Forever indebted to Huddersfield Town’s Cowley brothers for transforming ‘little old Lincoln’ - Chris Waters

WHEN Danny and Nicky Cowley joined Lincoln City as manager and assistant manager, respectively, in May, 2016 the club was on a life support machine.

In charge: Huddersfield Town management team of Nicky and Danny Cowley. Picture: Tony Johnson

By the time that they left last September, that club was jumping around the hospital ward, pinching other patients’ grapes and chatting to the nurses.

The transformation during this near three-and-a-half-year period was incredible to see.

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I should know because, as a supporter of Lincoln City, my home-town club, I saw it with my own eyes and can attest to what, in its own way, was a sporting miracle masterminded by the brothers now in charge at Huddersfield Town.

Winner: Lincoln City manager Danny Cowley celebrates with the League Two trophy at Sincil Bank.

To say that Lincoln had never been a hotbed of footballing activity prior to the Cowleys is an understatement.

We Lincolnians are proud of our Cathedral, our castle, our famous showground and our even more famous steep hill named, appropriately enough, ‘Steep Hill’ but we have little to show by way of sporting heritage.

Geographically, the city is a bit of a backwater; you do not really travel through Lincoln to get to anywhere else, while the countryside – though pleasant enough – is as flat as the atmosphere at a party without alcohol or music.

“Little old Lincoln,” was how John Beck, another former Lincoln City manager, used to call the club in his thick London drawl, a comment that was both unintendedly lowering and, of course, perfectly true.

Lincoln, in fact, had not tasted promotion when the Cowleys turned up since Beck himself masterminded their rise from the fourth tier to the third in 1997-98.

In 2011, the club had dropped into the Conference for a second time – they were the first to suffer that fate in 1986-87 – and the prospects of a return to the Football League looked bleaker than those for professional house burglars in lockdown Britain.

Lincoln had finished no higher than 13th in their five seasons in the Conference prior to the Cowleys, with not even the slightest hint that an upturn in fortunes was on the cards – let alone a return to the Football League.

The club, as stated at the outset, was on a life support machine, practially begging for someone to yank out the plug.

So, how did they do it?

How did a couple of PE teachers from FitzWimarc School in Essex go from managing the likes of Concord Rangers and Braintree Town to totally transforming Lincoln City and, in the process, make themselves such a powerful draw card for Championship Huddersfield?

Beyond the pre-requisites of footballing nous and man-management skills, attention to detail and extraordinary work ethic, the first thing I noticed when they came to Lincoln was that they wasted no time in harnessing the local community.

I remember hearing stories of how Graham Taylor, the former England manager, who began his own Football League managerial career at Sincil Bank, was brilliant at this in the 1970s. Taylor recognised that, without the community on board and fully engaged, you were basically operating with two hands tied behind your back, particularly at that level.

The Cowleys put themselves about, made time for the fans, seemed genuinely committed to the club and the city and were palpably dynamic in all they did.

They also spoke of how they wanted to see young children in the city wearing Lincoln City shirts as opposed to the colours of clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United.

The effect was powerful and, as success followed success, at startling speed, the ground became packed with children wearing not only Lincoln City shirts but, incredibly considering the club’s previous state, doing so with pride.

Where once you could literally turn up at Sincil Bank at 2.55 on a Saturday afternoon, and pretty much have an entire stand to yourself, it soon became almost impossible to get a ticket.

When Lincoln reached the FA Cup quarter-finals in the Cowleys’ first season, the first non-league side to do so since 1914, I was unable to get a ticket for the home games despite having been part of the old loyal core.

Crowds of about 2,000 suddenly metamorphosed into sell-out gates of 9,000-10,000, with around two-thirds of those season ticket-holders.

The brothers had charisma to go with their work ethic; Danny Cowley’s press conferences became unmissable affairs, a bit like those of the absurd American president Donald Trump at his nightly coronavirus taskforce briefings, which is where, of course, any comparison between the two men starts and ends.

Signings were astute, tactics imaginative. Lincoln became difficult to score against and, led by flying wingers and a never-say-die spirit, deadly going forward.

The Cowleys were young, talented and had something to prove – the perfect combination for any chairman/board.

The Holy Grail of a return to the Football League was soon followed by promotion to Division One, plus the club’s first Wembley appearance when they won the Checkatrade Trophy.

Incredibly, I have lived to see a Lincoln City open-top bus parade through teeming streets, once unimaginable, and the equally unthinkable opening of a dedicated Imps’ merchandise store in the city centre.

It had to end sometime, of course, and it was a sad day for us when Huddersfield eventually got their prey.

But there were no hard feelings from Lincoln fans – only gratitude.

You don’t repay – or forget – what the Cowleys did.

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