Think Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Think Don Revie at Leeds United. Think Brian Clough at both Derby County and Nottingham Forest, Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City. All managerial appointments that few could have foreseen changing their respective football clubs from day one. We are so nearly at the point where we can add Danny Cowley – and brother Nicky – to that list with their stellar work at Lincoln City. But just how have the siblings made Lincoln’s relationship with success such a constant?
It is not unusual to see a club rise from League Two up to the third tier of English football and thrive, owing to a perceived small bridge of difference in quality between the top half of the EFL’s basement division and the bottom of League One. But Lincoln haven’t just taken to this new division like ducks to water; they are the baby swan gracefully forcing their way to the front of the pack. And yet it’s come as little surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the Imps over the last three years.
As with all best-laid plans in football, excellence is often derived from simplicity, but there is a reason not every club finds it so easy to progress. The Sincil Bank outfit are as much proof of that as anybody else before the arrival of the brothers Cowley.
They failed in no fewer than five successive play-off campaigns in the fourth tier in the mid-noughties, before the turn of the decade saw them lose their place in the league for the first time since the 1980s.
What was hoped to be a fleeting visit to non-league soon became the norm under a host of managers that included Steve Tilson and David Holdsworth. Much more household names than the Cowley brothers for sure, but names were not what Lincoln needed to stop the rot.
After over half a decade of consistent bottom-half National League finishes, the Imps knew something else was needed. Something different. Something Cowley.
It is a story often told that the pair worked as PE teachers alongside successful stints at Concord Rangers and Braintree Town. Not one to repeat history, it is important to suggest why such professions have been the cornerstone of the sustained turnaround in Lincolnshire.
In an ever-changing football landscape where managers are turning into head coaches and other duties are taken on by directors of football, the Cowleys have paid little to no heed to this transformation, instead focusing on changing the entire ethos around the Imps.
During this time, I was fortunate enough to see these changes early on during my time in the York City media team. Before the footballers dwarfed the Minstermen on the pitch 4-1, our media team suffered a similar fate as our two men tried to find space to accommodate the half-dozen Imps controlling the media side of things.
The Cowley brothers wanted no stone left unturned in connecting the club with the fans, with the community, and with the successes their decisions would soon bring.
Promotion back to the Football League was of course coupled with that superb FA Cup quarter-final run the same season. Ipswich Town, Burnley and Brighton were all put to the sword before their eventual exit to Arsenal. The secret to that success? Going toe to toe with the big boys and playing their typical not-non-league football. Late winners in the former of those two matches paid testament to the strict fitness regime unsurprisingly implemented by the perfectionist PE teachers.
Fast-forward to today and after two League Two campaigns – one of which resulted in a first ever trip to Wembley and silverware, the latter promotion to League One – an evolutionary squad has evolved, but always with the same mantra no matter the personnel.
Perennial success means promotions to higher and tougher challenges, and with it come new arrivals, but there is always a constant. Lincoln have a penchant for bringing in players who initially appear a cut above, but soon prove themselves to be a perfect match for the club.
Tyler Walker, Jorge Grant and Jack Payne all excelled last season, and are each young and hungry enough to add raw talent, exquisite skill and goals to a side brimming with experience in the form of – but certainly not limited to – hometown hero Lee Frecklington, his midfield partner Michael O’Connor and a defensive pairing borne out of experience at a higher level in Jason Shackell and Michael Bostwick.
It’s been a near-constant cycle over the last three years of improvement, evolution over revolution, and determination to the very end to be the best and beat the best which has seen Lincoln take to League One as if they were seasoned experts at that level.
We are only three league games in and therefore it is too early to make resounding predictions regarding a club’s season-long fate, but certainly not too soon to suggest that three wins, eight goals, an unbreached defence and being on the right side of another cup upset at Huddersfield Town makes them among the favourites to make yet another step forward.
It has of course been this outstanding and extraordinary stretch of success which has seen the Cowleys stand to the attention of many a higher division club. League Two sides were interested during their debut season, third-tier outfits during those couple of years in League Two, and just who is better suited to the Huddersfield job than the outstanding brothers?
But just like before…why move? Time and time again, they have proven they have the necessary skill, grit and determination to make the step up while occupying the same dugout. Why change it this time around?
Having already dispatched one of the promotion favourites – Rotherham United – and the aforementioned Terriers on trips to Yorkshire, and notched two wins with a 6-0 aggregate at home, the Imps sit where they almost always have since 2016, near the top of the table. Don’t be surprised if we are saying the same come May.