This time last year, Danny Cowley was still head of the PE Department at The FitzWimarc School in Rayleigh, Essex.
Combining full-time teaching with managing part-time football club Braintree United, Danny, alongside his brother Nicky Cowley, performed miracles in the National League to lead the Iron into the playoff positions.
Braintree ultimately fell just short in their bid to gain promotion to the Football League, and the in-demand Cowley brothers left Essex and indeed teaching behind to take control of former Football League team Lincoln City.
From managing Canvey-based club Concord Rangers in front of 60 spectators in the Essex Senior League, the Cowley brothers made their name at Braintree before being handed full-time positions at Lincoln last summer.
Out of the Football League since 2011, the brief was to lead Lincoln back into League Two. For a club that finished 13th last season, it was not going to be an easy task, but the Imps are currently top of the National League on 72 points.
In an unpredictable league, Lincoln have shown consistency and while securing a return to the Football League would be seen as a brilliant campaign in itself, there is something else, something a little bit special, going on at the Lincolnshire club.
Indeed, Lincoln have become the first non-league club in 103 years to make it into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. It is a journey that took them past the likes of Guiseley and Altrincham in the early rounds, before beating League One side Oldham Athletic 3-2 to reach the third round of the competition.
Overcoming Oldham was a big step for Lincoln, but they had not finished and dispatched Championship side Ipswich Town in the next round following a replay, which led to a last-32 clash with Brighton & Hove Albion.
Championship high-flyers Brighton were the overwhelming favourites to make the round of 16, but Lincoln won 3-1 on home soil to reach the last-16 stage of the FA Cup for the first time in 115 years.
Lincoln's remarkable journey was expected to come to an end in the next round against Premier League side Burnley, who themselves were in a strong run of form. Indeed, Clarets boss Sean Dyche took no chances with his team selection and named an XI that would have looked at home in the Premier League.
The two teams were heading for a replay as the last-16 clash approached its final minutes, but Lincoln had other ideas and a header from centre-back Sean Raggett in the 89th minute created more history.
Lincoln had to wait for Arsenal to be confirmed as their quarter-final opponents, but the Gunners overcame Sutton United to make the last eight once again. This Saturday, at the Emirates, the two teams will go head to head.
While Arsenal were losing 5-1 against Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Tuesday night, Lincoln were warming up for the quarter-final tie with a 4-0 win over Braintree in the National League, and Cowley, in an exclusive chat with Sports Mole, said that "it was great" to be able to return to his former club.
"It was great to be able to thank the supporters who were brilliant with us and made a massive contribution to what we did last year. When you leave a club in the close season, you don't get the opportunity to thank the supporters so it was nice to go back and see a lot of familiar faces and thank them for all of the support that they gave us," Cowley began.
"You are never quite sure as an opposing manager, going back to your former club, what reception you will get, but it was lovely to get a warm reception."
© Getty Images
Arsenal were not too far from Cowley's mind, however, and he had one eye on the Gunners' Champions League last-16 second leg with Bayern during the early stages of our interview.
"As I am talking to you I am watching Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich! I have just watched Arsenal against Sutton, now I am 11 minutes through the second game. It is 0-0 at the moment, but I know there are goals to come," he added. "Arsenal have got world-class players and a world-class manager. They are going to be hurting after going out of the Champions League. I am not sure that is a positive for us. I have got a feeling that might motivate them to come back.
"World-class players are world-class players, technically, tactically and physically, but also mentally. You do not become a world-class footballer without having a real mental toughness and I am sure they will be looking forward to maybe putting the wrongs of the Bayern game right.
"Arsenal will be a wounded animal and we all know how wounded animals react. We are very respectful of the fact that we are going to the Emirates in the quarter-final of the FA Cup as a non-league team. We know what the challenge is in front of us. It is a one-in-a-1,000 chance. If we go there 1,000 times, we might beat them once. We have to go there with the belief that it will be this one time and that is where our focus lies."
Cowley's first taste of management came at Concord Rangers in front of 62 supporters in the Essex Senior League, but Lincoln have sold out their full 9,000 allocation at the Emirates and the former teacher is looking forward to the challenge.
"The FA Cup journey for us has been quite progressive. Gradual increments through Guiseley, Altrincham, Oldham, Ipswich Town, Brighton and then obviously to a Premier League team (Burnley) and now a top-four team with world-class players. We have been inspired by the magnitude of the game thus far. The bigger the game the better we have played. We want to go the Emirates and give the very best account of ourselves," Cowley continued.
Fitness is often a big talking point when it comes to non-league teams and their ability to challenge the sides above them, but Cowley has revealed just how big a role fitness has played in Lincoln's success this season.
"We work hard on the physical aspect of the game. We play a high-energy game, we defend early, we press the whole pitch and we have to be fit to be able to do that. We have gone long in games all season and managed to score some important goals in the dying moments," the 38-year-old continued.
"We attribute that to our fitness levels. As a professional footballer, like in any walk of your life, you get out what you put in and the players work incredibly hard on their fitness in training and as a consequence of that, we are able to benefit from that and get on the right side of close games."
Danny also spoke glowingly about his brother Nicky's contribution to his success, claiming that their relationship 'just works' due to the trust that they place in each other.
"We do it together. We are joint-managers. We taught together at FitzWimarc School, Nicky played for me at Concord Rangers before becoming assistant manager and again at Braintree. It is a relationship that works for us and we have a lot of trust in each other, which is a quality that you cannot always find in football. It is important to us, it is what makes our relationship work," Danny said of his younger sibling.
Cowley also had special praise for The FitzWimarc School, where I was a pupil of the popular teacher, in addition to revealing that he had not really had a chance to pinch himself for what had happened in the last 12 months of his life.
"Last night was our 46th game of the season so we have not really had the opportunity to sit back and reflect on what we have done in the FA Cup, which is probably a good thing because if we take too much time to think about it then it might scare the life out of us," the Lincoln boss continued. "We live in the moment and keep grounded and humble and focused. In football you never know, it has been a football miracle to get this far. We are just hoping for one more miracle at the Emirates.
"FitzWimarc will always have a really special place in my heart. I love that school and I loved the kids there. It was a brilliant period of my life, I spent 15 years there and I will be forever proud. To win national titles with the school, to finish fourth in the world at athletics, and to be voted state sports school of the year would be achievements that I would hold at exactly the same level as getting to the last eight of the FA Cup and the promotions we have had.
"I have been very, very fortunate in my career as a teacher and as a football manager to work with very good people and you are only as good as the people around you. I have been lucky to work at a school that had incredible children, absolutely brilliant kids who loved their sport and had a real work ethic and a determination about them."
"All Nicky and I really did was try to create them opportunities and experiences. We were fortunate to be able to work there with kids like yourself and that is something I will always remember fondly. There is no doubt that teaching has given me a confidence and a skill-set to be able to do what we have done in football management. It has been invaluable to me, that experience."
This weekend, Cowley will pit his wits against an under-pressure Arsene Wenger, and the Lincoln boss has backed the Frenchman to come through what is arguably his biggest challenge as Arsenal boss.
"It will be pretty surreal [to face Wenger]. He has been a world-class manager. He is in a difficult moment, but he has been in difficult moments before and has always been able to navigate out of those moments. I have no doubt that he will do it again this time. What he did with that 'Invincibles' team I don't think will ever be achieved in English football again," said Cowley.
"He has won the FA Cup six times, which is a bit greedy, so maybe he might allow us to have our moment on Saturday! Seriously, he is a fantastic manager and a pioneer for English football, and unfortunately I don't think that people will really appreciate what he has achieved at Arsenal and in English football until he has gone, and that is the sad side of football."
According to Cowley, Lincoln could play Arsenal 1,000 times and might just win once. The 38-year-old 'believes' that could happen this weekend because in football "you just never know".
He continued: "We have to believe it is. You have nothing without belief. Who would have thought that FitzWimarc School would have been voted state sports school of the year, or come fourth in the world in athletics? Who would have thought that Concord Rangers would have gone from a Step Five team to a Conference South team? And Braintree a part-time team to third in the National League?
"It has taken a football miracle for Lincoln City to get to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and the great thing about football and probably the reason that we all love it, is that you just never know."