Lincoln City hopes to take its 'one-in-a-thousand' chance in FA Cup vs. Arsenal
LINCOLN, England (AP) — The team looking to pull off possibly the biggest shock in the FA Cup's 146-year history is coached by a pair of inseparable brothers who were teaching physical education in a secondary school just nine months ago.
It has a striker who was recently working in a factory making diggers, and a forward who runs his own mobile hairdressing business.
It's a club from a quiet, picturesque cathedral city in the east of England that hasn't played in the English professional leagues for six years and, not so long ago, had attendances of 2,000 people for its games.
Lincoln should have no chance of winning an FA Cup quarterfinal away to Arsenal, 89 places higher in the country's soccer pyramid. Some British bookmakers have Lincoln down as 40-1 underdogs.
"We know that if we can get on the right side of the result," Lincoln manager Danny Cowley said, with a look of determination on his face, "it would probably be the greatest upset in the history of what is the biggest and best cup competition in the whole world.
"It's not every Saturday morning you wake up with that opportunity."
Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, posed in front of rows of photographers in the center circle of Lincoln's Sincil Bank ground on Thursday, each coach holding one handle of the famous cup. Laughing and enjoying their moment in the spotlight, they didn't want to let go.
Lincoln has been the story of the competition, beating two second-tier teams in Ipswich and Brighton to reach the last 16 and then winning 1-0 at Premier League side Burnley to become the first non-league team in 103 years to reach the quarterfinals.
Lincoln's players say the FA Cup run has united a city of around 95,000 people behind its soccer team, which has never played in the top division in its 133-year history.
"Now you are traveling into training," goalkeeper Paul Farman said, "and there are queues of people at the changing-room doors, some clapping you in."
Lincoln, unbelievably, is one win away from playing in the semifinals at Wembley Stadium. Standing in the way is Arsenal, a record 12-time cup winner but a team currently in disarray and with doubts hanging over the future of its manager.
At Emirates Stadium on Saturday, Arsenal's increasingly disgruntled fan base will likely ramp up the calls for Arsene Wenger to end his 21-year tenure, in the wake of a humiliating elimination from the Champions League by Bayern Munich by a 10-2 aggregate score. The team has also slipped out of contention for the Premier League title once again.
"It's one of those situations where they want the manager out," Lincoln captain Luke Waterfall said, "so there might be a lot of Arsenal fans wishing we can get something out of the game to see the end of their manager."
The Cowley brothers have the utmost respect for 67-year-old Wenger, with Danny calling him "a pioneer of English football" and a "world-class manager who has probably forgotten more than I know."
In terms of managerial careers, they are at the opposite end.
Only last year, the siblings were combining jobs in a PE department at a school near London with coaching positions at local non-league team Braintree Town, when they were hired by Lincoln.
They gave up teaching and dedicate themselves to soccer management, which means living together in a townhouse in Lincoln city center and away from their families. Both have partners and two young kids, who still live near London, and they try to get back on Tuesday nights for the school run on Wednesday morning.
"They eat, sleep, breathe football from 6 a.m. to midnight," Waterfall told The Associated Press in an interview in Lincoln's boardroom. "I've never met people like them in my life. They love football so much. They are forever on their laptops, phones, watching games, analyzing games."
Lincoln is top by six points in the fifth-tier National League and on course for a return to the Football League, which the Cowleys insist is their priority. The team's main striker is Matt Rhead, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound battering ram who was working in a machinery factory four years ago.
"We'll get balls in the box," Waterfall said with a smile, "and let's see how they deal with him."
Around 9,000 Lincoln fans will travel down to London early Saturday, looking to see their team become the first non-league side to reach the FA Cup semifinals since Swindon in 1912. Players and fans say their confidence has grown from seeing Leicester win the Premier League last season at odds of 5,000-1 and from Barcelona's stunning comeback to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Wednesday.
"They'll be rocking a bit," Lincoln fan Danny Hunter, a 24-year-old farmer, said of Arsenal. "We'll try to put them down. Give them the knockout blow."
Danny Cowley does not rule it out.
"It will be a one-in-a-thousand chance," he said. "But we go in there with a belief this will be that one time."