Lincoln Promoted: The Danny and Nicky Cowley storyby Gabriel Sutton / 16 April 2019, 09:04Tweet
Lincoln City's 1-1 draw with Cheltenham on Saturday – combined with results elsewhere – means it is a mathematical certainty that they will be playing third-tier football next season, for the first time this millennium.
This has very much been a collective effort: the players have excelled, fans have offered outstanding support while summer-elected chairman Clive Nates and vice-chair Roger Bates deserve great credit for creating an internal culture of trust and transparency – certainly not the case at every club.
However, Danny and Nicky Cowley will rightly gain a lot of the plaudits from the external media – here’s how they have achieved two promotions (titles?) and three consecutive top-seven finishes in their time in charge to date.
They’ve shown loyalty
The duo led Braintree Town to the National League Play-Offs in 2015-16; one of the success stories that flew under the radar during English football’s ‘Year of the Underdogs’.
Similarly to their situation at Concord Rangers though, budgetary restrictions meant limited scope for further progression; Braintree were a part-time club punching well above their financial weight.
The Cowley brothers, therefore, knew they needed to respectfully move on to improve their coaching careers and Lincoln City offered full-time work.
Since taking the Sincil Bank gig, Danny and Nicky have been grateful to the board for showing that faith and a strong bond has grown.
Their partners have settled in the city, kids have found local schools and they have a strong relationship with supporters which is almost unique in English football.
The Cowleys, therefore, have wanted to stay somewhere they feel appreciated yet also believe in the project’s potential, with the duo signing four-year contracts in 2018 .
Danny has batted off external interest more convincingly than other managers in similar situations.
They do not see it to be worth starting with a neutral relationship with fans at another club and risking a bad start, getting little backing from an impatient board and landing back on the managerial ‘merry-go-round’ six months later.
They’ve evolved the style
For a long time, Lincoln have been perceived as a long ball side.
In some ways, that is understandable because the team that went on the impressive 2016-17 FA Cup run to the Quarter-Finals was very direct.
That Imps side was all about deep crosses into target man Matt Rhead and it was a similar approach during the League Two Play-Off campaign, with Matt Green running off him in a 4-4-2.
Summer signing Michael Bostwick gave them that extra physical threat from the set plays preceded by a wartime siren, so it is understandable that neutrals remember them in those terms.
This season, however, they have mixed their game up very well and while they still have the capacity to be physical and go direct when needed, they also have some excellent technicians.
Harry Toffolo, Tom Pett, Bruno Andrade and Danny Rowe have all shown impressive footwork and technical quality that belongs at a higher level – external perceptions should therefore be revised.
They’ve thought long-term
The advantage of having a manager and his assistant so devoted to their club is that they prioritise the wider, collective interests rather than their own.
A manager only in it for the short-term, for example, might not be overly keen on the construction of new, impressive training facilities if it meant a reduced transfer budget.
Danny and Nicky, though, underlined their belief in the importance of those developments because they felt improvements in infrastructure would enable the club to shop in a higher market over a longer-period.
In January during the previous campaign, some fans were understandably concerned by the lack of depth and wanted the club to add players to pad out the squad.
It’s not as if Danny and Nicky didn’t add players that month – Lee Frecklington, James Wilson and Tom Pett all joined – but they did not sign more players for the sake of numbers.
Rather, they preserved some of the budget for the summer, when they plotted moves for players they believed could play in the division above.
The composure to take a step back and make decisions in terms of the next year or two, rather than the immediate goal, is a rarity in modern management – but those qualities have been key to consistent progression under the Cowleys.
This big-picture thinking means that Lincoln will go into League One with a squad that will be more than at home there.
When they first went up from the National League, their seven most-used players had played a combined 30 EFL games.
This season, Lincoln’s seven most-used players have played a combined 924 league games in the third tier or above - Harry Toffolo (64), Neal Eardley (325), John Akinde (72), Harry Anderson (16), Bruno Andrade (2), Jason Shackell (445) and Tom Pett (0).
That’s without including experienced midfielders Michael O’Connor and Lee Frecklington, who have both played to a high standard in League One for much of their careers.
Andrade is an outstanding dribbler in from the left channel and, having scored 10 league goals this term, will be more than comfortable stepping up a second division in two seasons; the athletic Anderson offers balance from the right.
The fact Pett has not played any games above the fourth-tier is slightly misleading, because he is playing the best football of his career in a deep midfield role - rather than as a wide forward like at Stevenage - with fine technical and controlling qualities.
Lincoln, therefore, do not too many changes to their squad to hit the ground running in League One.
Ipswich are expected to let attacking midfielder Danny Rowe leave so signing him permanently should be a formality - if he wants to stay.
Peterborough loanee Mark O’Hara has been excellent next to Pett recently - and his height makes him more suited to Danny Cowley’s methods than that of Darren Ferguson at Posh.
One of the few areas of contention is the goalkeeping position.
Matt Gilks and Josh Vickers are two excellent stoppers but the former is 36 – will he maintain his impressive reflexes next season against sharper-shooters? – while the latter’s injury proneness has hindered his enormous potential.
Additionally, with Lee Angol going back to Shrewsbury Lincoln might need another striker capable of completing 90 minutes, should John Akinde pick up a lengthy injury.
Rhead might stay on as an impact substitute – he has earnt some loyalty as a key part of the Imps DNA and can ask different questions of defences late on in games – but perhaps does not quite have the pace or stamina to start.
Other than that, it’s a strong squad.
How much further?
Many outsiders feel a midtable position in League One is Lincoln’s glass ceiling.
If we think that they are now playing at that level for the first time this millennium, one could not blame a neutral for having that viewpoint.
However, we have seen Yeovil and Burton play Championship football in the last half-a-decade – Shrewsbury nearly got there too.
In Yeovil’s case, they went up without the gates, the infrastructure or the experience to truly compete.
Burton was a slightly different situation with access to training facilities at St George’s Park – but eventually their attempts to add experience to a young squad steered them towards veterans past their best like Stephen Warnock and Jake Buxton.
By contrast, Lincoln are coming into League One with a strong infrastructure, a squad with know-how and quality – their forward pathway feels more sustainable due to the stability and long-term planning that Danny and Nicky have provided.