'You get one life and I want to make the most of it' - Portsmouth boss and ex-teacher Danny Cowley opens up on unconventional footballing rise
Danny Cowley is tearing down the barriers as well as ripping up Pompey’s training ground.
The players’ common room is earmarked for restoration, signalling the return of table-tennis facilities in addition to the installation of Sky television.
Such home comforts formed the cornerstone of Paul Cook’s drive for camaraderie, yet the welcoming ambiance has long since faded, the area these days swallowed up by an overloading of chairs, inevitably attracting few willing visitors.
Certainly Cowley recognises the importance of establishing bonds – and dismantling boundaries.
His footballing pathway has been unconventional, career progression consisting of 15 years serving as head of PE at FitzWimarc School in Rayleigh, Essex.
A former Wimbledon schoolboy midfielder forced to retire through injury at the age of 29, to date Cowley has managed in eight of England’s top nine divisions and won five promotions.
And as a manager and teacher, he recognises the importance of forging close relationships – particularly with his players.
‘Your football changing room is just the naughtiest classroom,’ he told The News.
‘I have taught thousands and thousands of PE lessons in my life and I can see misbehaviour or lack of concentration or lack of engagement. I can see it a mile off. I can smell it.
‘You have to get to know them, you build a relationship, you understand them. Once you understand them, you can try to find ways of getting the most out of them.
‘That's the fun part – discovering what makes them get out of bed in the morning.
‘I have heard people say “Don’t get too close”, which is absolutely the worst advice anyone could give a young, aspiring coach or teacher.
‘Absolutely get close to them, get to know them, live it with them and help them. You must understand them as a person and as an athlete.
‘We all have our ways of management. I suppose there’s no right or wrong way, it’s just your way, so believe in it and commit to it.
‘Try to give them the support they need. Some don’t need too much support and will fly, others need telling, some turn the wrong way down the wrong avenue.
‘Sometimes you need to nudge them back on the right path, while others need your love and your time.
‘If I’m pleased with them, then I am the first to congratulate them and pat them on the back. If they come up short, I tell them.
‘By being honest, by being able to look them in the eye and tell them what I think, I genuinely believe I am their best friend.
‘With me, they are always going to know where they stand.’
Cowley is the oldest of two brothers, three years Nicky’s senior, with the pair growing up in Havering, near Romford, Essex.
Their mother, Gill, once earned stars at Romford’s McDonald’s, before a career switch saw her move to investment bankers JP Morgan, where she flourished to become head of UK retail client services.
Dad Steve, an accountant, instilled into his sons a love of West Ham and the beautiful game, while his own playing days reached Isthmian League heights.
Little could the family have anticipated Danny and Nicky’s own careers should become intertwined – both in teaching and football.
Perhaps it was fitting that Danny’s first match coaching Concord Rangers would result in a 6-1 triumph over Sawbridgeworth, with his brother and skipper netting a hat-trick in front of 62 people.
‘I wouldn’t change my journey for anything,’ added Pompey’s head coach.
‘Mum would get up at 6am and, to this day, I always start early. I think it’s such a waste of time sleeping.
‘She would make our lunch boxes, put out our school uniforms folded and ready to put on, then go to work.
‘She’d come back about 7pm, would cook dinner, before finally sitting down at 10pm. Within one minute, she was asleep – and the next day did it all over again.
‘We were a working class family, but, by the end of it, had middle class benefits. I definitely knew the value of hard work – you see it and respect it.
‘As a teacher, I’m sure we’ve experienced snobbery in football at different times coming through the levels, but we’ve got used to it now. People sometimes think I’ve never played the game – well I have.
‘I was a hard-working defensive-minded central midfielder at Wimbledon and Dagenham & Redbridge, while was part of a Hornchurch team which had won the treble.
‘At the back end of that season we had a cup final and I felt my hamstring, yet played on with it when probably I shouldn’t have.
‘When I returned for pre-season, it was still there, with scans showing the hamstring was ruptured and off the bone. I spent 18 months trying to get fit, but just couldn’t return to that level.
‘At one stage, collagen was injected into the ligaments to try to strengthen the tendon, yet it was unsuccessful. The hamstring muscle was also sewn back onto the tendon, but continued to tear.
‘My last comeback saw me sign for Brentwood. I was probably the worst signing in their history, playing two or three games before retiring at 29.
‘It turned out the problem originated from my lower back and I developed loads of scar tissue and inflammation around that area. Even now I struggle with my left side. If you watch me, I don’t walk as well on that side, unfortunately. This is life.
‘Earlier in my career, dad managed my team – Gidea Park Rangers – and I played alongside Mark Gower, who later featured in the Premier League with Swansea.
‘I also spent eight years in Wimbledon’s youth system, while Nicky was at West Ham for a long time and then Charlton.
‘They released me at 16, so I didn’t get a scholarship. I had other opportunities, yet I can recall dad saying “No, give up”. He was pretty strict with us and wanted me to go back to school and get my A-levels. I’m thankful for that advice.
‘I could probably have earned a scholarship somewhere, but would have been making up the numbers. He knew that – and, at the time, I didn’t.’
Focusing on education, Cowley gained four A-levels, enabling him to study at the University of Greenwich.
His PE degree also supplied qualified teaching status and in 2001, at the age of 22, he began employment at FitzWimarc Secondary School.
He remained at the Raleigh-based school for the next 15 years, with brother Nicky and wife Kate subsequently also taken on in the PE department overseen by Cowley.
Crucially, in the summer of 2007, while still a teacher, the coaching journey began, joining Essex Senior League side Concord as assistant manager.
He said: ‘There were three Cowleys in FitzWimarc School’s PE department. Mr D and Mr N they used to call us, while Kate worked three days a week as she had our children, while receiving National Lottery funding for competing in athletics.
‘We’ve been together since she was 16. We met in a pub and when I discovered she liked sport I thought “This is it!”.
‘Kate played a few football matches for Tottenham, but, as a kid, was a really high-level gymnast who got too tall. She went across to athletics, although to get to the world-class level was a bit too small at 5ft 9in to be a heptathlete!
‘Still, she represented Great Britain, won European titles and has loads of international vests, yet in her era it was Denise Lewis, Kelly Sotherton and Jess Ennis.
‘I had coached from a young age, helping out at soccer schools from 14 and assisting my dad at grassroots level. I also did my Uefa B badge while at university.
‘When my playing days ended, I had a chance conversation about what I would do next. Nicky was talking to Concord about joining them as a player and, as we travelled in together from Chelmsford every day, I went with him after school one time.
‘They had just appointed Danny Scopes as their new player-manager and needed a coach. The chairman, Ant Smith, later phoned and asked if I wanted to get involved. That was the start of it.
‘That first season we won promotion, while I took on the title of joint-manager at the end of it. Eventually, I became sole manager in 2012.
‘I suppose my teaching background has helped. It aids your organisation and planning, your man-management skills, your understanding of people, and also the way you communicate. They are all key parts of the job.
‘I’ve managed in eight divisions, right to the way up to the Championship, and clubs don’t change. The main difference moving from part-time to full-time is that you get more time with the players.
‘We always felt at non-league level that we had only a small amount of time with the players each week and, as a consequence, you’re having to constantly prioritise what you can and can’t do.
‘You have to really strip it back and keep it basic as you don’t have the time on the grass, whereas here at Pompey you get the same time as Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United.
‘We might not have the same facilities on the whole, but we certainly have the same time to work with our players.’
Following three promotions and three cup triumphs in eight seasons, Cowley realised his ambition had reached a ceiling at Concord after the chairman informed him they couldn’t afford to be promoted to the National League due to necessary travelling costs.
In April 2015 he was appointed Braintree Town boss, replacing Alan Devonshire, he’s dad’s favourite West Ham player.
Braintree had finished 14th in the 2014-15 National League campaign before Cowley’s arrival – yet he would lead them into third spot, where they lost in the play-off semi-finals to Grimsby.
In May 2016 - following just a season in charge at Cressing Road – he took over at Lincoln City. The switch to a full-time club saw him quit teaching, earning a full wage with the Imps.
Now, five years later, he’s the latest manager seeking to return Pompey to the Championship.
‘Nobody’s stopping me from going where I want to go, that’s the truth,’ Cowley added.
‘I’ve always had drive, always had get up and go, I want to make something of my life. You get one life and I want to make the most of it. I want to be the best I can be.
‘I don't know where that can take me, I’ve managed in eight of the top nine divisions and I’m pretty determined to find a way of getting to that ninth.
‘I tell players to have ambitions, have dreams, have aspirations, but once you get there life doesn’t end. The great thing about success and winning is that, ultimately, it creates further opportunities to be successful.
‘I’m quite an emotional guy, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I love football and have learnt to be honest, this is how I feel, I am just going to say it.
‘If it doesn’t go quite as well as you’d like it to, that hurts, it’s painful. When it goes well, it’s the best job in the world.
‘It’s only work if you don’t enjoy it – and I love it. I don’t always love the industry, but I love the game. And always will.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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