A hazy late Spring afternoon in Lowestoft saw the shrill of a referee’s whistle pierce the air and with it came the latest step, the biggest step, in Concord Rangers’ rapid rise up the non-league pyramid.
Clad in all yellow, the Beachboys players sank to their knees in celebration, euphoric but exhausted, their reward for a long season had been delivered.
In the dugout, Danny Cowley surveyed the scene. Supporters, directors, his players, all jubilant but one face stood out.
His brother, his player-coach Nicky, raced over to embrace him. What a journey, what a day!
Years of hard work, years of progress, years of success, all culminating in the biggest victory in the club’s history on a sunny afternoon in Lowestoft.
But this was only the beginning.
As we sit chatting Cowley is an hour away from sitting alongside his brother in a press conference to announce that they have signed a contract extension to keep them at their current club Lincoln City until May 2021.
That afternoon is Lowestoft may feel a long way away now.
After all the Cowleys sit top of the National League table, days after they came within minutes of producing an FA Cup shock against SkyBet Championship side Ipswich Town.
They are days away from the next step on their hunt to win the FA Trophy when they travel to Gateshead.
Seventy two hours later their Lincoln City side will entertain Ipswich Town in an FA Cup replay in front of the BBC cameras.
That hazy Saturday afternoon may seem a long time ago but even now, even after all of their progress, it still has a profound effect on Cowley as he recalls the emotions that this historic day brought.
“Even now as I talk about it with you I get tingles down my spine” Cowley admitted.
“They were great times and I always think about it. Our first promotion in our first season was special, it meant so much to us.
“But that game against Lowestoft Town, the play-off final, what a day, I am getting emotional just thinking about it.
“We had players there that had been with us since we were in step five. They stayed with us and helped us into step two for the first time in the club’s history.
“My brother Nicky was player-coach and at full-time I still remember every move, every emotion. Wow, what a day.
“No matter what we achieve as a management team, I honestly don’t think I will ever have those emotions again”
On reflection that is quite the statement.
The Cowleys are certainly putting that theory to the test.
Their work at Concord Rangers brought attention from elsewhere in the non-league pyramid.
Braintree Town, looking to replace outgoing manager Alan Devonshire, hired the Cowleys to oversee their attempts to improve on a 14th place finish in the 2014/15 season.
Their forward thinking techniques, with the application of sports science prominent, proved to be an instant success.
The Iron were strengthened considerably, they were mixing it at the top end of the National League table, as a part-time outfit, alongside non-league giants like Cheltenham Town, Forest Green Rovers and Grimsby Town.
Remarkably the club finished in third position in the table, securing a play-off semi-final place and a chance of giving the club Football League status for the first time in their history.
In the first leg of the semi-final Braintree came away from Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park with a 1-0 win. The Football League was a step closer, closer than ever, within touching distance.
However, the dream died, as the Mariners overturned the deficit at the Iron’s Cressing Road home with a 2-0 victory. They went on to beat Forest Green Rovers in the final.
The Cowleys would leave Braintree with rumours of Football League interest for their services, they chose National League club Lincoln City.
They had moved into the profressional game for the first time in their careers.
The decision has proved to be a correct one for club and management team.
The Imps are currently leading the title race, as they look to secure a Football League place for the first time since their relegation from League Two in 2011.
Their progress in the FA Cup has seen the Cowleys hit the headlines, envious eyes were cast their way as more Football League clubs showed an interest.
The Imps, as this piece is being written, confirmed that the pair had signed contract extensions, their futures were secured.
And Cowley, although admitting there had been offers, insisted that they had never even thought about moving away.
He said “From the first moment I kicked a football I wanted to be a professional in the game. I fell short as a player, I wasn’t up to the required standard.
“But Lincoln City have given us that chance to be professionals and we owe them a lot.
“The supporters have been kind and committed to us, it’s only right that we reciprocate that and commit to them.
“It happened so quickly, we had two chats with the chairman. That is all that it took for us. The chats weren’t about money; money isn’t what we are about. It’s about progressing this club, improving the facilities, giving the players a better experience.
“We had seven or eight clubs that have contacted us but we are at home here. We are loyal people and we are valued.
“We are loyal to our chairman, we are loyal to our players and most importantly we are loyal to the supporters. Our complete focus is on improving Lincoln City, on moving this club forwards.
“We enjoy it, we relish it and, although we are ambitious, we believe those ambitions can be realised here.
“Why would we move away from all of this?”
Cowley’s attitude is somewhat refreshing in the modern day game.
Ambition and appreciation are valued above money and financial gain.
He wants the Imps players to feel the same way, and with the ink barely dry on the new deals he is now turning his attention to his players.
“Look we are delighted to have signed these deals but we are nothing without our players.
“They carry out our requests; we want them to enjoy being here with us because we know we ask a lot of them.
“They have reacted to that and that is why we are where we are in the league. Now with these contracts in place we can say to the players here is what we are doing. We are planning long-term and now we want to put deals in place for them too”
Saturday afternoon sees the Cowleys take their Lincoln City players to Gateshead’s International Stadium.
When put to him that the FA Trophy may not be high on the agenda with a televised FA Cup Third Round replay coming days later, Cowley was open and honest.
Youth will be given a chance, but only because the Cowleys are comfortable with that stance.
“I want to give youth a chance here because we have talented youngsters. It won’t be a completely changed side we put out there, far from it.
“But there will be some academy players in the squad we take to Gateshead, they will get a chance if the game goes that way.
“We are going there to win, it won’t be easy because Gateshead are a strong side with a very good manager.
“It’s never easy but we will go and have a go at them”
Once their FA Trophy date on Tyneside is over, attention quickly changes to that FA Cup replay with Ipswich Town.
In the space of four years Cowley has gone from managing in the Ryman League to taking on a manager that played at Italia 90 in the Third Round of the FA Cup.
And boy did Cowley’s side give Mick McCarthy’s Tractor Boys a fright.
Twice the Imps took the lead through Theo Robinson, twice they were pegged back back the Championship side. The second equaliser came just four minutes from full time, as Tom Lawrence’s twenty yard drive sneaked inside the near post and ended hopes of a famous upset.
The Imps took the largest away support to Portman Road in over fifteen years, as over 5,000 supporters made the journey to Suffolk.
Just as he had that day at Lowestoft, Cowley experienced a career high in the same county.
Although he stressed that comparing the two days doesn’t sit comfortably with him.
“You can’t really compare the two achievements. FA Cup success if a one-off, it’s one game, where anything can happen.
“League success is built over nine months of a season.
“That is not to downplay what we did on Saturday.
“For ninety minutes our players were Championship players, they lifted themselves to that level.
“But the supporters made Saturday what it was. It was a special day, one of the most special in my career.
“The players were heroic, we draw confidence from that.
“We have to be inspired by our supporters, by our display on Saturday because we have to go again on Tuesday night and we will certainly have a good go at it”
If Cowley’s Imps players can pull of a shock their reward will be a Fourth Round home tie against another Championship side managed by a former Republic of Ireland international.
Table-topping Brighton and Hove Albion will be the visitors to Sincil Bank on Fourth Round day.
Seagulls manager Chris Hughton, capped fifty three times by Eire, was described as “a fantastic manager” by Cowley, although the Imps boss is refusing to look beyond their replay against Ipswich.
“Chris Hughton is a great man, a decent person and a fantastic manager. He is a gentleman and you can see that by how he conducts himself.
“They are a great club and it would be a massive challenge but we can’t afford to look beyond the replay on Tuesday.
“We would be foolish to do so.
“We need to replicate what we did on Saturday, we need to be inspired.
“If we are to win the game we need to reach new levels”.
Reaching new levels, something that the Cowleys are used to during their managerial career and now, with new deals signed, they will look to go to even greater heights in the next four years.
Interview: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)
Images: Reuters Media (Action Images)