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The two brothers who guided Lincoln City from Non-League stagnation to ‘glory days’

Football's Front Lines: "Gates have tripled from 3,000 to 9,000 since they've come and it's such a positive thing"

The Nevilles, the Charltons, the Toures… football’s rich history of brothers is no secret.

But for Lincoln City fans, one pair of siblings stands above all: Danny and Nicky Cowley.

The brothers – now 40 and 35 respectively – took over as manager and assistant in 2016 with the Imps drifting along aimlessly in the National League.

Fast-forward almost three years and they are celebrating promotion to League One.

But that’s only half the story.

Menacing imp and all

Menacing imp and all

Two seasons ago Lincoln reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup; the first Non-League club to make the last eight of the competition in 103 years.

Last season, they won the Chekatrade Trophy, enjoying a well deserved day out at Wembley.

The Cowley brothers’ impact on Lincoln has, quite frankly, been Roy of the Rovers stuff.

“From the moment they walked through the door, the football club on and off the pitch has changed,” Alan Long told me, prior to the Imps’ promotion-clincher against Cheltenham on Saturday.

For many years, Alan has doubled up as the club’s Supporter Liaison Officer and match day PA announcer — he’s a popular face at Sincil Bank.

“You’ll see it here today; we’re going to have nearly 10,000 people in the stadium. The day they [Danny and Nicky] came we were averaging about 2,500.”

A special day

A special day

When the Cowleys, both former Non-League footballers and PE teachers turned hot-property managers, arrived, Lincoln were going nowhere in the National League.

Four years of stagnation in Non-League followed 13 years in League Two and morale was low.

“The best we’d done in the Vanarama National was 14th, “ Alan explained. “Never really threatening to get out. And then suddenly, not only did we win the National League, we had a cup run finishing at Arsenal in the quarter-final.

“We got to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy and the following season we won the Chekatrade Trophy and got to the playoff semi-finals. Now here we are on the brink of promotion to League One.”

Fans of other clubs may shrug their shoulders at promotion from League Two but it means a lot in Lincolnshire.

It’s been 20 years since Lincoln were a third tier club (back when it was called Division two) and that was their only season there since 1961 — these really are the club’s glory days.

And those invested in the club are unified in their praise for the Cowley brothers.

Brothers in arms

Brothers in arms

“They’ve galvanised the whole city,” lifelong fan Richard Hardick told me outside the ground. “gates have tripled from 3,000 to 9,000 since they’ve come and it’s such a positive thing.”

Richard was joined by friends John Anderson and Martin Skayman — between them, they’ve watched Lincoln for a total of 130 years.

“Everyone is just talking football,” John told me. “There’s people who haven’t been to games for 50 odd years who stop in and and talk about it in town.

“They’re too old to come down now, but they’re still listening on the radio on a Saturday.”

Loyal fans

Loyal fans

With three points required to secure promotion, there was a party atmosphere around the ground prior to kick-off with a live band enabling fans to dance in the cold sunshine.

However, I couldn’t help but notice the horrifying appearance of the imp on the club badge.

“It is for the opposition!” John laughed, while Alan explained it is based on an imp at the city’s beautiful cathedral that, according to legend, was a creature sent to the holy building by the devil only to be turned into stone by an angel.

“He wasn’t exactly a friendly short of cherub shall we say,” Andy said. “So it’s not the most friendly thing in the world but it’s our imp so that’s all that really matters.”

Ready for League One

Ready for League One

On the field, the Imps secured promotion to League One, despite managing only a draw against Cheltenham, as Mansfield and MK Dons also dropped points.

Alan, on PA duty now, let a young fan read the teams out over the tannoy and it struck me just how many kids were present and how much of a fun, family feel there was at the ground.

A chorus of “We’re on our way” from noisy fans in the corner of the Lincolnshire Co-op stand provided some charm while and an air raid siren was universally ignored just before half time.

Because of the reliance of other results, the moment of glory unfolded slowly.

Fans shook hands and wished each other well for another week as about a third filed out of the stadium in an orderly fashion.

Eventually, somebody figures out Mansfield and MK Dons have to play each other before the end of the season and so they can’t both make up the 12 point deficit — Lincoln are up!

Alan had the pleasure of announcing it officially and there were rapturous celebrations among those who sensibly remained.

Emotional scenes

Emotional scenes

“The city itself has really taken to heart what we’ve been trying to do here,” Alan said after making the announcement.

“And Dan and Nick are obviously very much pivotal in that. The players as well, and you’ve seen what it means to the city of Lincoln.

“I don’t know if you’re staying over tonight but it might be a good night to go into town. I might have a shandy!”

Homegrown midfielder Lee Frecklington came close to promotion to the third tier during his first spell at the club from 2003 to 2009.

He returned last summer and has now achieved it, although he admitted those on the pitch had no clue what was happening on Saturday.

“We had no idea, we didn’t know the other scores,” he said as we chatted in the middle of the pitch.

“We knew if we’d have won we were up. We weren’t sure whether the draw was enough but thankfully we’ve done it. It means everything.”

On the up

On the up

Thoughts now turn to next season in the hopes this fantastic Cowley-led roller coaster continues.

“Obviously it’s going to be tough next year,” Alan concluded. “I know Dan and Nick will work their magic and I fully expect us to be competitive at that level and who knows.”

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s not to underestimate Lincoln or the Cowleys.