TGG Podcast #14: Danny Cowley - Old school values and new methods
Written by Training Ground Guru — May 9, 2020
FOUR years ago, Danny Cowley was managing Braintree in the National League while simultaneously working full-time as Head of PE at FitzWimarc School in Essex.
Now he's trying to mastermind Huddersfield Town's return to the Premier League and is regarded as one of the hottest properties in management.
In the latest edition of the Training Ground Guru Podcast, the 41-year-old laid out his footballing philosophy, which he described as "old-school values with new methods".
Danny Cowley: The first nine years of my management career were part time. I was a PE teacher and then Head of Department at a really successful comprehensive school in Essex called FitzWimarc.
Some of my biggest successes were at school, with those pupils, but it was a real challenge to teach and juggle that with managing. As you go through the levels things evolve - the level of player, the level of resources - but I’d like to think that the values and cultures would be similar from Concord Rangers to where we are now.
We have values we live and die by at Huddersfield, the non-negotiables. Our values are around hard work, enthusiasm and loving what you do. We think humility is very important. I don’t like people who are ahead of themselves, those type of people scare me.
I don’t mind people being confident if they have substance behind that. The great thing about humility is it’s about dealing with the success and wanting to improve and have further success. Discipline and respect are other important ones.
It’s one thing putting core values up in a presentation, it’s another thing living by them every day. And they can’t just be mine and Nicky’s values, they have to be everyone’s. If you want to be a successful group you have to have a set of values you all adhere to and believe in.
Once you’ve got your core values, you can put your rules and boundaries in place and have a process for working. That’s the foundation for everything.
We are all human beings, we want rules and boundaries. We like to think we don’t, but we want to know what we can and can’t do.
Ours have always been around planning, which has been a key part of our success.
Another key part of the process is around communication, having those clear lines, always trying to speak to people, making sure you have open lines of communication, always having clarity, and having the difficult conversations as quickly as possible.
I don’t like those difficult conversations living on my conscience. If I’m naming the team for Saturday, if I’m leaving a player out, I will try to have the conversation with them as soon as I can, because they respect the honesty and everybody wants clarity.
Trust and respect
One thing I’ve learned over the 13 years I’ve been lucky enough to manage is that you’ve got to build relationships with players first.
You’ve got to try and build a level of respect and trust. Once you’re able to do that - and when the players start to realise you have their best interests at heart - you can start to coach them and try to improve them.
Human relationships only develop over time though and we’re always very cautious not to coach the players too soon. You’ve got to try and understand them and get a feel of the team dynamic.
We always try to create a learning environment. I’ve been lucky to spend 30 of my first 35 years on this planet in education, as a pupil and then as a teacher.
You need to keep learning and always find new ways to learn in any walk of life. I look at teaching and coaching and there are a lot of transferable skills. Ultimately, they’re both about trying to develop knowledge and understanding.
We try to make the players good learners, build their level of curiosity and find different ways of learning. You’ve only got so much on-field learning you can do, so you have to find off-field learning methods to build their performance as well.
People learn best when they’re having fun, so always trying to make everything as fun as possible is important. When you do that, the level of learning and the retention of learning becomes that much greater.
You have about 15 minutes with a group in terms of keeping their concentration. You can break them into smaller groups and do a lot of departmental and individual work. Some players don’t like speaking in front of the whole group and are much happier to speak individually or in small groups.
They have a wealth of knowledge, our players. Some of them have been coached and managed by fantastic managers and as a consequence they have had some fantastic learning.
I always think learning is a two-way thing. We learn off the players every day, for sure.
Historically, coaching has been a bit more didactic and autocratic, with the coach telling the players. Teaching is a bit more empowering.
We try to encourage the players to become independent learners and take the role of a facilitator rather than a dictator. I personally prefer that style and I think the players learn better in that style.
Sometimes you have to tell the players, because you have time constraints, but trying to find a way to empower them and get them to find the answers is generally the way.
Come three o’clock on a Saturday, they’re the ones who have to make the decisions. As a manager, you can never cease control, because you’re responsible for leading the group.
But, for us, a big part of how we work is to try and empower. if you’re a confident leader you’re happy to share the control. We set them up with a game model, which is a framework for how we want to play, but when they step over the paint, they have to make thousands of decisions per game.
The better problem solvers you have within the group, the better chance you have of coming up with the right answer when the pressure is on.
We have a leadership group we have a lot of trust in. The senior players have always been really good professionals and have been able to understand the core values that are so important for the group.
They also understand the processes and once you have all that understanding, the players start to self police and that’s when you can move to the next level and create something powerful.
Using video to empower players
When we were at Braintree, we would travel to games on the same day and use the coach time for video analysis using Hudl. We would give the lads iPads and they’d also use their phones to watch the opposition and certain individuals.
At Huddersfield, we are able to do a lot more and video analysis is a great way to empower the players. When we played Brentford away earlier in the season (November 2nd), we wanted to put a full press on them, but knew it would put a real physical challenge on the players.
We knew we couldn’t force that on them, so we used the whole week to involve them in trying to set up the game plan within our game model.
They really developed that themselves and made a lot of the decisions about how we were going to play and press and different traps we were going to set.
We used a lot of the time in the video room to come up with that game plan. We won the game 1-0 and it evolved how we had envisaged it. That was probably the first time we had empowered the players and it gave them confidence and us confidence to continue to use that.
Getting good people around you
My relationship with (brother and assistant) Nicky is an incredibly important one. We’ve lived in each other’s pockets since day dot. Being able to have someone else who you know is feeling the pain like you do after a defeat can be very supportive.
You look at Brian Clough and the success he had in his career; all his greatest moments were with Peter Taylor by his side. They had an unbelievable camaraderie and chemistry.
I wouldn’t have achieved what I have in my life without Nicky’s support, that’s for sure. Trust is a difficult commodity to find. When I talk about trust, it’s that ability to be able to tell each other exactly what we’re thinking at that time, which allows us to get to the answer very quickly.
Really, we’re joint managers, but I’m three years older than he is and he played for me for eight seasons at Concord Rangers. We’re pretty telepathic in knowing what the other one’s thinking.
We always know where each other’s going and what each other needs. It’s certainly not a one or two-man job though - it’s about a collective group of people providing the best environment for the group to be successful.
The best leaders have the confidence to get really good people around them. They have enough security in themselves that they’re able to do that. Once we see something in someone and know they have a skillset and personality that will work for us, we put them on the bus and work out their seat later.
I believe that at successful organisations it’s always about the people. Get good people. For example, Matt Page and Toby Ellis interviewed for two sports science internships with us at Lincoln.
They weren’t quite what we wanted for those positions but they were just so impressive. They both had these entrepreneurial skills. We got talking about how we could use their skills and experiences and from that we’ve been able to build a statistics programme with them that we live and die by.
Data and analysis
We’re four years into our data project now and it’s evolved every year and is a fantastic way of being able to understand our performance. It will take Matt and Toby 12 hours each to analyse just one of our games.
They break it down for us and it gives us really clear, detailed information on each individual and department.
Eventually we want to get to a place where we get artificial intelligence involved. I want to try to make winning a science. If we can get to a place where we know exactly what we need to do to win in every game and actually implement that then we can make it a science.