Tuesday, 13 December 2016
Cowley's success is no surprise to Concord Rangers
Whilst Lincoln City ride high in the National League and look poised for a return to the Football League, the club's recent success and good form doesn't come as a shock to a team you may have not heard about on Canvey Island.
24th January 2015 was when I first encountered what can only be described as the wonder of Danny Cowley's management. His Concord side walloped big spending Whitehawk 3-0 in the National League South. To my then un-trained eyes this was ridiculous, how had Danny got this group of players punching above their weight in this Division and beating full-time sides with bigger budgets and packed with professional footballers so easily? As I was to find out, Danny had been doing this for years.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, Danny and his brother Nicky, who was his Assistant Manager were to leave Concord Rangers at the end of the 2014/2015 season to move onto National League Braintree Town. I only captured the last few months of Cowley's reign at Concord, but it had been an incredible rise up through the divisions which had begun back in 2007, when Danny Cowley was appointed Joint-Manager with Danny Scopes in the Essex Senior League. A world away from the Conference South that Concord now competed in. "When I first spoke to him, I was under no illusion that this guy would end up managing in full time football. He impressed me from day one." said Concord Chairman Antony Smith of that meeting back in 2007.
The 2007/2008 season began with Concord under the dual managership of Cowley and Scopes, there was an identikit of the kind of player the two Danny's wanted playing for Concord "We demanded that players had the right attitude and the team came first. We wanted fit lads with outstanding work rate and as we progressed through the levels the quality required for that league." Danny Scopes was only confirming what Danny Cowley said me to back in January 2015 when I first spoke to him "The players have to buy into the ethos of the club. A player's personality is more important to me than their ability."
Whilst the team battled for the Essex Senior League title with Cowley in joint charge of the team, Danny's brother Nicky joined the club. Nicky was a tough-tackling centre-midfielder. No quarter asked. No quarter given. "Nicky typified the spirit of our team at the time. He was definitely the type of player you'd rather have on your team than against you though, that's for sure. said Miki Hood who had also joined the club that season, in some kind of back-room coach/kit-man/physio role.
Nicky's influence on the team was immense "He was the player you would make Captain of your team on the first day of pre-season training" said Danny Scopes "He has the passion you need and every manager dreams of this from his players. The attitude to give his best and to drive others on, to give their best on and off the pitch. He would never tolerate someone not trying, and not having the same desire on the pitch as him. He was a leader of men" This type of player typified what Cowley and Scopes wanted from their team, and this worked as Concord had a highly successful season in the Essex Senior League. They travelled to Barkingside on the last day of the season knowing that victory on that day would bring them the title - again Danny Scopes "Dan had a great understanding of when to scream and shout and when to be calm in the dressing room, I have heard and been around plenty of other managers that feel they need to shout and scream to get their point across, but they actually lose focus of what needed to be said. At this time this game (Barkingside) was maybe and might still be one of the most important games in Danny/Nicky's management/playing career's so far. We come in at half time 0-0 and we have not been playing well, and looked nervous in our play. We were playing on a difficult pitch against a Barkingside team that 100% wanted to destroy our dream of winning the League. Danny went on to give one of the best half-time team talks I have heard as a manager or player, driving the player's on and encouraging them to go take what we had worked so hard for all season, to go and make it happen and not wait for it to happen. It was an emotional moment for everyone in that dressing room and maybe the moment that got us over the line with a 1-0 win, promotion and the start of an incredible journey."
In 2008/2009 Concord battled it out in the Ryman League Division One North, not much was expected of them. Mid-table consolidation would have been gratefully accepted. Not for Cowley though, Concord finished a credible 5th place and a place in the league play-offs. Unfortunately Concord were defeated in the play-off final by Waltham Abbey on penalties. Concord would not be denied though and the following season they achieved promotion to the Ryman Premier League beating Enfield Town 3-1 in the play-off final. By this time Steve King had played for Danny Cowley and with Nicky Cowley for a couple of seasons, and the centre back remembers his playing time with Nicky "We always used to fight and bicker on the pitch, but we were so successful because of it. Each of us without knowing it were driving each other on. As soon as that final whistle went, we had a cuddle and a sing-song on the way home from away matches."
As Concord moved up the levels that consequently the standard of opposition rose, so Cowley, now managing the club on his own after Danny Scopes retirement began looking for ways that Concord could beat the odds. "He left no stone un-turned. Every minor detail was spot on. That minor detail could make the difference and his attention to detail was second to none" confirms Steve King. But how could Concord who were a part-time club operate against the bigger sides in the division? Miki Hood who was on-hand for the majority of the training sessions at that time - "Danny will probably be the first person to tell you the limitations of working in the part-time football environment. Realistically in 3/4 hours a week, are you going to be able to make every single individual in your squad a markedly better technical footballer, more tactically astute, a more well-rounded player, and look to develop individual skills - probably not. But you can instil a team organisation, an identity, a collective understanding and belief - to make something greater than the sum of it's parts? You have to say yes, and that's what he did."
As it transpired teams could not cope with Concord's pressing game. They were hard to break down, and always carried a goal threat. They didn't know when they were beaten. Look at Lincoln's results this season. Notice those late goals. It's not coincidence. But back to Concord. In 2012/2013 after a slow start to the season everything clicked into place. Concord found themselves in the play-offs. An unbelievable feat for the club. However Cowley would not let his team rest on it's laurels and congratulate themselves for making the play-offs. Towards the end of the normal season, Concord had lost 2-1 to a late winner, and Wealdstone's fans had spilled onto the pitch after they had scored. "After the game in the dressing room Danny told us we'd get a second chance. That football always gives you a chance to right a wrong, and that we'd be coming back here in the play-offs to do just that. You could sense they weren't just words for show. He was convinced. Regardless of the possible permutations of the games between then and the play-off's; he told us it was going to happen. The players and coaching staff believed it. And it happened."
Concord travelled to Wealdstone for the play-off semi final as predicted by Danny Cowley and won 2-1 in extra time "It was almost surreal. He'd already predicted it. He'd stood in front of all of us back in March and told us what was going to happen. The man's a footballing freak. He decides on what's going to happen and makes it happen." That day back in 2013 is still fresh in Miki Hood's as he re-told me the story of those Wealdstone encounters.
Danny Cowley and Concord then found themselves in a play-off final away to Lowestoft for a place in the Conference South. This was unheard of for a team the size of Concord Rangers. Of course under Cowley Concord won and one of the goalscorer's on the day Steve King think's that win was one of Cowley's greatest achievements at the club "That play-off final win against Lowestoft stands out for me. We always tended to be underdogs against any opposition as we are such a small club compared to the others and we were never a bigger underdog than in that game. We had been beaten significantly every time we had played there, but Danny instilled a belief in the boys that it was our time and against all the odds we gained promotion. He is an excellent man-manager and can get the best out of his players."
So the 2013/2014 saw Concord Rangers playing in the Conference South for the first time in the club's history. They were dead-certs for relegation in a league which contained clubs such as Dover, Eastleigh, Bromley and Boreham Wood. Again Cowley defied expectations and led Concord to a creditable ninth place finish. They finished eight points away from the play-offs. A remarkable performance. A great season in the league was topped off with Concord winning the Essex Senior Cup beating Conference side Braintree in the final. This was to be the first of three consecutive Essex Senior Cup's that Concord would win (2 under Cowley, and 1 under current manager Adam Flanagan).
The following season and what was to be Cowley's last in charge of Concord, Danny was joined by his brother Nicky in the dug-out as Nicky became Danny's Assistant Manager. This was also the season I first turned up at Concord and I saw how Danny and Nicky dovetailed each other in the dug-out. Whilst Danny was on touchline driving his side on, cajoling and berating his players at times, Nicky was more studious. He had his ring-binder of set-pieces and formations to be used during the game. Again no stone was being left un-turned. To stand next to the Cowley's in the dug-out was an education in man-management and tactical awareness. But why do the Cowley's work together so well? "They both have the same beliefs in life and of what they want for football. I would say a key factor is there is still that element that brothers have, where they push each other and are not afraid to say what they think to each other or have a row. I'm pretty sure they disagree plenty of times on things behind closed doors, but when it comes to being in front of the players they're 100% focused and together, with a positive mindset to get the job done." was Danny Scopes answer when the question was raised.
Cowley's final season would thrust the club in the public eye as Concord reached the FA Cup 1st Round for the first time in their history. They pulled out League 2 Mansfield Town away from home in the draw. Concord travelled to Field Mill and didn't disgrace themselves. In fact they excelled. They drew 1-1 at their league opponents and in the replay at the Aspect Arena lost by one goal to nil. Now Cowley was appearing on other club's radars and it came as no surprise that Danny and his brother left the club at the end of the 2014/2015 to join National League Braintree Town.
That season at Braintree was another rung up a highly successful ladder for the Cowley's as they led part-time Braintree to the National League play-offs and only narrowly lost to Grimsby Town on aggregate.
As Lincoln gain plenty of admirers in Non-League football and beyond for their football, there is no doubt that the future is bright for the Cowley's and who know's what level they could end up at - "As far as I'm concerned the sky's the limit for them both. The only thing that could possibly stop them managing at the very top level is that they weren't household names as players. I find that sad and hope very much that they break the mould and genuinely believe they can manage at Championship level and then...who knows" said Steve King who is probably better to judge than a lot of us having played under Cowley for seven years.
There is an immense feeling of pride with everyone connected at Concord Rangers to see the Cowley's do so well for themselves, and maybe the final word should be with Danny Scopes who was there at the start of Danny Cowley's remarkable journey back in 2007 "I was never in any doubt from the first moment we worked together at Concord Rangers, that they (Danny and Nicky) would go on and be successful in management at non-league level. I think their rise in value from what they did at Braintree last year has really made people stand up and take notice and that has carried on at Lincoln, as we all expected once they got the job. When you watch Lincoln City play, you know you're watching a Cowley team play, and it's great to see."