The Portsmouth manager opens up on his football journey, taking opportunities and the secret to management.
In a fascinating interview with Mark Clemmit on the Official EFL Podcast, former PE teacher and now Portsmouth manager Danny Cowley discusses his incredible rise up the footballing ladder, his will to succeed and the secret to being a good manager.
“I always think of players as my children. They’re always in the forefront of my mind and I always want to help them in any way possible, on and off the pitch.”
The words of a man whose natural instinct is to help people, an invaluable quality when it comes to modern-day management in football.
After spending 15 years as a teacher and, having started his managerial career in the ninth tier of English football, the 43-year-old has very much learnt on the job. And in what can only be described as a fairy-tale career so far, 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.
“It’s certainly been a different journey,” he tells the Official EFL Podcast. “It’s been unique for myself and my brother Nicky, but it’s also one neither of us would change for the world because it’s got us where we are today.”
So how did a man who was once managing in the Essex Senior Football League get to the EFL?
“Every day I try to be the very best I can be,” he adds. “We’ve learnt loads along the way and we’re still learning now, we always are.”
The 2022/23 season is Cowley’s 15th in management and his unique journey has seen him manage in eight of the top nine divisions in the English pyramid, but a previous life saw him spend 15 years as a teacher, before taking on managerial roles at non-league sides Concord Rangers, Braintree Town and, at the time, Lincoln City, who 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.
The following season, 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.
In September 2019, Huddersfield Town came calling, presenting Danny and Nicky Cowley with what they described at the time as the “perfect opportunity” to continue their fairy-tale journey, this time in the Sky Bet Championship.
In March 2021, the pair moved to Portsmouth as they look to guide the League One club back to the Sky Bet Championship having narrowly missed out in recent years.
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, but his philosophy and core values have never wavered.
It’s well documented that hard work, enthusiasm, humility and discipline are all values that he demands of his players, but most importantly, it’s in his nature to both help and understand people.
“I believe coaching and management is very much about your connection with people. For me, it’s so important as a manager to understand a person, understand what each person needs from you and recognise that everyone is different.
“Some players need to be pushed, some need support but all players need the care. And if you can show players how much you care before you show them how much you know then it’s a great start to a relationship.”
And hearing him talk about his former players, that much is clear.
“I always have unbelievable respect for non-league players,” he adds. “The way they have to work all day and then come to training and travel the country in their spare time. I always follow non-league players who then make it into the League, I follow that with real enthusiasm and energy.
“When I managed in non-league I always wanted to develop my players to make it into the EFL and now I’m managing in the EFL, I want to develop my players to play in the Premier League.”
Lewis O’Brien and Harry Toffolo are among those previously on Cowley’s roster who have recently made their Premier League debuts with newly-promoted Nottingham Forest. O’Brien was given his Championship debut by Cowley during his time at Huddersfield, while Toffolo first played for Cowley at Lincoln City in League One.
“I’m so pleased for both of them and I’m hoping Lyle Taylor who’s also at Forest will get his Premier League debut at some point. He started with us as a 17-year-old at Concord Rangers.”
Second in Sky Bet League One only on goal difference and currently unbeaten, Portsmouth are currently enjoying one of their best starts to a league campaign. With Cowley’s new-look squad, they are the division’s top scorers and early favourites for promotion.
“We know it’s very early days,” Cowley says. “But we know that we’re also in a very good position. We worked hard in the transfer window, we’ve tried to accelerate the process of bringing the players together on and off the pitch and build relationships because for me, that’s really important.
“We also understand that we’re still a million miles away from where we want to be, but having a start like we have develops the believe among the squad that we’ve got something good and it give us a good start and a foundation to build on this season.”
Cowley was quick to praise the Pompey fan base - saying he and his side feel “privileged” to be able to play there each week. Fratton Park and having won 13 of the last 15 games played at Fratton Park, it’s easy to see why he enjoys
“Everything we do is always for the supporters and at every club you’re at, it’s always the supporters that define the club and here at Portsmouth the fans are so special. Everyone who’s played there will tell you that.
“The difference with fans at this level is that they’re not just spectators, they genuinely have such an influence and impact on the game and they know they can make a difference. At Fratton Park we never feel like it’s 11 v 11, the fans really are the extra man.”
Very much a modern-day manager, Cowley also identified communication as a key element to success in the dugout.
“Someone in my position is always trying to communicate with different people at the club and for me, the fans are a part of that.
“We want to be able to give clarity to supporters about the way that we work and what we’re trying to do, as a manager I think that’s really important. If we’re able to convey to them what we’re trying to do, supporters have a better understanding and are therefore much more likely to have more patience with what you’re trying to achieve. So for me, communication is a hugely important part of this job.”