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If you think Claudio Ranieri has had it hard this season, overcoming enormous odds to guide a lowly band of unfancied, supposed no-hopers to the top of their division, then spare a thought for Braintree Town manager Danny Cowley.
You’d think having to mastermind a way to challenge and beat clubs with significantly larger fanbases and budgets would be tricky enough – not to mention time-consuming. But Cowley has had to do it all whilst simultaneously juggling a full-time job as a PE teacher at FitzWimarc school in Rayleigh.
“Tomorrow morning we’re up at 4am. We’re leaving at four in the morning because the kids at school have got through to the national gymnastics finals,” Cowley tells Just Football after seeing his team beat Altrincham 3-0 in the final game of the National League season. “So yeah it’ll be an early start; we’ve got to be in Stoke at 7.45am!”
A formidable schedule, but not one non-league’s answer to Ranieri has shied away from.
If anything, he’s thrived. On Saturday, in this secluded, sleepy corner of Essex known for being the birthplace of music group The Prodigy and not much else, Braintree Town beat Altrincham in front of the BT Sport cameras to secure the highest ever finish in the club’s history: 3rd in the National League, above the likes of Wrexham, Tranmere Rovers, Grimsby Town and others.
In front of a 1,803-strong crowd of orange and blue clad supporters, The Iron, as they’re known, secured their playoff place with a comfortable win, relegating Altrincham in the process. Braintree will now challenge for their spot in a Wembley final and, potentially, a place in the Football League for the first time.
— Just Football (@JustFootball) April 30, 2016
For a club that has spent most of its 118-year history dozing around in the lower reaches of non-league Essex regional football, this would be some feat.
Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, Braintree Town’s season has already been a fairytale.
When Cowley took the job a year ago, the aim was to reach the 50-point watermark as quickly as possible to avoid relegation. To finish third was not on the agenda – particularly after Braintree lost their opening two games.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Cowley tells Just Football as we grab the town’s most popular man for a chat outside the clubhouse, where the beer is flowing and the atmosphere flits schizophrenically between pure ecstasy and disbelief.
We’re just honest hard-working boys and for some of us it might be the pinnacle. If it is then I’ll die a happy man.” – Danny Cowley
“It’s been beyond our wildest dreams, I have to say that. First, to finish third in this division is an unbelievable achievement. Monumental. It’s always pleasing when you see a group of people that work hard get the success that they deserve. We’re just honest hard-working boys and for some of us it might be the pinnacle. If it is then I’ll die a happy man.”
Speaking to Cowley, you don’t get the impression this will be his zenith. Success is no stranger to the tracksuited young gaffer, whose younger brother Nicky is also part of the management team.
Cowley has established a reputation as one of the brightest young managers in non-league football after guiding Concord Rangers to three promotions in eight years in charge of The Beachboys, taking them from the Essex Senior League to the Conference South. Guiding Braintree to the playoffs is another string to the 37-year-old’s bow, drawing comparisons with Premier League table-toppers Leicester City.
“It’s kind of people to make the comparison,” says Cowley with a chuckle. “We’ve taken massive hope from Leicester, I think they give all of football hope. In a football world which is governed by finance it’s nice when the smaller clubs get some success because normally it’s only the rich that get the success. So it’s been great to fight that contradiction. I’m really proud to do so.”
While Braintree haven’t quite gone as far as Leicester in topping their league, reaching the playoffs is remarkable in itself. This is, after all, a part-time football club in a full-time league.
“We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Football League, we’re on our way, how we’ll do it I don’t know, how we’ll do it I don’t care, all I know is we are on our way.” 🎵🎼🎶⚽ Braintree Town fans in full voice supporting their local team. #groundhopping #nonleaguefootball #nofilter #onourway #theiron #singsong #braintree
Braintree Town’s Cressing Road stadium hosts the third smallest capacity in the National League – a quarter of the size of Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park ground and dwarved by the likes of Halifax Town and Lincoln City.
In the 1970s, while Tranmere were beating Arsenal in the League Cup, with former Liverpool legend Bill Shankly at the club in a consultancy role, Braintree were toiling away in the regional Magnet and Planet League in front of an average home attendance of 50. Different worlds colliding, but Braintree, founded in 1898 as the works team of the Crittall Window Company, have emerged on top.
So what’s the secret, I ask Cowley, as a well-oiled supporter making his way out of the stadium bundles past and interjects to congratulate his manager. “Danny, top man!” he exclaims.
“I think hard work,” says Cowley, refocusing after gracefully accepting the plaudits. “I think hard work is the foundation to all success. I’ve got a good group of people around me. The management, Nicky’s been fantastic throughout – I can’t emphasise how important he is to this process. Glen Johnson our goalkeeping coach.”
“I just think we’ve got a lot of people willing to go the extra yard, and at this type of club it’s all hands on deck. You know, we’re a small club we’ve got a small support base and a small support structure in terms of the number of volunteers we’ve got at the club. So it’s all hands on deck.
In a football world which is governed by finance it’s nice when the smaller clubs get some success.”
“We’ve got a really good group and that’s allowed us to provide a really professional environment for the players. But I have to say, it’s the players. The players have been unbelievable. Unbelievable.
“We’ve increased the demand, constantly asked more of them, been relentless with them really, but never have they moaned. They’ve always accepted it, they’ve always got on with it, always put the group before themselves and they’re an absolute pleasure to work with.”
While the manager saves his praise for the players, the supporters are in no doubt who the main man is.
“Words can’t express what Danny has done for this club,” says Gordon Shrimpton, a 68-year-old season ticket holder who retired in time to enjoy the finest season Braintree Town supporters have ever witnessed.
“There was a good foundation from Alan Devonshire, the previous manager. But the extra that Danny has brought to this club is just fantastic. You know, the expectancy. As I say, words can’t express what he’s done.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a dream come true. I’ve had a season ticket since retiring and what the team have achieved this season, it’s just brilliant. Wembley, bring it on!” Satisfied 68-year-old Braintree Town FC regular Gordon Shrimpton watches on as Braintree fans invade the pitch after a 3-0 win over Altrincham secures them the highest league finish in their 118 year history. Braintree end the season in 3rd and will play Grimsby for a place at Wembley and a potential promotion to the Football League for the first time ever. Braintree Town 3-0 Altrincham (Cheek x 2, Bundle) 30.4.2016 #nonleaguefootball #braintree #nonleague #braintreetown #essex #football #braintreetownfc #onourway #theiron #pitchinvasion #groundhopping #watchoutcolchester #justfootball
A photo posted by Jonathan F (@jffutbol) on
Shrimpton pours a drink into the cap of his flask at the back of the stand, watching on as the players perform a lap of honour to raucous cheers. “To the Football League, we’re on our way!” the fans sing both rhythmically and with no little passion.
Next stop: Wembley?
For Cowley, thoughts turn now to the playoffs, and a two-legged encounter against Grimsby Town for a place at Wembley – something that’s bound to occupy his thoughts while back at the day job. Is it hard to switch off from football?
“Oh football takes up a lot of your thought space, there’s no doubt about that! There’s no doubt about that whatsoever. My wife often tells me how much of my thought space it takes up.”
Cowley is said to have watched DVDs of every single game Braintree Town played in last season before taking over. Where he finds the time is a conundrum even Countdown would struggle with.
The fairytale end for Braintree and Cowley would, of course, be Wembley and a place in League Two. The part-timers could even face a league game with Essex rivals Colchester United next season if promoted – an unthinkable prospect for both clubs not long ago but one that’s now just a few games from becoming reality.
— Just Football (@JustFootball) April 30, 2016
Indeed, Cowley’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in the Football League, and recent rumours have linked him the vacant Colchester post. Cowley, however, shrugs this off.
“For us all our focus is on Braintree Town, and trying to achieve success here and now. We’ve worked incredibly hard in this journey and we won’t let speculation turn our heads now. All of our focus, all of our energy is on this team.
“I owe that to the board of directors, who took a leap of faith when they appointed me, because we’d never managed at this level. I owe it to the supporters who have supported the team fantastically throughout the year.
“And most of all I owe it the players, because the players have been unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. So I owe it to them to make sure that we’re fully focused and we make sure that we give this the very best we can.
“It’s been a dream, the whole season’s been a dream. Unfortunately I haven’t got that far in the dream. I haven’t thought beyond this last game. Not once. At some stage I will do but for the moment I’m going to enjoy tonight. Braintree Town – 3rd in the National League. Unbelievable.”