For Danny Cowley, life just over three years ago looked very different to how it does now.
Back then he juggled managing part-time Braintree in the National League and heading up the PE department at FitzWimarc School in Essex.
‘That was my life,’ Cowley says. ‘It was getting up at 5am to get the cones out for cross country ready for hundreds of kids before driving from Essex to places like Barrow and not getting in until 4am the next day. Sometimes Nicky [his brother and assistant manager] and I would just go straight into school.’
It would be easy to discount what went before that and focus on three fruitful seasons at Lincoln, which have ultimately got Cowley to where he is now in the Huddersfield dugout as a Championship manager and what he describes as ‘the toughest test of my life’ despite a change in form that finished with two consecutive wins before the international break against Stoke and Hull.
A draw against Blackburn and another against Middlesbrough means they have now gone five games without defeat - a feat the Terriers hadn't managed since the season the club made it to the Premier League.
But you have to go back to 2007 to discover where it all began and to appreciate the journey to this point. At 28, after his playing career had been ended through a debilitating knee injury [Osgood-Schlatter disease], Cowley became manager of Concord Rangers in the Essex Senior League. Step nine of the English football pyramid but - just as he is by some now - even then it was about silencing those who doubted him.
‘There were some who never thought that I could make the step up in Ryman League Division One,’ Cowley smiles. ‘People would have doubted us in that moment but this is what this world is about, isn’t it? It’s about proving people wrong.’
It was an eight-year tenure at Concord that started with 62 people watching a 6-1 win against Sawbridgeworth and finished with the club in the National League South after three promotions.
‘That is still my proudest achievement,’ says the 40-year-old. ‘We had so little resources - absolutely nothing to what we have now - Nicky wouldn’t just be setting out cones and collecting the balls, he was also the kitman and there cutting oranges up at half-time. Mum [Gill] would also help out by being at the back of the coach after away games microwaving pasta for the players.
‘Everyone worked so hard to get to a place the club had never been.’
And while Cowley’s time at Braintree was limited - leaving the club just after year to take over at Lincoln in May 2016 - it was also successful with a part-time side largely tipped for relegation managing to reach the National League play-off semi-finals.
It was at Lincoln, though, where his stock would begin to soar. A club that had been financially crippled following relegation from League Two in 2011 and only a year before Cowley’s appointment had asked fans to help pay off debts of nearly £500,000.
‘It wasn’t a proud time to be a Lincoln City fan,’ says Cowley. ‘I remember Nicky nudging me in an early board meeting. He had looked outside and spotted kids playing on the astro turf across from the ground. Out of all the kids playing, just one had a Lincoln City shirt. It was our job to change that.’
Take a look around the city today and while you might find the odd Manchester United or Liverpool top, the red and white of the Imps is in vogue. Two promotions in three seasons, the club’s first trip to Wembley ending with them lifting the EFL Trophy and that famous FA Cup run which saw them become the first non-League side to reach the quarter-finals for 103 years. With every success, Lincoln’s profile grew as did Cowley’s.
Offers came from West Brom and Hull earlier this year - both were turned down.
Huddersfield offered something different. ‘A new challenge, a chance to live and expose ourselves because that’s what we need to do,’ says Cowley, who was perhaps in the safest job any manager could wish to be in at Lincoln.
Like any move, though, not everyone was happy, notably Danny’s six-year old son George.
‘We didn’t tell them [the kids] until about 8.30pm on Sunday night [before his and Nicky’s appointment last month (September) because it was late once it all got agreed,’ says Cowley. ‘So, we told him and he was upset because he said: “I’m going to miss all my friends”. I said: “Who are your friends, George?” “The bar staff,” he said with tears running down his face.’
The bar staff in the players’ lounge at Sincil Bank would keep the kids entertained when they got bored during matches. ‘Anyway, we got through it and I sent him home a kit a couple of days later and he said to Kate [Danny’s wife]: ‘Why do Lincoln now play in blue?” So I don’t think he’s quite put all of it together.’
Putting it all together is now the task of Danny and his brother. In Huddersfield, they took on a club that was ‘hurting’, says Danny. A side that hadn’t won since February and was devoid of confidence following relegation from the Premier League.
‘This is the biggest, toughest test of our lives. Toughest ever,’ adds Cowley. Tough, yes. Impossible? No. ‘We know what we know. We’ve taken everything we’ve learned and we’re using that here. It’s just that we’re doing it at a higher level now,’ he says.
It is those same methods that were conceived in the classroom and brought to life at Concord, Braintree and Lincoln that are again being put to use.
‘Teaching is just teaching - that to me is the skill,’ says Cowley. ‘It’s your pedagogical skills that allow you to be able to impart the information and grab the attention of people and create curiosity and create interest in peoples’ thought processes and then when you get that alignment all the hard work should be there to see on the pitch.’
Asked what his and his brother’s biggest strengths are, he says: ‘An incredible amount of determination, a relentless work ethic and a love for what we do, and it’s that which gives us the success.’
The noises at the John Smith’s Stadium, so far, at least are good. The players have taken to a rather intensive style the brothers adopt - something Nicky calls ‘serious fun’. Clearly it has worked. Finally, Huddersfield had that first win since February - against Stoke - before it was backed up at home to Hull.
It was an 82nd-minute strike from Juninho Bacuna that sealed the win over Stoke. That it was Bacuna, the brother of Cardiff's Leandro, who scored meant even more to Cowley, who had given the 22-year-old a two-day break in the days before the Stoke game to go home to Holland and spend precious time with his son.
Perhaps it was Cowley's teaching background or that dad Steve and mum Gill have instilled such strong family values in both Danny and Nicky, either way it was a nice touch and a move which showed he cared.
So, how has this all happened so quickly? The tweak in style to make them more robust, better communication of ideas or more productive training sessions?
'It's a mixture really,' says Cowley, who along with Nicky had 30-minute one-to-ones with their players in the first week they were at the club.‘First, it was about building a level of trust and understanding,’ admits Danny, ‘We needed to understand what had gone wrong and by speaking to the players we got a clear idea of what we needed to do. We have the beginning of that alignment now and it’s up to us to keep working hard because this club and its supporters deserve to have great times again.’
Although Danny admits, jokingly, it may not have been such a good idea of spending so much time with the players after getting ‘so much grief’ from one or two about his choice of wash bag.
‘Put it this way,’ says Cowley. ‘It was a million miles away from the one James Maddison had on his back a few weeks ago, but I probably do need to upgrade mine as it’s a bit dated.’
To some Cowley is viewed as a fresh, young manager who has progressed at a rapid rate, and while that is true given the number of years he has ahead of him, this is his 13th season in management, having managed in eight of England’s top nine divisions.
His ambition and desire to be at the top level of the game shines through when talking about destiny, and although he’s only new to the Championship, the Premier League is closer than ever before and he won’t stop until he gets there.
‘I want to live. I want the excitement. I want to be challenged. And I know what I’ve got to do and I’ve got to put myself in these challenges to get out,’ says Cowley. ‘My destiny is this, I’m going to be the very best I can be and where that allows me to get to only time will tell because none of us know but I know I am determined to be the very best I can be.’
‘But to be that, I’ve got to expose myself and I’ve got to make sure I continue challenging myself to keep learning and improving because I’m 40 now and I haven’t got time. I know where I’m going and there are no shortcuts to it. I’ve got to keep moving and I’m really determined to do that and we’ve got to keep moving because we’re excited about this club and where it could go again.'