To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, the EFL and its official charity partner, Mind, have teamed up to speak to each of their 10 ‘On Your Side Champions’ about their experience of mental health.
In a fascinating interview, former PE teacher and now Huddersfield Town boss Danny Cowley is joined by Sky Sports’ Scott Minto to discuss his rise up the footballing ladder, his will to succeed and always staying positive.
“Ultimately, I believe we can be anything we want to be. We are in control of our own destiny, you’ve always got to believe.”
The ambitious words of a man who spent 15 years as a teacher and, having started his managerial career in the ninth tier of English football is now setting his sights on the Premier League one day.
In what can be described as a ‘fairy-tale’ career so far, Danny Cowley’s journey from PE teacher to football manager is not exactly what you’d call conventional when comparing him to others of his kind.
So how did a man who was once managing in the Essex Senior Football League get to the Sky Bet Championship?
Ever the optimist, Cowley replies: “Every day I wake up and try to be the very best that I can be. By doing that and making sure that you never give up, you’re going to be pretty hard to stop.”
In a previous life, Cowley spent 15 years as a teacher, before taking on manager roles at non-league sides Concord Rangers, Braintree Town and Lincoln City, the latter a club that he took on a remarkable journey.
Alongside brother Nicky, Cowley built something special at Lincoln, and it was their debut season at Sincil Bank that catapulted them into the spotlight.
The League Two title in 2019 was the icing on the cake in a story that began when Lincoln charmed the nation en route to becoming the first non-league club to reach the FA Cup Quarter-Final for more than 100 years.
Having defeated Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley, Arsenal at the Emirates proved a step too far for the Imps, but it was just the beginning as the 2016/17 National League title soon followed, resulting in a return to the EFL after a five-year absence.
In his second season, the Imps reached the League Two Play-Offs before losing out to Exeter City in the Semi-Finals, as well as enjoying one of the most memorable days in the club’s history with EFL Trophy success at Wembley Stadium.
Having been top of the table since September, the 2018/19 campaign ended with Cowley lifting the League Two trophy, meaning Lincoln were back in Sky Bet League One for the first time in two decades.
“The great thing about success is that it creates opportunity,” Cowley says reflecting on his journey.
And he’s absolutely right. In September 2019, Huddersfield Town came calling, presenting Danny and Nicky Cowley with the “perfect opportunity” to continue their fairy-tale journey, this time in the Sky Bet Championship.
There are three things that Cowley says have taken him from the classroom to the second tier of English football and put him on the path to the top. First, an exceptional work ethic. Second, the will to learn. Third, and most importantly, a positive mindset.
“I’ve always been one to work exceptionally hard,” he says. “I know I’m lucky to be in a profession that I love so it depends what your perception of hard work is, but I believe I’ve got to where I am at the moment through relentless hard work.
“I spent 30 of my first 35 years in the education system in some form, either as a pupil or a teacher or a coach, and one thing it taught me more than anything is to always keep learning.
“From the life that I’ve lived, I’m naturally interested in learning. Everyone teaches something, but not everyone teaches how to learn and as someone who loves learning, I like to teach it as well.”
It’s been well documented that Danny Cowley’s philosophy as a manager is based on non-negotiable core principles. Hard work, enthusiasm, humility and discipline are all values that he demands of his players, and part of his philosophy, he explains, is to empower the players to make the right decisions within that framework.
“I like to teach my players to be independent thinkers and independent learners,” he reveals.
“Because ultimately, when you step over that white line in a football game you’re making hundreds of decisions yourself. Make your players good learners, good problem solvers and good decision makers and it’ll go a long way in helping the team.”
Being a former teacher, it is also in Cowley’s nature to help people, another invaluable quality when it comes to modern-day management in football.
“My natural instinct is to help people,” he continues. “I’ve always tried to provide the best environment I possibly can for people to come into.
“Ultimately, I enjoy making players better, whether that’s as footballers or just as people. The ambition is to try and do both, but I think it’s really important to create the opportunity and experiences for people to be able to improve.”
“I say to my players all the time that I don’t have all the answers, I wish I did, but I care and I always want to help so if they have any problems – personal or football related – they can speak to me. I’ll always encourage that.
“I try not to actually coach the players until I’ve built a relationship with them, because the better understanding you can have of your players, the more you’ll be able to support them with whatever may come their way in the future.”
There’s no denying that Cowley is where he is through sheer hard work and determination. Running a non-league team alongside a day job all those years ago required an incredible work ethic, and such dedication often comes at a cost.
At a time when mental health is more important than ever before, how do you manage the demands of such a job whilst staying positive at the same time?
“Looking after your mental health is more important than anything, as far as I’m concerned,” he admits.
“The biggest challenge for me has always been the work-life balance. When I was teaching, I was also manager of Concord Rangers at the time. I remember going into school every morning and walking up the exact same steps. As soon as I got to the top of those steps, whatever was happening in my football world I would put in a box and my only thought would be teaching.
“At the end of the day I would walk back down the same steps and close that teaching box when I got to the bottom and focus on football or home life. It sounds funny, but it allowed me to manage the demands of my life at the time.
“I remember my dad telling me when I was young to think about all the important things in my life,” he recalls.
“Going back a few years, at the time the important things in my life were being a teacher, my family and football. He told me it was like trying to keep a number of balls up in the air at the same time. Very rarely do all aspects of a person’s life go well at any one time, and he told me that if one thing goes badly and you let it affect the other things, you’ll end up dropping all the balls. That’s an analogy that has always really helped me and taught me to compartmentalise. It’s something I still do today and would recommend to people.
“Very rarely does everything in life go well at the same time and it’s important to remember that.
“I always encourage people to have a positive outlook on life. You only get one, and you have to make the most of it. I know for sure that my life is better because I try to see the good things.
Cowley’s mindset is something to admire.
An EFL and Mind ‘On Your Side’ Champion, the Huddersfield Town manager believes football has played a huge part in raising awareness around mental health, especially since the introduction of the EFL’s partnership with Mind, stating the importance of simply being able to talk.
“Just having the Mind Charity logo on all the kids is magnificent,” he says. “It raises awareness everytime someone puts the shirt on.
“I think we’ve come a long way in recent years, especially in raising awareness. Allowing people to talk and giving them that opportunity is so important. It’s not a sign of weakness and I think this partnership is educating people on that.
“It affects absolutely everybody,” he continues. “For me, the minute you open up to someone about your mental health, or tell someone that you’re struggling, that portrays confidence and shows strength in a person.
“The great thing about football more than the actual game itself, is the sense of belonging that it creates. We all have a shared passion and a shared love, it’s a family.”
Having formerly been a teacher, Cowley has admitted to using timetables to structure his day, each morning outlining what he wants to achieve, setting goals along the way.
“Once you know what you want the outcome of each day to be, the stepping-stones in between become a lot clearer,” he reveals. “Structure is so important to me.”
But his most important piece of advice? “Be kind,” he concludes. “Be kind and care about people. If you can do that for other human beings, they will naturally reciprocate and it’s amazing what you will get back sometimes.”
The full video with Danny Cowley will be made available to watch on the EFL’s official YouTube channel, here.
For more information about Mind and mental health work, click here.