On Saturday, Premier League giants Arsenal will entertain Lincoln City, a team playing in the fifth tier of English football, in the ultimate David vs. Goliath FA Cup quarter-final battle. Sam Pilger goes in search of hope for the underdog team of the season and finds it in their highly rated manager.
"Sleep well. Be ready."
This was the simple text message Lincoln City boss Danny Cowley would send his players the night before every game during his highly successful spell as the manager of non-league team Concord Rangers.
"You would receive it on the Friday night, and it would immediately motivate you," his former Concord captain, Steve King, tells Bleacher Report. "It helped create a team spirit, where you wanted to play for Danny, you wanted to go out and run through brick walls for him."
Over the course of eight seasons on the Essex coast, Cowley transformed Concord from an unknown backwater outfit to a National League South team (the sixth tier of English football), as he led them to an unprecedented three promotions and three cup triumphs.
"You could always tell there was something special about Danny, and he was destined to go a long way, so it is no surprise to me to see him doing so well," King says. "He's very smart. He always had a plan."
This plan has taken the 38-year-old Cowley, accompanied by brother Nicky, who serves as his assistant, from being a P.E. teacher at a secondary school in Essex less than a year ago to one of the most talked-about and sought-after managers in England.
On Saturday, he will lead Lincoln City out at the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-finals. Unsurprisingly, it's the deepest FA Cup run in the club's 133-year history.
The task should be a daunting one for Cowley and his Lincoln players, but they are here after overcoming another Premier League side, Burnley, in the fifth round. That triumph made Lincoln the first non-league side to reach the last eight of the world's oldest cup competition for 103 years. What's more, they come up against an Arsenal team at the lowest of ebbs, having been demolished 5-1 (again) by Bayern Munich on Tuesday and with speculation mounting over the future of long-serving manager Arsene Wenger.
The FA Cup's appeal has endured for nearly 150 years precisely because it retains this unique ability to bring together two such clubs who normally inhabit two wildly different worlds.
A mammoth 88 places separate Arsenal, who are fifth in the Premier League, and Lincoln, who sit on top of the National League.
Arsenal are one of England's most successful clubs, winners of 13 league titles and a joint-record 12 FA Cups, while Lincoln have never come close to winning either. The Imps hold the unwanted record of spending the most seasons (104) in the Football League without reaching the top division.
While Arsenal regularly play in front of capacity crowds at their gleaming north London home, Lincoln draw average crowds of just over 4,000 to Sincil Bank.
When they face each other on Saturday, Arsenal will be able to select from a squad valued at £418 million, boasting world-famous superstars like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil—the latter is one of three World Cup winners in Wenger's pool, with the others being Per Mertesacker and Shkodran Mustafi.
In contrast, Lincoln's players are almost all unknowns. Most have spent their careers lurking around in the depths of the non-league scene. They are collectively valued at a modest £850,000.
Arsenal's 2015-16 wage bill was estimated to be £192 million, while Lincoln's was a relatively mere £500,000. Ozil, who earns a reported £140,000 each week, takes home more in a month than the entire Lincoln squad does in a year.
When you survey the cold statistics and the enormous gulf between the clubs, this tie should be mission impossible for Lincoln, a nice romantic story before Arsenal demolish the plucky upstarts. But something is stirring in Lincoln, whose rise this season has been mirrored by the remarkable ascent of Cowley, who is just nine months into being a full-time manager.
This time last year, Cowley was managing non-league Braintree Town while spending his weekdays as a P.E. teacher, marshaling children around a school playing field.
Cowley's playing career ended because of injury in 2007 after non-league spells at clubs including Romford, AFC Hornchurch and Brentwood. He was given his first break as a coach that same year at Concord Rangers, who were then playing in front of 50 people in the Essex Senior League.
"Danny immediately impressed me, so I was more than happy to give him his start," Concord chairman Antony Smith tells Bleacher Report. "He was absolutely obsessed with the game, and we used to spend hours on the phone after every game discussing it and looking for ways to make the team better. He spends every waking hour thinking about football. He constantly craves any information about football.
"'Every one per cent is one per cent more,' is something Danny always said, as he always wanted to find a ways of squeezing everything from his players."
For the first five years, Cowley co-managed Concord alongside Danny Scopes, who recalls an unusually driven and committed character.
"This was non-league, but Danny never treated it like that, and his attention to detail was amazing," Scopes tells Bleacher Report. "He wanted the balls pumped to a certain level, and the water had to be the right temperature in the bottles. He was on top of everything to give his players the best chance."
One of these players, King, recalls receiving a training pack in the post during pre-season. "I couldn't believe it, normally in non-league you turn up for the first day of training and get on with it, but Danny never rested or settled for that, so he sent me and all the players a schedule of what I should be doing in the summer: when to go on a bike ride, when to do a core session, what I should be eating."
This attention to detail helped lift Concord through the divisions and collect six pieces of silverware in just eight years. "Danny completely changed this club, from 50 people watching us we then had over 300, which is a big difference in non-league," Smith says. "The ground has changed, and we have invested back in to the club.
"He was like a whirlwind for us, but I always had a sense he would outgrow the club. I knew the day would come when he said he wanted to move on. He was always incredibly ambitious."
This day came in the summer of 2015, when he was offered the manager's position at Braintree Town in the National League.
Braintree represented a step up in the game, but they were still a non-league club who had never come remotely close to reaching the Football League. That was until Cowley arrived.
Braintree only had a modest squad, and their Cressing Road ground has the third-smallest average attendance (749) in the National League, but Cowley didn't let that stop him from leading them to the highest league finish in their 118-year history.
Braintree finished third in the table, outperforming wealthier rivals before narrowly losing 2-1 to Grimsby over two legs in the play-off semi-finals. For his efforts, Cowley won the non-league manager of the year award.
Last season, Cowley was still juggling managing Braintree with being a full-time teacher, which meant exhausting 20-hour days. After winning a crucial game against Altrincham last season, he had to be up at 4 a.m. the next morning to take a group of excited school children to a national gymnastics finals in Stoke.
While Cowley loved teaching, he had always longed for the opportunity to leave and become a full-time manager. That finally happened when Lincoln City appointed him last summer.
"For so long, Danny had to balance teaching and being a manager, so I always knew when he could devote himself completely to football, we would see something amazing," Scopes says. "That has happened this season because he can give it everything now. He told me, 'I know I can build something at Lincoln with their potential.'"
On his arrival, Cowley felt Lincoln were still a club in mourning after their relegation from the Football League in 2011. They had lurked around the bottom half of the National League table for the previous five seasons.
As he had at Concord and Braintree, accompanied by brother Nicky, Cowley imposed his methods on the Lincoln squad and quickly achieved results.
Lincoln are top of the National League and are on course for a spot in League Two next season, having lost only twice since Oct. 1.
Cowley has always had a desire to be in control, to be ahead of events, to know exactly what is going to happen next. To this end, he has always been obsessed with studying football data. At Concord and Braintree, he would ask a helpful fan to sit in the stands and count passes, free-kicks and shots at goal, and he finally has the resources to indulge his obsession to a deeper level.
At Lincoln, Cowley uses two data analysts, Toby Ellis and Matt Page, who compile detailed statistics and feed them back to him.
"Using numbers...it's a self-check, isn't it?" Cowley told the Daily Mail. He continued:
It's about making sure you're staying focused because in a game you can get emotional. This is about making sure you are still able to see the game as it's happening. I just want football to be a science.
I want it black and white, I want to know how to win because I like winning and it makes life better. I don't want it to be an art because art's uncontrollable. I want it to be a science but I want to be able to control it.
Lincoln chairman Bob Dorrian, who in January extended his manager's contract until 2021, told Lincolnshire Live: "We thought we were in for a good season, but this has been beyond our wildest dreams."
Lincoln's run in the FA Cup has fuelled these dreams more than anything. Starting in the fourth qualifying round, three months before Arsenal entered the competition, Lincoln overcame Guiseley, Altrincham, Oldham, Ipswich Town and Brighton & Hove Albion before causing one of the greatest shocks in FA Cup history by beating Premier League Burnley 1-0 at Turf Moor.
That win reverberated around the world. For the first time, the club appeared on the news ticker in Times Square in New York, as it announced "Lincoln shock EPL Burnley."
This run has already earned the club over £1 million through shared gate receipts, crucial funds for a club that, two years ago, had to settle a sizeable debt and were at risk of having to go part-time.
But here's the thing: Those who know Cowley don't see the money, the publicity and that historic win over Burnley as Lincoln's happy ending. He isn't finished yet, and he will firmly believe that he can take his side to the Emirates and beat Arsenal.
"Danny isn't interested in a day out; he is going to the Emirates to win," Scopes says. "He will have a plan. He will think they can beat them. Those Lincoln players will be fully briefed on how to win.
"I can remember people being dismissive and saying, 'Lincoln will never beat Burnley,' and I said, 'I know how Danny works. I wouldn't rule it out. Watch this space.' I was proved right. Believe it or not, they do have a chance against Arsenal."
Scopes, who managed and played under Cowley for five years, recognises that Lincoln play in a similar way to Concord.
"Danny will break the game down in to six sections of 15 minutes and give the players targets to reach and hope they can get through," Scopes notes. "No use telling them to hang on to Arsenal for 90 minutes. He is excellent at game management and will know when to press and when not and when the goalie should take his time. He will set them up to stop Arsenal. He will play a high line and keep the ball upfield.
"Burnley was a big result for Dan; he proved he could beat a Premier League team. He will believe he can win. He really is a special one."
The absence of a stellar professional playing career has not hindered the likes of Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas or even Saturday's opposite number, Wenger, and Cowley could still rise a lot further in the English game.
"Danny could get to the Championship with Lincoln," Smith says. "They are a sleeping giant. That is his way into the higher leagues, to take Lincoln with him. And after that, maybe he can reach the Premier League. Why not? So much has happened so quickly."
But before he can contemplate that, Cowley has to face Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-finals in front of what could be a packed crowd at the Emirates and a TV audience of millions.
"On Friday night, when they are in their hotel in London, I know Danny will send that same text to the Lincoln boys that he used to send to us," King says. "'Sleep well. Be ready.' And they will then be bursting to go out there and do it for him the next day against Arsenal."
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Sam Pilger is a contributing football writer at Bleacher Report.