premier to League One - in the last 15 years, Doncaster, Carlisle, Exeter, Stevenage, Crawley and Bristol Rovers have all achieved the feat - it’s not inconceivable, that Lincoln could go up again.
In the longer term, however, the Cowleys are setting their sights even higher.
“We’d quite like to win the FA Cup,” says Nicky.
“We’ve been one game from Wembley five times,” Danny adds. “We had an amazing record in the FA Vase with Concord - we kept going close, then there were the National League play-offs with Braintree and the FA Cup with Lincoln City.”
And then there’s league matters.
“Really the aim is just to climb as high as we can,” Nicky says. “If we keep working relentlessly hard and learning at the rate we have up to now, then the rest will take care of itself. Eleven years ago, nobody would’ve said it would be possible for us to achieve what we have - so we’ll always be proud of that.”
The question is, will that always be as a double act? Will the brothers Cowley eventually need to go their separate ways to achieve their dreams?
“We’ve been so successful together we’re wary of changing it,” Danny says. “It's a joint effort.” He pauses long enough to flash a boyish grin at his younger sibling. “I always make the tea, mind,” he adds with a smirk.
“He makes the tea, I pick the team,” responds Nicky, quick as a flash.
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