Michael Duff: The man behind the Robins’ soaring success
As the old adage goes, there’s a fine line between genius and madness. For Burnley manager Sean Dyche, it’s clear on which side of the coin Michael Duff – a Beswicks Sports client both on and off the pitch for over two decades – felt his former boss fell when taking the Cheltenham Town managerial job.
“I think Dychy thought I was mad when I told him because, at the time, I think we were second or third from bottom in League Two,” Duff admitted.
With the Robins now promoted to the third-tier since the first time since the 2008/09 after narrowly missing out via the play offs last term, it looks like that decision was far from a ‘mad’ one.
Duff gave up a coaching role with the Lancashire-based Premier League side to pursue his first ever task as a number one in September 2018, just 40-years-old and with his new employers staring down the barrel of relegation out the Football League.
After 337 competitive appearances for the Robins as a player, the former Northern Ireland international has taken just two-and-a-half years as gaffer to transform the direction the club is heading.
“Cheltenham approached me; I didn’t apply for the job. I probably had a job for life with the Under-23s at Burnley,” Duff said.
“I had played over 400 times for the club, experienced promotions and, although it’s not an easy gig, it’s comfortable, less pressure, half-decent money, surrounded by fantastic facilities.
“But I didn’t want to be that bloke at 60 saying, ‘I could have done that.’
“Everything lined up for me. My kids were the right age and my wife is from Cheltenham, so I thought I’d give it a chance.
“It is so hard to get opportunities in football now. You think of some of the managers who are out of work so it was decided then and there.”
It initially wasn’t exactly the rebirth in Gloucestershire that Duff would’ve had in mind, though, after failing to find a win in any of his first nine league fixtures in charge.
Despite a baptism of fire, the inexperienced boss was given valuable time by Town and eventually steered them from second bottom to safety in 16th by the end of his first season.
“At a lot of clubs, I would have gone. They would have cut their ties early knowing they still had six months of the season left.
“Cheltenham didn’t. They were supportive. I’m sure they had their moments, but in my first board meeting I actually went in quite strong and did a presentation and set out a few things.
“The next month I’ve done another one, and they might be thinking ‘you can you talk a good game here.’ If you were to go back and look at what I said in that first presentation, we’ve now addressed a lot of it.
“The support they’ve shown me to allow that to happen has been great because my career could’ve ended before it even started.
“If I’d been sacked, I’d never have got another job, and I’d just walked out of what I’ve said was probably one for life. I could have been properly scrambling at that point.”
The club’s perseverance was repaid when Duff then orchestrated a first League Two play-off campaign for the Robins in seven seasons, and a highest finishing position in the football pyramid since 2009.
The 2019/20 campaign was one quite unlike any other though, with the COVID-19 outbreak curtailing play and ensuring standings were decided on a points-per-game basis that saw Cheltenham end as high as fourth.
Although Duff and his in-form side would fall to the eventually promoted Northampton Town, they could feel somewhat hard done-by after capturing 16 of 18 available points in six games before the season was prematurely ended.
“I think we would have gone up in the top-three, but we didn’t,” said Duff.
“We managed to dust ourselves down and go 2-0 up after the away leg and I don’t think it was a case of complacency, we just froze on the night.
“It was a horrible experience because you’re watching 10 months of hard work unravel right in front of your eyes and there’s nothing we could do about it.
“Credit to Northampton, they had nothing to lose, started like a train and we just couldn’t wrestle the momentum back.
“You try and step back from the immediate emotion of it and realise, we’re doing something right here, you just try and learn from the experience.
“I was alright as a player as I was a part of two promotion campaigns and won them both. As a manager I have been part of one and lost.”
Along with the expected learning curves that accompany transitioning from professional player to youth team coach to Football League manager in just a couple of years, the UEFA Pro Licence-holding boss has already had plenty to deal with.
The pandemic and its resulting lockdown have completely changed the way society has operated, and football clubs are by no means an exception.
As well as postponements and curtailments of games and seasons, stay-at-home training and workout sessions were a norm, while new mental health challenges are thrown to the forefront of conversation as an aura of uncertainty enveloped the sport.
Nowhere in football more so than the pyramid’s lower reaches, where many already cling onto their existence.
“It’s been very tough,” Duff admitted.
“The first time around you are probably looking after the players’ mental health because no-one knew at first – are we getting promoted? Are we not? Is it points per game?
“Some of our players had pregnant wives or contracts running down. Was it safe for them to come back? Are the players taking pay-cuts? Is the club going under?
“Football players are almost institutionalised, they are very used to getting told what to do so sitting at home for three months isn’t great for anyone, overthinking every scenario and worrying.
“Then it was a case of trying to protect them from the potential backlash of the play-off disappointment.
“I have been trying to get through it, keep my family safe and make sure my players and their families are safe too.”
The sporting spotlight may typically fall on the town just once a year for the world-renowned horse racing festival but, despite all the challenges, Duff has certainly made strides to make Cheltenham more visible the footballing map.
He’s turned the club from relegation contenders into promotion winners – and potential champions – as well as almost pulling off a spirited shock-sinking of this season’s runaway Premier League leaders.
Cheltenham met Manchester City in the FA Cup fourth round at the 1,000-seater Johnny-Rocks Stadium and took a shock lead through Alfie May until a late, late turnaround.
The minnows were 10 minutes from a massive upset but a flurry of goals from the likes of Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus saw it finish 3-1.
Looking at their form in League Two over the past two years, that FA Cup run and near knockout blow to Pep and City won’t come as a surprise to those who have closely followed their upward trajectory.
Securing their first promotion since returning to the Football League in 2016, the struggles of when Duff was appointed seem a long way, away for the Robins.
“Our league is a funny league. There’s always one team in the play-offs that struggle next year.
“We managed to keep most of the players together and they deserve the credit, their egos haven’t got ahead. They know they have to be at it, we don’t rely on big players, we are strong as a group.
“The only thing I’m trying to do is leave the club in a better state than what I found it. Right now, it is, but I have to keep working hard to maintain and improve that.
“In two-and-a-half years, I’ve managed to have a relegation scrap, a play-off campaign, we’ve got promoted – and we’re doing it during a pandemic.
“It hasn’t been boring, that’s one thing I will say.”
The promotion, achieved following a 1-1 draw at home against Carlisle United, was followed by scenes of socially distance celebrations with fans outside of Whaddon Road.
“It’s an unbelievable achievement,” Duff added.
“We’ve been questioned over the last two years so I am immensely proud to be in charge of this club. The board, players, staff and supporters have all been brilliant.”
“I didn’t think the budget, or the facilities would allow for us to get promoted, but we got onto something.
“The group was good and it’s so powerful, particularly at this level. That’s why they deserve all the credit.
Duff had already secured himself as a legend in the Robins folklore, well before he took control of the hotseat that he’s made his own.
In 1996, the then-teenage hopeful joined Cheltenham in the Southern Premier League – now the seventh division – and within three years had moved from non-league obscurity to the Football League.
The club continued to climb, peaking at the third tier in 2002/03 before an eventual transfer to Championship Burnley a year later for a bargain fee of £30,000.
After promotion to the Premier League in 2009 with the Clarets, Duff is believed to be the only player to feature in England’s top eight divisions in ascending order.
“I think I was 31 when I got to the Premier League,” Duff recalled.
“It was a long slog from being told I wasn’t good enough to play at Cirencester Town so the fire was always there from within.
“I scored the goal that got Cheltenham into the Football League which was one of those moments where I thought ‘I’m going to become a professional footballer now’.
“Then, after winning at Wembley, that was my ‘I’m going to be a Premier League player’ moment.
“It took a lot of hard work, but I think my strongest asset was my mentality and determination. I also had to get a little bit lucky.”
When Burnley reached the Premier League promised land for the first time, it was a truly gargantuan occasion and ended a 33-year wait for top-flight football.
Having experienced the game at every end of the spectrum – from cramped changing rooms and park-side pitches to cash-laden Premier League performance centres – Duff has used this to assimilate seamlessly into man-management.
“I think I can sort of have a little bit of empathy with lower league players.
“I’ve been lucky in terms of that. I’ve been in lots of different types of dressing rooms, full of millionaires or dressing rooms full of blokes who have been working eight hours on a building site and then go into a game.
“You can see different sides of it, I understand the ability side of it having played with England internationals and superstars.
“And, again, I played with builders who don’t even like football, but do like £50 in their back pocket. Every sort of spectrum in the game, I’ve seen.”
In an almost 400-game career at Burnley that saw a record three promotions to the Premier League with the same club (‘08/09, ‘13/14 and ‘15/16), Duff also built on the international experience that he could boast.
After first being capped aged 24 in League Two, he ended his playing time having represented his country on 24 occasions across a decade.
Born in Belfast to Irish parents, Duff had the pride of featuring in some of Northern Ireland’s biggest historical results.
Firstly, a sweet 1-0 World Cup qualifier win over England in 2005, before a 3-2 Euro 2008 qualifier victory over a Spain side which went on to win the lot thanks to then-Leeds striker David Healy netting a hat-trick.
“It’s something I was particularly proud of,” he said.
“In the early part of my international career, we were rubbish. I think we were 120th in the world and went two years without scoring.”
“The England game stands out because the atmosphere was bouncing at Windsor Park and I remember being nervous coming on as, being a defender, I didn’t want to make a mistake.
“The Spain one was slightly different, even now you go through that team, that team literally went on to dominate the world for the next few years.
“The players that they had from the front; (Fernando) Torres, Raul, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, (Sergio) Ramos, (Carles) Puyol.
“Honestly, to this day, I have no doubt how we beat them. It’s one of those life memories that you take with you. I could sit and talk about that game forever.”
While Duff could reminisce over 700 matches worth of playing memories past, for now, his sights are set firmly on what a future as a manager holds.
As well as looking to bring League One football back to Cheltenham, the 43-year-old harbours ambitions beyond that.
“Speaking to Dychy he always told me, ‘make sure you win enough games to get to 100’, that’s the first port of call. I managed to tick that off and that was quite a big achievement for me.
“But I’m no different to any other manager out there. I want to manage at the highest level.”
Leaving the Burnley coaching team for the unstable environment of League Two management in 2019 may have been seen as risky.
But Duff’s ambition, determination to succeed and experience within the game has seen him turn the decision into the right one.
When it comes to decisions the high-flying Cheltenham boss admits he has had great support by his side throughout his career in Gary Mellor and the team at Beswicks Sports.
Now in his role of managing many young men who will be attracting interest from numerous agents within the game, Duff stresses how important it is that the modern-day player has representation they can rely on.
“My advice to a family of a young player would be to go and find the people you can trust the most and will have your son or daughter’s best interests at heart,” he said.
“Youngsters get offered all sorts to sign for agents who say they ‘we’ll give you this, this, this and that’. But I’ve seen lads getting released from our level and then their agents drop them because they think they won’t make any money from them.
“You need to have trust that they’ll have your back through setbacks and will support you outside of football. That’s what Beswicks Sports have done for me.”