After Phil Parkinson was dismissed this week, Sunderland are now looking for a new manager.
1. Consistent success
For a lot of clubs, there can be a certain degree of reluctance to appoint managers who have worked their way up the divisions.
There are concerns, in some cases, about whether they can adjust to a different scale of expectation and pressure.
In this case, though, the Cowley brothers have managed successfully in the division above with Huddersfield and, more generally, the advantage of appointing somebody with their background is they have often massively exceeded expectations.
Danny and Nicky started managing Concord Rangers in front of 50 people yet led them up three divisions to the National League South within six seasons.
After a seventh-placed finish at that level, the brothers took over at Braintree Town and led the part-time National League club to the Play-Offs, finishing above various ex-league outfits on a shoestring budget.
Lincoln City gave them the opportunity to work full-time and what followed was two titles in three seasons, sandwiching a Play-Off finish and EFL Trophy victory in their first year back in the league.
Managers should be judged based on what they have achieved relative to the resources available to them, not relative to the divisions they have made those achievements in.
Sean Dyche and John Coleman have been among the most successful managers in English football over the previous decade, but Sunderland aren’t going to poach either from East Lancashire, nor Chris Wilder from Bramall Lane.
Cowley, though, is attainable and has a record right up there with the very best.
Danny & Nicky Cowley are currently ready and available
2. Changing the culture
The Cowley brothers buy into the fabric of the clubs they manage.
When they first turned up at Lincoln, they noticed lots of kids around the area wearing Manchester United and Chelsea shirts – and invested plenty of energy into encouraging them to support their local team with their infectious enthusiasm.
Part of the problem at Sunderland is that there is a huge disconnect between the club and fans.
In recent years, Paolo di Canio, Chris Coleman and Jack Ross have tried to build bridges, while the likes of David Moyes, Simon Grayson and Phil Parkinson perhaps did less in that regard.
Danny and Nicky are very good at connecting with people – and not just in the dressing room – they set standards high, they take responsibility and will get supporters onside.
"Cowley is a special manager"— Love Sport Radio (@lovesportradio) August 29, 2019
While remembering first meeting him in a feisty encounter at Concord Rangers, Martin Allen is surprised that no-one has come in for 'special' Danny Cowley.
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📲 Listen - https://t.co/XWhRQh9myF pic.twitter.com/zQcGQQRrYY
3. Knowledge of the market
The average age of the final starting XI Phil Parkinson named, which played out a 1-1 draw at Fleetwood, was 28.5.
Five of the last eight signings Sunderland have made have played in the Championship before, which shows the club is assuming that those players must be second tier standard and will therefore take them up to that level.
This, though, shows a lack of willingness to learn from the chronic short-termism the club suffered from during the mid-2010s, which was essentially: “get results now, ask questions later”.
With that mindset, Sunderland spent big on transfer fees and long-term contracts for old players, so while they did frequently stay up, they were treading water and problems piled up which contributed to the double relegation we saw between 2016 and 2018.
During their rise up the leagues, the Cowley brothers have built up valuable contacts from eight different divisions and will be in the loop when it comes to the EFL’s next big thing.
4. Evolving the style
Danny Cowley inherited a Lincoln squad with a winger in Terry Hawkridge who was a fantastic crosser of a ball for National League level, an aerially dominant, goalscoring centre-back in Luke Waterfall and a striker in Matt Rhead who was arguably the fifth-tier’s most dangerous target man.
At that point, in those conditions, it made sense for him and Nicky to home in on set pieces and embrace a direct, crossing-heavy style of football, which won the Imps the title in their debut campaign.
Lincoln stuck with that style in their first season at League Two level, again with plenty of success, but next term they switched things up.
Quick, versatile forwards like Shay McCartan and Bruno Andrade joined, while Rhead was replaced with a more mobile alternative in John Akinde which allowed the team to carry more of a floor-based, counter-attacking threat which saw them clinch the title.
Dainty playmakers such as Jack Payne and Jorge Grant joined the following summer, along with 5’7” midfield controller Joe Morrell on loan from Bristol City.
Plus, attacking midfielder Emile Smith-Rowe produced excellent form on loan from Arsenal at Huddersfield under Cowley, who will see similar potential in Elliot Embleton.
While the Cowley brothers can embrace direct football when appropriate, they are not long ball merchants, nor do they only sign brutes – they merely adapt to what they have available.
5. Their formation is the one that works
One of the criticisms of Phil Parkinson is that he is very stubborn and has never switched up his favoured 3-4-2-1/3-4-1-2 formation, even when it’s not working.
Danny and Nicky switched to a 3-4-3 for a one-off game at Coventry in April 2018, playing three out-and-out strikers in Rhead, Matt Green and Ollie Palmer, for a 4-2 win that booked their place in the Play-Offs.
They entered Lincoln’s 2018-19 campaign planning a 3-4-1-2, which is what they started the season with at Northampton – and the Imps won that game 1-0.
Because the performance was unconvincing, though, the brothers changed to a 4-2-3-1 for the hosting of Swindon the following week, the team won convincingly 4-1 and that system stayed in place for the rest of the season, which saw Lincoln comfortably win the title.
🗣 "Naturally, you find your own style and your way of doing things."— The Coaches' Voice (@CoachesVoice) April 8, 2019
Danny Cowley explains how some of the skills he learned whilst being a P.E. teacher have been transferrable into his career as a football manager. pic.twitter.com/2sHHCIw8Ar
The Cowley brothers have always liked players such as Rhead, Akinde, Waterfall and Michael Bostwick who are strong in the air, but they had to adapt to personnel at Huddersfield.
Centre-backs Christopher Schindler, Tommy Elphick and Richard Stearman had all arguably enjoyed their best seasons when paired with an aerial specialist – 2016-17 with Michael Hefele at Huddersfield, 2014-15 with Steve Cook at Bournemouth and 2013-14 with Danny Batth at Wolves respectively – so the Town defence was imbalanced.
There were dilemmas too at the other end, where Steve Mounie was Huddersfield’s best forward in the air, Karlan Grant was by far their top goalscorer with 19 in the league but the duo together would have created balance issues in other areas.
With all these problems on top of a losing culture dating back two years, the Cowley brothers managed to extract midtable form out of this limited, imbalanced squad, without the benefit of a pre-season – and achieved what was asked of them in keeping them up.
Brentford, for example, scored three or more league goals on 16 occasions last season and yet Cowley devised setups in both encounters with Thomas Frank’s side which denied them a single goal.
The Cowley brothers are meticulous in their preparation, which means they can adapt to what they have available, tailor their approach to individual games, nullify the strengths of the opposition and exploit their weaknesses.
Danny Cowley at @htafc— HTAFC Statto (@HTAFC_STATTO) July 19, 2020
Kept Huddersfield up after 1 point in 8 games
50 points in 39 games - 11 points off play offs in that time period
33% win ratio
46 GF, 55 GA
Got #htafc their first win from behind in 990 days and Saturday 3 O'Clock win in 540 days
Thank You Danny and Nicky pic.twitter.com/Lh2iKgcZnZ
7. Demanding more from Wright and Graham
Putting aside tactics, formations and strategies, Sunderland need the spine of their team to win more duels than they lose: that is a fundamental necessity in a successful team.
Although much of the criticism of Parkinson is fair, it’s worth noting that his 2016-17 Bolton side were successful at this level with a similar style because they had Mark Beevers and David Wheater gobbling up everything at the back, Jay Spearing making firm challenges in midfield and Gary Madine bravely spearheading attacks.
For Sunderland, Bailey Wright started well but has been guilty of crumbling under pressure in the last couple of games, while Danny Graham has gone over surprisingly easily despite being supposedly a target man.
Wright has been an Australian international and Graham has played Premier League football, so Sunderland need those players to dominate their respective areas and Cowley’s motivational qualities will help that.
Danny was recently on Soccer AM coaching random supporters and it felt as though he was improving their games in well co-ordinated, two-minute training sessions – so surely he can get loads out of professionals who have played at the top level.
8. On me ‘Ed, San
Dion Sanderson played a part in Cardiff’s rise to the Championship Play-Offs last season yet, after Wolves entrusted Sunderland with his services, he now cannot get a game in League One.
Conor McLaughlin has been playing as a right-sided centre-back ahead of Sanderson, despite the latter being far better in the eyes of many.
Sanderson is energetic, talented and brings a youthful exuberance that the Black Cats have been missing – Cowley is the ideal man to maximize his talents.
9. Hume and McFadzean will push on
Sam Habergham and Harry Toffolo both played the best football of their careers under the Cowley brothers.
Habergham had been a key part of Cowley’s successful Braintree side and while Toffolo is currently in good form since the brothers departed, he had previously struggled to get a look in at Norwich.
Toffolo had endured various middling loan spells at Rotherham, Peterborough, Scunthorpe and Doncaster before the Canaries let him go to Millwall – and the attacking left-back had to press reset on his career in League Two.
Under a different manager, Toffolo might have plateaued at that level or possibly League One, but Cowley made the former England Under-20 international a key part of his successful Lincoln side and ultimately took him up to the second tier.
If the Cowley brothers can have that impact on a player who has had to step down to League Two, they could work wonders with fellow left wing-backs Denver Hume and Callum McFadzean.
Hume is already making some intelligent runs that are vital to the Mackem’s attacking play, while McFadzean has inspired Bury and Plymouth Argyle to fourth-tier promotions under Ryan Lowe.
10. Diamond will become a gem
It feels as though Jack Diamond could have won man-of-the-match in every Harrogate game in the National League last season and still barely get a kick at the Stadium of Light this term.
Under Parkinson, players have been almost defined by their division and perhaps, if they haven’t proved themselves at a certain level, then there is an assumption that they cannot be up to the required standard.
Because Cowley has worked at lower levels, he may be more aware that it is possible to step up two divisions and be successful.
Diamond has a similar skillset to Bruno Andrade in terms of his ability to beat players with pace, his improving technical quality cutting in from the left hand side onto his right-foot.
The 20-year-old’s attitude is fantastic, too – he fully committed himself to his spell in North Yorkshire, playing with a level of hunger and determination not universally seen from loanees.
Cowley will pick players on merit rather than reputation which is a mentality the club needs.
11. Leadbitter will have to fight for place
Following on from the above theme, 18-year-old midfielder Daniel Neil is another who could get an opportunity.
Lee Frecklington – Lincoln born and bred, a man who succeeded at the club in his first spell – would have been the obvious choice to play in central midfield during the 2018-19 title win, but his place came under threat from Tom Pett.
Pett had been established as a wide forward for parts of his career and, due to his diminutive stature, had been considered predominantly as an option for one of the three attacking midfield positions behind the main striker.
The former Stevenage man, though, dictated play superbly in a deeper role in a 2-1 win at Macclesfield and, from that point on, generally kept Frecklington out of the team.
Grant Leadbitter has looked sluggish and pedestrian in possession yet has started 11 of the 13 league games so far this season.
If Sunderland pick a manager who is brave when it comes to giving opportunities to less proven players, the ones who are more experienced are not only kept fresh to deliver higher quality performances, they also know they have to fight every week for their place in the side.
After having the evening to process the news, I’ve got to somehow explain to Amelia that Danny and Nicky aren’t going to be about anymore. She loves her football city and her Danny Cowley. Thank you for giving us the last 3 years and good luck @dancowley1 #Imps #UTI 🔴⚪️ pic.twitter.com/54qu5KKOn9— Matt Ingram (@Matt_Ingram20) September 9, 2019
12. They can manage a club as well as a team
French reports imply that a takeover from businessmen Juan Sartori and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus could go ahead, pending EFL approval.
Sartori and Louis-Dreyfus will want to make huge changes to the club’s internal processes after recent failed regimes – shifting the mentality and avoiding selling top young talent on the cheap will be top of their to do list.
There will be a lot of work ahead though is not clear, just how quickly, the club can self-function with a reliable infrastructure, scouting network and group of staff.
During this period, therefore, it might be very helpful to have a management team that have an understanding of how a successful club operates off the field as well as on it and are capable of managing more than one facet of the club.
Sunderland, bring them to Wearside!