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FA Cup Big Interview: From Essex to the Emirates, it’s been an epic journey for the Cowley brothers

Pic: Matt/Daniel Chesterton

THEY’RE the brothers who have masterminded Lincoln City’s rise to the top of the National League and taken a Non-League club into FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 103 years.

Ahead the Imps’ game at Arsenal, The NLP took the famous trophy to the family home in Essex for a chat with the Cowleys – Danny, Nicky, mum Gill and dad Steve.

Danny Cowley: Mum knows lots about football. You’d always read the programme front-to-back wouldn’t you? At Concord Rangers it was basically the same programme every week. Same adverts, the front page was different and you’d be lucky if one of the middle pages was different, but the rest was exactly the same. If you want to sign a centre forward, you can always ask mum on a Sunday and she’ll give you some names.

Gill Cowley: I always read The Non-League Paper.

DC: You keep all the cuttings don’t you – it’s been a bit more of a challenge recently. It used to be just buying The Echo and The Non-League Paper. When we were in the Essex Senior League you’d obviously get that little league round-up in The Non-League Paper. You’d still buy it just to look. Then we were well pleased when we got promoted because we had a star man.

Matt Badcock: You’ve come a long way since the Essex Senior League.

DC: The journey’s been crazy.

Nicky Cowley: I think it’s gone a lot better since I stopped playing. We worked out I was decelerating the process!

MB: I watched a video on YouTube from when you won the Ryman Premier play-offs and Concord chairman Ant Smith joked Nicky was the worst value for money in the squad because he had to pay him and not Danny.

DC: That’s it, not much though.

NC: Most of it went to Harry Elmes!

Steve Cowley: As soon as you got promoted your wages went down.

DC: You were captain of the team, scored 27 goals, we got promoted, did really well in the Vase, won a cup and got less the next year. Then we took the captaincy away from you!

NC: I used to enjoy playing at Concord, it was good, we had a great time. We were lucky really because it meant mum and dad could come to one game instead of splitting them up.

DC: When we both used to play, one would go to one game and one to the other.

GC: Dad always chose the best game though.

SC: That’s not true! Danny was playing for Harlow at that time. Then Danny went to Hornchurch and Nicky went to Harlow.

MB: It all began at Gidea Park Rangers with your dad as coach.

SC: The best they’ve ever had.

DC: Yeah, we were a good team. All kids from Harold Court School.

SC: There were about six kids from the primary school and we had some other boys in with you and we really did well because the teams we were up against…

DC: Senrab had a really rich history of bringing through players at that time. We used to beat them. We won The Echo League three years on the trot.

SC: We won the double three years on the trot.

DC: We had Mark Gower. Jeff Brazier. He was a good footballer. He went to our school.

SC: The problem was they had a good Sunday team, a good district team and a good school team. So the amount of games they were playing – and then when they got involved with professional clubs – it was really difficult to keep on top of it all.

NC: We’d play in the games room every night as well wouldn’t we? We had this little separate room that had didn’t have much in there.

SC: Games room is probably a bit of an exaggeration, it was just a back room.

DC: We used to play in there with a sponge ball and have some good games of one v one. I used to be in to writing all the leagues out so we’d have all the teams and do scenarios from bits in the games. You’d be the forward holding it up, backing in and I’d be trying to win the ball.

GC: It had wooden floorboards. The racket they used to make.

DC: We had this lovely long hallway so we could have a good game of cricket as well.

NC: We used to play out the front as well. I was more of a wicketkeeper and a batsman more than a bowler.

MB: So were you already coaching Steve?

SC: No, I used to play but then they started playing. They used to go along to a scout hall where they’d run around and have about two touches with about 50 other kids.

DC: I remember our first ever training session at Harold Wood Park. We were looking forward to it all day. We had a game at the end and our team scored. I remember we all celebrated by bundling in the corner of the pitch. You were saying, ‘It’s only training, calm down!’ It was like the World Cup to us.

Nicky and Danny Cowley talk about their careers

SC: I did the prelim coaching badge, as it was at the time, over five days. I was really lucky because Tim Burton was the coach – he went onto Arsenal and Aston Villa. He was such a good coach so I was really lucky to have him and, in just one week, I learnt so much in how to get the kids playing the right way with the right attitude.

DC: We were all local kids so we had no right really to be as good as we were. We had seven or eight who went on to get scholarships.

GC: Then it got really busy when you took both teams. Danny was U11s and Nicky was U8s. So you’d have a kick-off at 10.30am and then make the other one 2pm.

DC: Mum used to do the oranges. My first ever game of football for dad, we won 9-0 and I scored six. That’s the most I’ve ever scored in a game. So basically my career went downhill from that moment, whereas Nicky was a whizz-kid weren’t you? You scored 21 goals in your first three games.

NC: Dan and his friends were three years older than me. They looked after me well, let me join in and helped me.

DC: You then had to play in your own age and it was so easy for you.

NC: Well, it was at the beginning. When I very first played I’d obviously played a lot more than other people.

SC: They were both a bit unlucky because they both had oscaslatis. They were both very small and didn’t grow until the fifth year.

DC: I was about 5ft 1ins when I went into Year 11 and came out about 5ft 10ins. The problem was we played so much football. Every week we’d have districts Saturday, Gidea Park Rangers Sunday and a school match in the week.

NC: It’s better now. When we were teaching we would communicate with the professional clubs the kids are at manage their load. It’s much better nowadays.

DC: Dad used to get loads and loads of scouts coming down, trying to give him tickets. They all wanted Mark Gower.

SC: Arsenal wanted him but he was a mad Tottenham supporter. I’d seen so many bad coaches. Cones everywhere, over complicating it, stopping play all the time. Kids go to school every day. The last thing they want is to be lectured in the evening. So we basically played lots of small sided games and enjoyed it.

MB: Steve, you were telling me when we met up at Lincoln that league tables were the best way to get Danny interested in maths.

SC: Yeah, I remember talking to his teachers about that because all he was interested in was football.

DC: Nicky’s the one. You knew every ground in the whole League. All 92.

NC: Championship Manager. We would play a game on it, get a result and then go downstairs to the back room and re-enact the game.

MB: Is it true you used to build a dug-out in your bedroom while playing Championship Manager?

NC: I started with a briefcase, then I got a long, ankle length Ron Atkinson Umbro coat – then I decided to build a dug-out using the Z-bed. I was just trying to make it more realistic.

DC: We used to be called Dannic Cowley. We always started in the lower leagues and worked our way up.

NC: We used to go around, say, Auntie Diane’s and Dan would have a pad in the back of the car. We’d talk about recruitment, who we were going to sign. Mum was really supportive because we’d have to keep going to Lakeside to buy the game. We had an Amiga 500 and the floppy disk used to deteriorate so we’d talk mum into driving us there to buy it.

DC: We used to do some crazy things. I can actually remember taking the lawnmower over to Harold Wood Park to mow a cricket strip.

SC: I didn’t know about that!

DC: We wanted to get a bounce when we were playing with our mates.

NC: We’d always be looking around for parks with goals. Goals with nets. There’s a place called Hendersons near Harold Wood. We’d go over there with our friends and we’d literally hide in the forest, wait for the groundsman to go for his lunch, get on it and then we had an hour before he got back. You’d see him coming and we’d be off.

MB: This isn’t the first time you’ve been in the presence of the FA Cup.

Danny and brother Nicky chat to The NLP’s Matt Badcock

DC: When we were at Concord all the boys went on the beach with it. The Concord boys were pretty lively, Danny Glozier was a good character and he stole The Sun’s surf board and went out to sea!

NC: That was the year we got to the first round proper for the first time. We played Mansfield. That was a big achievement for us.

DC: We thought we’d made it.

NC: We won 2-0 in the fourth qualifying round against St Albans. We were so pleased and so excited for the draw.

GC: Matt Rhead was playing for Mansfield then.

DC: And Lee Beevers. We drew 1-1 and got a standing ovation from the Mansfield supporters.

MB: Do you remember your first FA Cup game for Concord against Biggleswade Town?

DC: That’s right, it was a Sunday. Me and Nicky went to watch them on the Tuesday, got to the ground. Called off. In August. They’d had a torrential rainstorm and we’d got all the way there.

MB: Those were the days when you’d start in August.

DC: The Extra Preliminary round. We reached the first round one year. We played Mansfield and thought we’d made it. How many games have we played in the FA Cup this year?

NC: Two against Guiseley, Altrincham, Oldham, two against Ipswich, Brighton and Burnley, so this will be our ninth.

DC: To be in the last eight of the FA Cup….it feels incredible. You have to say it out loud to believe it.

MB: What goes through your minds when the final whistle goes at Burnley?

DC: I always feel as a manager when you have these big moments, you should have something really profound to say. But you don’t have the words to do the situation justice.

SC: It’s like being in a bubble. It doesn’t feel real. I woke up at 5am the next morning in this hotel, Match of the Day, all the Press, it’s incredible.

MB: To be on Match of the Day must have been a real highlight.

DC: It’s such an iconic programme. Our whole lives we’ve always watched Match of the Day. We wouldn’t be allowed to stay up because we always had a game the next day. I was always really disciplined and went to bed, Nicky would always want to stay up.

SC: It was like being in sport’s Disney Land seeing the studio. For them to be on there with Trevor Sinclair and John Hartson, big players for West Ham was great.

NC: Speaking to Clive Woodward on the radio was massive for us too. We’ve taken a number of things from him and read his book a couple of times. The players have all found unbelievable levels in all the matches.

SC: Especially against teams like Oldham and Ipswich. Everyone forgets we played Oldham.

NC: We got through the game 3-2, they came back at us really strong. We learnt a lot from that and how to deal with the pressure.

DC: I think that’s the great thing about the run we’ve been on is how much we’ve learnt and it’s fast-tracked our development as a group.

GC: After the Oldham game there was probably a little bit of disappointment with the fans that we drew Ipswich. Then the same when we drew Brighton. But I read someone saying, we’re taking small steps here. Oldham are League One, Ipswich middle of the Championship, Brighton top of the Championship, Burnley and now Arsenal. Progression.

Lincoln players celebrate the victory at Burnley

DC: I’ll look forward to Chelsea in the next round! Our secretary John Vickers showed me a picture of the Emirates Stadium and where all the Lincoln supporters will be. I had it at Ipswich, funnily enough, when I walked out at Portman Road our supporters were so noisy and the stand was so big it took my breath away.

NC: It was funny. I always go out before the warm-up to make sure the cone have been laid well and everything is there that we need. As I came out they all started clapping and cheering. I thought, ‘I’ve only come out to check the bibs!’

MB: You’ve always said how important your grounding in Non-League football has been.

DC: We’re Non-League boys. That’s why to get promoted out of the top division in Non-League football would feel to us like we’ve earned the right to be in the Football League.

NC: It’s good. The amount of people in Non-League who have contacted us and said they feel like it’s now possible for these types of stories to happen.

DC: It’s just a great level. It’s proper football. You look at the Premier League and the way it’s gone, I don’t know, it’s like a fantasy world. All the players are put on a pedestal, it’s not their own fault, but they’re kind of dehumanised because of the vast amount of money they’re on and all the things they’ve got. I don’t think the normal person gets the opportunity to relate to them because they can’t get close to them.

SC: They’re all different nationalities and there’s no real connection to a club is there. They kiss the badge but they don’t know what it means.

GC: One thing that’s become really evident with Lincoln is the fans, their passion for the club’s history.

NC: Every fan says the same thing to me. ‘I’ve been a fan for 50 years’. How many fans have supported the club for 50 years? It’s incredible.

DC: In Essex, we support West Ham. Next door supports Arsenal, over the road supports Tottenham. Whereas in Lincoln there’s a real allegiance to the team. They’re really proud of where they live and that’s been evident to us. It means so much and we kind of wear that responsibility. When I wake up I feel that on my shoulders.

NC: Our players get out into the community as well.

GC: Fans said that to us last night and how important that has been.

DC: They come in on a Thursday and come behind the scenes. They have lunch with us. We can’t produce Premier League football on the pitch so you’ve got to have a unique selling point. For us, it’s you can have human connection with our supporters. We want them to be part of the journey.

MB: Can you believe how far your boys have come?

GC: It’s been small steps. But it’s been great following and supporting them. For Concord Rangers to get to the Conference South was amazing.

DC: The play-off final was at Lowestoft. We were always dreadful against them. We’d come up with them and they were a massive club compared to us in terms of finances and resources. There was 3,600 supporters there that day, about 200 from Concord. On the video you can hear mum screaming any time the ball goes near our goal.

GC: I might have been screaming but Steve was sitting next to me and when the final whistle went he was gone. You just legged it down to the pitch to jump the barrier.

NC: That was the end of a journey where we’d gone from to Step 2 with the same club. There was a real family atmosphere there and the players worked so hard.

Concord celebrate play-off success against Lowestoft

SC: You had some good players at Braintree too – underrated.

DC: Proper players, they really were. But do you know what happens at clubs like that. Scouts turn up, it’s freezing, the environment is what it is, they’re watching bloody good players but they can’t see beyond their cold cup of coffee. Good people. It’s not about the bricks and mortar is it. Football clubs are about the emotion and the people. That’s what makes a football club and we’ve been lucky to have been at three clubs with really good people.

GC: You probably would have been at Braintree longer if you hadn’t had the opportunity to go full-time. Being PE teachers in the National League…

SC: You couldn’t have done that again.

DC: We could have if we’d had to. It’s the way we do it though. Because so many other teams are full-time you feel you have to be.

SC: It’s the way you were in your jobs as well. You worked very hard in that as well. You loved that school and it wasn’t easy giving that up either.

NC: You learn so much teaching. All the characters you meet and you take a lot into management. It’s a big advantage.

DC: You know what football’s like. We’ll be back there one day.

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