IT’S early morning at Portsmouth’s training ground and Danny and Nicky Cowley are moving 11 bottles of water and coasters around a table.
The brothers are working through tactical scenarios as they prepare for the end-of-season run-in.
“It’s called football chess,” laughs boss Danny, as he shows a potential Pompey attack and Nicky responds with how opponents are likely to counter it.
Before you know it, they are playing out a full-blown match in front of my eyes. If only football was that easy.
But the boys have only been on the south coast for just over three weeks since replacing sacked Kenny Jackett and have won four out of their first five games.
And a promotion bid that looked washed up on the rocks of Portsmouth beach has now caught a fresh wave.
When they took over, Pompey had slumped to 10th but now they are up to fifth.
It is ironic we are meeting the morning after their previous club Huddersfield – who they saved from certain relegation last season from the Championship before being rewarded with the sack – were stuffed 7-0 at Norwich.
But Danny said: “You never like to see a club where you’ve worked and made good friends and relationships in difficulty.
“But rather than talking about Huddersfield’s deficiencies, we should focus on Norwich as a perfect model of how to run a club.
“They got promoted, had a tough season in the Premier League but stuck with Daniel Farke after relegation and sporting director Stuart Webber did a brilliant job protecting him in the summer.
“Their recruitment was significantly the best in the division.
“It shows if you stay with your manager and believe in his methods and ways, it can be powerful. You see Norwich playing now with a deeper understanding of their game idea and when you have that you’re more able to find consistency and high-level performances.
“They’ll be in a much better position than they were last time they went up. They’ve grown and developed – and their game idea has matured.”
Huddersfield became the first-ever club to beat Championship relegation after only picking up one point from their first nine league games – with the brothers recruited seven games in.
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And Danny said: “That team had won just once in 38 matches and we got sacked on the back of beating West Brom in the penultimate game to keep the club up.
“Had we been given the chance to manage the last match against Millwall and won, we’d have had the sixth best record in the Championship during the period we were there – good enough to be in the play-offs.”
But after 13 years working non-stop and achieving success everywhere – at Concord Rangers, Braintree, Lincoln and Huddersfield – the boys had an eight-month break from management.
In that time, though, they never stopped working.
On top of TV and radio work, they wiled away the weeks and months reflecting and looking at football outside the prism of a club.
Danny said: “If you’re a manager or coach, you almost become a servant to the club and your full focus every day is to help the players get better.
“You forget sometimes self-care, to make yourself better. If you make yourself better, you can make others better too.
“For the first time in our adult lives, we’ve been able to put ourselves first.”
Their family homes are next door to each other in Lincoln so they would meet each other 7am most days and work into the evening.
And Nicky said: “When you’re in the frontline, you get immersed in the division you’re working in but during this time we’ve been able to study not just football at the top level here and abroad but other sports too.
“Our ideas are not just how to coach a football team but to lead the staff as well and create a positive environment.”
They have both been doing their pro licence where they have been able to share ideas with other coaches as well as enjoy their media work.
Danny said: “Ultimately, working in the media is about communication and in coaching communicating your message to players is the key.
“I was definitely out of my comfort zone when doing Soccer AM with Jimmy Bullard because he’s so crackers you never know what’s happening next.”
One of the interesting things the Cowleys did was study how the game has evolved over the past 10 years and predict its path in the next decade.
Danny said: “VAR has had a huge impact. Now, all of a sudden, you look at someone like Jose Mourinho, who has been successful sitting deep, absorbing and counter attacking. That can be seen as less effective now because of the amount of penalties being awarded.
“The suggestion is you might have to defend higher up the pitch rather than defend your box.
“Fans are the custodians of the game and they want to see fast, attacking, high-scoring football so we think they’ll take the throw-in out for starters because it slows the game down. They’ll make it a pass-in.”
I point out that Fifa already trialled the kick-in in the Isthmian League in 1994-95, which effectively became a free-kick as teams launched long balls up field or into the opposition box.
Danny said: “Oh god, yes – and I remember the sidelines became boggy and unplayable because that was not only where the assistant ran the line but where players were launching their kicks. They’ll come up with a rule where you’ve got to tap it in.
“I remember when they stopped keepers picking up back-passes and then of course the change to the goal-kick rule had huge ramifications on the game. With players other than the keeper allowed in the box, you can now build better from the back.
“They may even, down the line, ban heading due to research linking it with dementia – although I personally would like to see a lot more studies on that with the modern lighter ball. That could take 30 years!”
One of the biggest controversies this season has been the way VAR rules on offside. Willian Jose had a goal chalked off for Wolves against Fulham on Friday after the cuff of Daniel Podence’s sleeve was adjudged to have been off in the build-up by the officials hovering over monitors at Stockley Park.
So what about Dutch legend Marco van Basten’s call to scrap the offside rule all together? What happens to your high defensive line then?
Nicky said: “If you bring in the Van Basten rule, then you’d have to defend really low.”
Danny added: “Some people think that would lead to more goals and spaces – but I don’t think there would be because defences would have to sit right back to protect their goal.”
VAR has opened up another interesting thing to consider for a coach – the mental state of a player after a decision goes against him.
Nicky points out: “You see a player score and hit an emotional high but then, because of VAR, he realises he hasn’t. How does he cope the next few minutes?
“I’m sure there’ll be some interesting work for psychologists to do to help not just players but managers and coaches as well.”
The Cowleys signed a contract until the end of the season but both admit they would love to manage Pompey long-term.
Danny said: “Some people have questioned us and said it’d be a risk coming to Portsmouth but it’s only a risk if you don’t believe in your skill set and work ethic.
“Nicky and I have spent our whole lives proving ourselves and we’re happy to keep working hard to prove to people we’re good at what we do.
“It’s a brilliant club and we’d love to work here longer term. Our ambition is to do well enough so we can see Fratton Park full again.
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“Out of all the clubs in League One, Portsmouth are the team that has suffered the most from not having their home fans. Fratton Park had become a fortress in recent times.
“As soon as we met the owners Michael and Eric Eisner, chief executive Mark Catlin and chief operating officer Tony Brown, there was instant chemistry. We could tell how much they care about this club.
“And when you take over a group of players that were managed by Kenny Jackett, you know you are getting a good group.
“We don’t want to put a ceiling on what can be achieved at Portsmouth and are excited we’re here.”
From Raggs to riches
WHEN the Cowleys took over at Portsmouth they were reunited with a player that was a huge part of their finest hour.
Sean Raggett, 27, famously scored Lincoln’s last-gasp winner at Burnley in the FA Cup when the Imps were still a National League club.
It booked them a dream quarter-final tie at Arsenal – it was the first time a non-league club had reached the last eight since QPR did in 1914.
The brothers signed him from fellow National League club Dover for what turned out to be a bargain £40,000.
Nicky said: “I remember I was buying me and Danny the coffees as usual and I told him Sean will sign for us if we can get it done today.
“He was on his way to sign for Barrow. He was on the A1 but changing his Sat Nav for Lincoln. We knew we had to get it done before anyone else got him.
“There was something unusual in his deal at Dover where there was compensation on his head that put a lot of people off.
“It was bigger than we expected it to be. We had to pay £40,000 and it was a lot of money for Lincoln. We only had a half million budget then.
“We told the powers-that-be at Lincoln, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make sure he’ll be worth four or five times that.
“And that is exactly what happened as we ended up selling him to Norwich.
“We knew him well from playing Dover when in charge of Concord Rangers. He was always so powerful and destined to be a good player.”
Raggett was thrilled that his two former bosses were taking over at Pompey. He has quickly established himself as a favourite among the Fratton Park faithful.
Danny said: “He was beating the drum to get us here.
“We were good for each other last time we had Sean so if we can be as good for each other this time round we will do very well.”
We want to make Pompey fans proud
PORTSMOUTH fans can expect Danny and Nicky Cowley to fully immerse themselves in the city if they land the job full-time.
They already want to meet Pompey’s legendary fan John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood – as well as all the other Fratton Park faithful.
Danny said: “We asked where he sits. He sits three quarters up. We’d love to meet him and all the supporters.
“The first thing we did at Lincoln was look at their successful managers Keith Alexander, Graham Taylor and Colin Murphy, who all connected with the community.
“We worked hard and went to 100 schools in our time there to meet the young people and get into the work places around the city.
“We know Portsmouth ultimately belongs to their fans so what you need to do quickly is understand them and what they want from their football team, one they can be proud of.”