Danny Cowley – Reasons Why He Should Be In A Job – Opinion

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Danny Cowley left his job at Portsmouth on January 2nd 2023 and has been out of management ever since. Having seen Danny and his brother Nicky up close at Lincoln City, I find this hard to believe.

Danny Cowley’s Background

The story of Danny Cowley is a relatively well-known one. The former Wimbledon youth player spent his playing career in non-league with the likes of AFC Hornchurch and Brentwood Town before a hamstring injury helped divert him down the coaching path. 

Alongside his non-league playing and early management career, he continued in his role as a PE teacher at The FitzWimarc School in Essex.

Danny Cowley started his managerial journey as assistant to Danny Scopes at the Essex Senior League outfit Concord Rangers. From there, he would take the reigns at Concord followed by Braintree Town, Lincoln City, Huddersfield Town and Portsmouth, being highly successful along that journey.

Style of play

Danny Cowley has regularly defended his style, or at least perceived style, of play against those who label him simply as a long ball merchant.

When he and his brother Nicky became household names following their magnificent first season at Lincoln City, they had inherited a 6-foot 3-inch striker who was coming off a stellar goalscoring year the season before their appointment. 

Matt Rhead scored 20 goals in 43 league games in 2015-16 firmly establishing himself as a fan favourite. The new management duo would have been foolish not to utilise Rhead’s attributes and so, with a few tactical adjustments, a side was built to get the most from the former Mansfield Town man. 

Forgive the cliche but Rhead has got good feet for a big man and he dropped deeper to enable him to have more impact on games. I am not suggesting that Rhead was picking the ball up in his half and dribbling past the entire opposition but it brought his football intelligence into the game. 

Rhead’s goalscoring numbers went down, though he still managed 15, but his impact on the team was huge, chipping in with 13 assists during the unforgettable season. 

Over his time at Sincil Bank, Cowley’s style developed and by the time the 2019-20 season started, his Lincoln side had a completely different look with players such as Joe Morrell and Tyler Walker producing what may be seen as a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football. 

Depending on what you read, the brothers were dismissed from their roles at Huddersfield due to the then owner Phil Hodgkinson wanting to go in a ‘different direction with the club in terms of strategy and playing style.’ His replacement Carlos Corberan was known to prefer a short passing, high-pressing style of football although that change saw The Terriers finish below where they had the previous season. Corberan did guide the club to the playoffs in the following season before resigning.

When the Cowleys took over at The John Smith’s Stadium, Town was 23rd in the Championship with just one point and hadn’t won a game in so long it had become a distant memory. It was one win in 36 games and only one point from the opening nine that season.

He took on a side devoid of confidence and on course for a second successive relegation and managed to win 50 points from his 39 games in charge. The owner may not have liked what he saw but there was no time to build a free-flowing team who sprayed around dozens of passes before taking a strike on goal. The team needed to win and the Cowleys did that.

Astute Signings

All managers will make mistakes in the transfer market and Danny Cowley will be no different. However, he has made some very clever and influential signings that have helped take his teams to the next level.

Joining Lincoln City from Braintree Town, Cowley wasted no time bringing in players he knew and trusted in the form of Sam Habergham and Alex Woodyard from his former club to add much-needed quality to the left back and midfield areas. The Imps also persuaded the much sought-after Dover Athletic defender Sean Raggett that Sincil Bank was the best place for him to play football.

Later that season, Theo Robinson joined as a free agent on a short-term deal after leaving Port Vale. Robinson’s league form of one goal in 14 didn’t set the world alight but he managed five in five in the FA Cup and his short spell at the club provided a great partner for Rhead. 

Cowley was happy to dip into the loan market for players, bringing in Harry Anderson and Lee Angol from Peterborough and Joe Ward from Brighton and Hove Albion. Angol’s 11-game spell returned five goals at a vital point of the season.

 After the return to league football, Anderson was brought in on a permanent deal alongside Peterborough teammate Michael Bostwick. I remember at the time there being worries about the lack of signings and then these two appeared on the same day. Bostwick became a cult figure for the Imps with his no-nonsense yet consistently excellent performances.

City was challenging Bury for the League Two title in the 2018-19 season but had had to deal with some defensive upheaval. Initially, promotion-winning captain Luke Waterfall had left for Shrewsbury in a move that may have left the club short of experienced partners for Bostwick at the heart of the defence. 

Enter Jason Shackell. 

The centre back who played his career in the Championship was attracted to Sincil Bank, slotted in alongside Bostwick and the Imps never let their rivals in. Later that season, first-choice keeper Josh Vickers was struggling with injury and his replacement Grant Smith had looked a little shaky. Cowley brought in former Premier League and Scotland international keeper Matt Gilks to steady the ship. Gilks played 12 times, keeping six clean sheets and only conceded six. I have never heard someone shout as loudly as Gilks and his world-class save at MK Dons will be remembered for a long time. 

Taking over a Huddersfield side who were rock bottom in terms of confidence, Cowley had to act fast and add quality to his squad. The January window allowed him to tweak his squad. A few of the short-term deals didn’t work as hoped but the signings of Richard Stearman, Emile Smith Rowe and Harry Toffolo provided experience, quality and consistency. 

It was, of course, the second time the former Braintree manager had signed Harry Toffolo having brought the left-back to Lincoln City. The former Norwich City prospect is a hard-working, consistent full-back who is equally adept at getting forward as he is defending. With Stearman slotting in at centre-back, Toffolo on the left and former Manchester United man Danny Simpson at right-back, the new manager had quickly improved the defensive unit. 

Small Margins and Fine Details

When the Cowleys were appointed at Lincoln City, there was lots of talk of the lengths they would go to before signing players. After the player was identified, checks with former managers and teammates were made to confirm the type of character they were bringing to the club.

Coming from a non-league background where staff would perform multiple roles, the brothers would travel up and down the country to scout players and opposition to leave no stone unturned, giving their side the best chance of winning. 

These details have a greater impact lower down the pyramid, away from the huge backroom staff and latest technologies of the Premier League. Having the detail is one thing but understanding how to use the information to your advantage is another skill. Danny and Nicky have this skill, the skill to make small adjustments that ultimately lead to success.

Media and Fan Friendly

Cowley is a well-educated man and I think he handles the media and fans brilliantly. He is thoughtful in what he says and very complimentary towards the fans and the people of the local area. 

He is approachable when out and about and will happily talk to fans at the games, in the streets or restaurants. He and his brother Nicky are likeable people who you believe are doing their absolute best for your football club. 

The positivity and enthusiasm they have alongside the rapport they build with the fans can help lift a football club and the fanbase and to find an extra little edge over the opposition.

Danny Cowley’s Record

In his first steps into management, Cowley was part of a management team at Concord that oversaw three promotions in eight years as The Beach Boys made their way to the National League South.

His next move to Braintree Town of the National League saw him continue his success. Throughout the 46-game season, The Iron would win 23, earn over 80 points and qualify for the playoffs as a part-time team. 

Chairman Lee Harding said of the appointment, “There’s always a bit of risk with any appointment, whether you’ve been in non-league all your career or you’re a former England international, but Danny ticked a lot of boxes for us. His main aim will be to maintain our status and we haven’t set him unrealistic targets.” The Cowley duo surpassed any targets they could have realistically been given!

Full-time football management was next up at Lincoln City and he again continued his upward trajectory. This time he would return 30 wins from 46 games and achieve 99 points as the Imps clinched the title with a hugely impressive 2.15 points per game. It may not be the Wrexham/Notts County chase we witnessed this year but it was a season of high drama and one where Lincoln came good when it mattered. 

An FA Cup Quarter Final away at Arsenal, coupled with the league success, captured the imagination of the city and saw the attendances increase drastically. His second and third seasons at Sincil Bank brought 43 wins from 92 league matches, a cup win at Wembley and a promotion to English football’s third tier. 

He even managed to win four of his seven League One matches in charge of City before signing on to battle relegation at Huddersfield. Taking over a side with one win in 36 and guiding them to 13 wins from the following 39 is pretty impressive and a record that didn’t deserve the sack.

Returning to management at Portsmouth for the final 12 games of the behind-closed-doors season, Cowley won six of those matches as the club missed out on the playoffs by two points. His only full season in charge at Fratton Park saw a 10th-place finish on 73 points. This total would have challenged for the playoffs in 2022-21 but left Pompey short. 

Upon his sacking, he had managed Portsmouth in 80 League One matches winning 33 of those, giving him a win percentage of over 40. He didn’t achieve promotion with the club but did leave with a decent record.

In Conclusion

With the record that Danny Cowley has over his managerial career since he entered the National League, I am shocked to see that a club has yet to appoint him. His points per game return would lead to a 77-point season, putting his team at least around the playoff chase every year. This return includes so-called poor seasons at Huddersfield and Portsmouth.

Of course, he may have been offered jobs and turned them down but if I was a League One or Two chairman, he would be on my radar should a change of manager be required. 

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