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Danny Cowley interview: Colchester head coach on running towards a challenge and 'attacking' every one of United's crucial final nine games

Sky Sports exclusive: Danny Cowley on running towards the challenge at Colchester, choosing to see the best in people and situations, putting a positive spin on relegation fears and why a run of nine games in 29 days feels like Christmas to him

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Danny Cowley discusses the value of his year out of management before joining Colchester in January.

At the beginning of 2023, Danny Cowley was in the very final throes of a near two-year spell at Portsmouth, as the third manager - after Paul Cook and Kenny Jackett - to try and fail to end the club's long exile from the Championship.

Given the history of the Fratton Park club, particularly in recent decades, expectations are high and, in Cowley's statement following his sacking, he said not being able to bring success "is and will remain one of the biggest disappointments of our lives".

The year he and brother Nicky spent out of work - the longest period since they first stepped into management at non-League Concord Rangers in 2008 - represented a time to reflect, learn and hone their processes away from the intensity of the Sky Bet EFL.

Then, one year and two days after leaving Portsmouth, the pair were appointed at Colchester United.

They were back in Essex for the first time in eight years, where the difference between this job and their last could not have been more starkly contrasting - this one was a firefighting effort to keep the U's from dropping out of the Football League altogether.

"It's always good to come home - and our parents always encouraged us to run towards a challenge," says a relaxed Cowley, with a smile, as he chats to Sky Sports from his office at the club's training ground.

"The team were in a difficult moment, but when a new manager or coach comes in, it's a fresh start for everybody. You can spend time looking back and reflecting, but for us it was to look forward and we had a game against Swindon within 48 hours of arriving, so there wasn't too much time to look back.

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"I believe in positivity and I believe in optimism. You get two choices in life - see the best in people or the worst. My life is much better as I see the best in people, so it was about seeing the best in the situation.

"I've found a group of players that are incredibly honest, incredibly hard-working, really humble, want to be the best they can be, come in every day and work really consistently and they've been an absolute pleasure."

Prior to his arrival, Colchester had already gone through two managers this season. Ben Garner was dismissed towards the end of October, before Matthew Etherington stepped up from his role as U21 lead coach. The latter has since returned to his previous role, having initially been ousted following a miserable run of eight defeats in nine between mid-November and New Year's Day.

It left the club five points clear of the relegation zone before Cowley arrived and though that gap has since narrowed to one point, with Sutton and Forest Green scrapping for their respective lives below them, there is reason to believe in their survival hopes, judging by the performances and results he has led them to.

In his 11 games in charge to date, his side have won one, lost two and drawn eight, with six of those eight ending in a 1-1 scoreline. Last Saturday, they managed to hold league leaders Mansfield, who Cowley believes are set up for promotion this term.

He has seen certain signs of progress.

"There's a good spirit in the group. We've improved pretty much in every metric against the ball. We probably haven't got the value we wanted in terms of our defensive work because we've only kept one clean sheet, but we've certainly reduced the amount of goals the team was conceding.

"It's never easy in January when you lose your top scorer [Luton's Joe Taylor, who was recalled and sent on loan to Lincoln], but we are also improving with the ball both from open play and set-pieces.

"We feel like we're a team moving in the right direction. We're much more competitive than we were and now we want to try to show the rest of the world - or at least whoever is watching! - exactly how far we've come as a team and a club."

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League Two match between Mansfield and Colchester.

Several of Colchester's games have been postponed recently, owing to poor drainage at the JobServe Community Stadium, which has resulted in special dispensation from the EFL to narrow their pitch by four metres and shorten it by three metres in order to prevent further issues.

"We're really appreciative of the league and all of the clubs for allowing us to do that," Cowley adds. "It's been nobody's fault, but we're pleased common sense prevailed."

Now, it is common knowledge in football that games in hand can either be a blessing or a curse. Compared to their closest relegation rivals, Colchester have now played three fewer than Sutton, two fewer than Swindon and Forest Green, and one fewer than Grimsby.

It means their fate is overwhelmingly in their hands and for Cowley, if he and his players stick to the process, they will achieve the plan he has come to achieve.

"That feeling of being better than yesterday is always our ambition. We know that if we keep working, we will find the solutions and we will achieve our objectives.

"We know that if we get the performances right, the points take care of themselves. There have been games we've drawn that we probably should've won, but we know football is a really honest game and if you keep working hard, good things will happen."

As for what comes next if they do manage to survive, in spite of his love of a project, understandably Cowley does not want to be drawn, but he assuredly adds the potential of the club is "frightening".

For now, the focus is on the task at hand: nine crucial games in a period of just 29 days.

"To be able to play every three-and-a-half days is just Christmas for us!" Cowley says, with genuine excitement. "We're going to attack the games and give them everything we've got.

"We are under no illusions as to how important these next few weeks are in our lives. It's really hard to beat the man that never gives up and we're going to go right to the end, I can assure you of that."

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