Sporting Life sat down with Danny Cowley to talk all things management - from his rise up the Football League to advice from Arsene Wenger.
"Impossible is just an opinion."
The ambitious words of a man who spent 15 years as a teacher and is now setting his sights on the Premier League.
Danny Cowley made the step up to the Sky Bet Championship in early September, marking the eighth division out of the top nine that he has managed in.
From unexpectedly finding himself as joint manager of Concord Rangers in the Essex Senior League (tier nine), to going to Braintree and then helping Lincoln back into the Football League, it has certainly been an education for the 41-year-old and his brother-turned-assistant Nicky.
“We’ll be forever appreciative of the chance Concord gave us, and how they helped to develop our coaching and management skills,” Cowley told Sporting Life in an exclusive interview at Huddersfield’s Canalside training ground.
“We got to a stage in the Conference South when the club could not get any further and we then moved to Braintree (in the National League) which was part-time. We had a good season there with some brilliant players, a really down to earth, humble group.
“We managed to finish third with a part-time team in what was a full-time league. Then opportunities came off the back of that and once they became available it was a case of us having waited all of our lives trying to get into professional football, came up short as a player, and when it’s been your dream for 30-plus years, when the opportunity comes – and people might perceive it to be a risk – we never wanted to live with regret and once it came we really wanted to take it.”
In fairly comfortable positions balancing football with teaching jobs, making the jump into full-time management could be seen as a risk on their part. But for them, it seemed like the natural progression.
“When you look back, it was [a gamble], but we didn’t see it like that at the time because we believed in our skillset and our work ethic,” he continued.
“We looked at Lincoln as a football club and they hadn’t been relegated in five seasons and hadn’t finished above 13th in the National League and we felt like it was a good time to take over. We looked at it and felt we could add value to it.”
Value would be an understatement.
The Cowley duo guided the Imps to promotion at the first attempt, as well as the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, before adjusting to Sky Bet League Two in their second season (winning the Checkatrade Trophy) and then securing promotion to the third tier the following campaign.
That FA Cup run was one of the special moments from their time at Sincil Bank.
Due to their unusual rise up the management ladder, their journey in the lower leagues has certainly been different. From having played the game at semi-pro level, a world away from where they are now, the chance to come up against the big names provided the Cowleys with priceless experiences from well-respected managers 'who stand the test of time'.
As recently as 2013, the two teachers took PE students to the World Schools Athletics Championships in Prague and just four years later they found themselves on the touchline alongside Chris Hughton, Sean Dyche and then the hugely experienced and vastly decorated Arsene Wenger.
“That cup run was brilliant,” he continued.
“For everyone associated with Lincoln City, it will be something that lives long in our memory.
“It was a brilliant moment and we learnt loads from Sean Dyche, he is an incredible man. Very strong-willed, able to create a brilliant environment for his players, real hardworking, humble environment where the players have to strive to be the best every day.
“He’s got a unique presence about him, a clear communicator [that] says it how it is, complete clarity and complete honesty which I think good people are really inspired by.
“We spent 90 minutes with Arsene Wenger after the game and for us it was an invaluable time.
“He’d had a difficult week because leading into that game they had lost 5-0 to Bayern Munich in midweek and we were 0-0 in 45 minutes in that match. It had been a really difficult week for him, yet he was so willing to give up his time.
“You could just see his love for the game and, after the period he had and he was getting difficult press at the time, he still spoke so fondly and with so much love for the game and that really shone through.
“It was great to speak to him – about periodisation, training weeks, schedules, team selection, training methods and it was a really enjoyable period.
“We took loads from it and we will be forever appreciative off the time both [Wenger and Dyche] gave to us.”
After building something special at Lincoln, Cowley admits their ambitions were no longer aligned and interest from further afield was inevitable. The call from Huddersfield came at a good time.
They have spent much of their career as underdogs, but now they face a new challenge, arriving at a club that was on a downward spiral, months after relegation from the Premier League, but with the foundations in place and what Cowley calls a "perfect opportunity" for him and his brother to continue their development and upward trend.
Already, belief is back in the club, with 15 points from their first 10 games under their new management team, losing just one of their last seven and moving out of the relegation zone. The shift from their early season struggles under Jan Siewert has been pronounced.
While leagues, style of football and other such variables continue to shift the challenge, the Cowleys insist it is their values – 'respect, discipline, humility, enthusiasm and love of the game' – that stay the same.
“I am not sure football is that complicated but everyone tells me you need one,” he says of his philosophy.
“When you are manager of the lower leagues it’s about being tactically flexible, I think you have to look at the players you have at your disposal and to find the best way of playing to set those players up for success. If you’ve got knowledge of the game and are able to coach and implement ideas then hopefully you should be able to adapt the styles.
“To me, there is a difference between philosophy and styles. Style has to change and adapt depending on players available to you.
“For us, the non-negotiables are around the values set. They are the foundations of our success.
“From then it’s the processes, the planning, communication which is always so important in football and the learning. I’ve been lucky enough to spend 30 of my first 35 years in education of some form, as a pupil or teacher or as a coach. The one thing it’s taught me is to always be open-minded and willing to learn.
“If you can find a group that shares that quality then naturally you will improve over time.”
You can take the teacher out of the class, but he's still a teacher and, in Cowley's case, still a pupil - with one more graduation to go.
- Watch more from our exclusive interview with Danny Cowley in the video at the top of the page, where he discusses life as a teacher, his move into the full-time game, those experiences with Dyche and Wenger, life at Huddersfield both on and off the pitch, the step up in quality in the Championship and much more…
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