With the UK approaching its fifth week of lockdown, and professional football in England effectively put on hold until further notice, we caught up with Huddersfield Town manager Danny Cowley to see how he’s coping with the unprecedented situation, and discussed the plans he’s put in place in preparation for the Terriers’ return.
“It’s obviously unique circumstances,” Cowley told The Sack Race, speaking to us via video chat from his home in Lincolnshire.
“We were preparing all week for the game against Wigan Athletic at home on the Saturday. I went to bed Thursday night on the back of hearing about Mikel Arteta and the situation at Arsenal, but didn’t think too much of it in terms of it affecting us at that point.
“Then went into work on the Friday to do our final preparations with the players, and as the morning unfolded we started to hear the news that the games were potentially going to be cancelled so we kind of held off training for about an hour while we got confirmation.
“We were thinking at that time that it might have been much shorter-term and that if we could get a good session into their legs, then we could give them the weekend off to kind of regenerate and go again on Monday.”
This obviously didn’t transpire, with the Government announcing a full lockdown the following week which meant that training sessions would have to be cancelled indefinitely.
Like every other football club in England, Huddersfield have now not kicked a ball since the beginning of March, when they fell to a 2-0 defeat away at league leaders Leeds United.
The main concern with not regularly training and playing games is that there is a huge risk of players dropping off the pace and losing fitness, something that Cowley is all too aware of.
“We had to put some contingencies in place. We gave all of the boys belts and GPS equipment, and an app that they could use so that if we were working in isolation then they had that available to them.
“Just prior to us going into full isolation, our kit man managed to get some gym equipment round to all the players. We got bikes and any conditioning equipment that they needed, so it’s allowed us to put together bespoke training programs to condition them individually.”
Time to reflect
While few positives can be sought out during these unprecedented times, Cowley admits that it has given him a chance to reflect on everything, after what has been a somewhat frantic six months.
“From a personal point of view, it’s been a great opportunity to reflect, obviously taking the Huddersfield job back in mid-September it’s been a whirlwind,” said the 42-year-old, who moved to the west Yorkshire club after spending a memorable three years with Lincoln City.
“It’s been a good opportunity to look at all the provisions in detail and look at the environment and the culture that we’re trying to create for the players and look at ways to try and enhance and improve that.
“As staff we get together twice a week and have conference calls and I think it’s been a good opportunity to audit exactly what we do in every department and every provision at the football club, look at what’s good, look at areas where we can get some add ons and some improvements.
“Nicky (Danny’s brother and assistant at Huddersfield) and I have been spending some time around our coaching library and trying to further develop that so that we’re in a place where we can link all of our coaching drills to our philosophy and the way we want to play.”
Cowley admits that he has had time to reflect on everything during the past four weeks
Helping the local community
Like many football clubs, the Terriers play a pivotal role in assisting their local community. With uncertainties surrounding jobs, and people forced into taking pay cuts across the whole of the country, millions are finding things extremely tight at the moment, something which the club’s foundation has been instrumental in helping out with.
“The Huddersfield Town foundation does a fantastic job. I think they were initially set up by Dean Hoyle (former Huddersfield chairman) and they do an awful lot in the community, supplying breakfasts to kids who are perhaps not as fortunate as others.
“The players have been great throughout this process, the community is so important to us. Certainly the success that Nicky and I had at Lincoln, it was all around the community and engaging the supporters again and we definitely wouldn’t have had the success we had without engaging the supporters; they drove our energy game-to-game.
“Huddersfield is very similar. I know some of the players have been talking to some of the elderly supporters that are a little bit more isolated and potentially a bit lonely at this time, but the boys have been on the phone to them.
“And also some of our younger supporters who may have enjoyed birthdays but not been able to have the birthday party that they anticipated, so we’ve had to make some calls at the right time and put some smiles on faces.”
A decision had to be made
Cowley cut his teeth as a manager back in 2008, taking charge of Concorde Rangers, a side then plying their trade in the Essex Senior League - the ninth tier of English football.
After two successful promotions, the former PE teacher guided Rangers to the National League South - tier five on the football pyramid - before making the switch to nearby neighbours Braintree Town, who at the time were members of the National League Premier division.
Cowley’s managerial journey to date can certainly be described as unorthodox, and it is clear when speaking to him that he owes a lot of his experience down to earning his crust in England’s non-league system.
With the news this week that the National League season, for all three divisions (North, South and Premier), will be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cowley says that while the decision made by the League and the FA is disappointing from a footballing perspective, it did need to be made for financial reasons.
“I think it was a decision that ultimately had to be made for lower league clubs, obviously the position they are in financially.
“What people perhaps don’t understand is that Football League contracts run through to the 30th June but invariably in the National League and National League’s north and south, their contracts only run through to the middle of May and a lot of clubs are not in a position to be able to pay their players beyond that period, so I think a decision did have to be made.”
The 42-year-old made his name in non-league before becoming a recognised manager in the EFL
After just one season in charge of Braintree, Cowley moved out of Essex and headed north for a fresh challenge with Lincoln City, who at the time were competing in the National League.
A memorable debut season for Cowley at Sincil Bank saw the Imps go on a surging run in the FA Cup, reaching the quarter-finals of the competition after beating the likes of Ipswich, Brighton and Burnley before succumbing to a strong Arsenal side at the Emirates.
Domestic success for Cowley at his new home in Lincolnshire ensued, as the club were promoted back to the Football League at the end of the 2016-17 campaign following a six-year absence.
With brother Nicky by his side as his assistant manager, Cowley became an instant hit at Lincoln after the club clinched the EFL Trophy in 2018.
A second promotion at the end of last season - this time to League One - helped secure the former non-league midfielder his current job in the Championship with Huddersfield, though it is clear that his old club still hold a huge piece of his heart.
“I think for them [Lincoln], like all lower league clubs, it’s a difficult moment. I think always, for all of us whether we’re in football or not it’s the uncertainty which causes the anxiety and you just keep trying to search for some kind of clarity.
“Luckily for Lincoln they’ve got a wonderful chairman, and it’s on really really sound footing the football club so I would imagine they’re in a much stronger position than most League One clubs, and hopefully they’ll be able to come out of this period and be able to progress like they have done in recent years.”
The show must go on
With no date currently confirmed for the EFL’s return, it remains unclear when we will see Cowley and Huddersfield in action again.
Plans to declare the campaign null and void, effectively meaning that this season never happened, is one option that has been discussed by the League should the situation in England not improve drastically in the coming months.
Huddersfield currently sit 18th in the Championship, just three points above the drop zone with nine games left to play. The situation in west Yorkshire is precarious at the minute and the Terriers cannot rule out the possibility of relegation should their fortunes not take an upward turn if and when football is able to return.
Cowley insists that despite his team’s position in the league, he does not want to see the campaign voided, and that for the integrity of the game the season must be completed.
“I think it has to finish and it should finish for the integrity of football. I think we need that to happen.
“In our current position I suppose if we had a personal agenda then it would be to finish the season in the precarious position that we are in now, but for me I love football and I believe it should be finished and it needs to be finished.
“I really hope we can find a way to do that, obviously ideally in front of supporters but if that’s not possible then behind closed doors but making sure that our supporters still have access to the games.
“My real hope is that we can find a way to finish it. We have a brilliant football pyramid - the strongest in the world in my opinion - and we as a nation should be very proud of that. We have to do everything we can to try and protect its integrity and that means finishing the season to its fruition.”