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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Michael Duff single-minded as ‘Little Cheltenham’ take giant steps | Cheltenham

Last week the trademark Cheltenham roar could be heard a little more than a mile away. Michael Duff spent training sessions competing with the hum of helicopters parachuting the rich and famous into the Cotswolds but occasionally he asks his squad to tune into another frequency to ensure they stay grounded: the sound of children playing football at Swindon Village primary school next door.

“We’ve done it a couple of times at the start of training,” Cheltenham’s manager says. “‘Lads, just listen. Just run around and listen.’ There is no thought of egos or anything like that – they haven’t got an ego because they’re six years old; they’re just running around enjoying themselves. ‘Enjoy yourself, what a great place to be.’”

It is an approach inspired by watching Sean Dyche cut players down to size in pursuit of a strong culture at Burnley, where Duff spent 12 seasons as a player, making his Premier League debut at 31, and coached the under-18s and under-23s before returning to Cheltenham, for whom he signed as a trainee in 1996. Cheltenham’s strength stems from the unity fostered by Duff, who lifted the League Two title last season.

On taking over he enlisted the help of former Royal Marines, who later put the squad through their paces in the Forest of Dean, leading two players to come to blows. A conversation with Burnley’s sports psychologist, Simon Clarkson, when they discussed John Naber’s approach to shaving four seconds off his 100m backstroke time to win gold at the 1976 Olympics, resonates to this day. “You have to keep chipping away,” he says. “But you can’t cut corners. You get your days off and your family time but when you’re in, you’re in. There’s no going through the motions.”

Duff is an affable, engaging and self-deprecating character but the scale of his achievements should be taken seriously. Cheltenham head into Saturday’s trip to Sheffield Wednesday in the top half of League One and on course to eclipse their highest finish, 17th in this division in 2007. Duff believes the feat is unlikely to mean much to anyone beyond “a five-mile radius” but it ought to given only the bottom club, Crewe, are operating on a smaller budget in the division. “There is no point harping on about it: ‘Poor us, poor us,’” says Duff. “If we get beat, it’s not because we’ve got no money, it’s because we weren’t good enough.”

They have beaten Ipswich, Charlton and, more recently, Sunderland, after losing the reverse fixture in September. Duff smiles at the image of Dylan Barkers, who joined from Alvechurch last summer, filming the stands on arrival at the Stadium of Light. “We got thumped 5-0 so it wasn’t an enjoyable game – and we did well to get away with a five-niller. But we’ve improved. The good thing is we know what we are. We are ‘little Cheltenham’, but we’re doing all right.”

Duff is surely in manager-of-the-season territory. In his time the club have paid a fee for a single player: £5,000 for Alfie May, who has 22 goals this season and caught Pep Guardiola’s eye after opening the scoring against Manchester City in an absorbing FA Cup tie last year, after which Duff “went route one” and gave Guardiola a bottle of rioja before picking his brains. In August Cheltenham were powerless to prevent Wrexham signing their captain Ben Tozer for £200,000. They in effect cannot afford to sign League One players but have had joy borrowing Premier League youngsters, with Callum Wright excelling on loan from Leicester. Initially, the setup can be an eye-opener – Duff sometimes waters the training pitches with a hose pipe and players are made to wear shin pads.

Michael Duff celebrates after Cheltenham won League Two in May 2021.
Michael Duff celebrates after Cheltenham won League Two in May 2021. Photograph: Nizaam Jones/JMP/Shutterstock

Then there are the uncompromising forfeits. “One of them is the glove slap,” says Duff. “They get the goalkeeper’s glove, soak it in water, and then twat them across the face – twice. We often laugh because we say: ‘Can you imagine Ronaldo doing this?’ They have to do roly-polys from 18-yard box to 18-yard box. It’s horrible. But they all do it. Everyone’s the same. Don’t decide: ‘Well, he’s more important than her so I’m going to say hello to him but I’m going to blank the cleaner.’ It’s a load of nonsense. Just because you’re a footballer, it’s not acceptable to be a knobhead.”

For Duff, trips to Hillsborough are poignant given he was three rows back in the main stand on the day of the disaster in 1989. Duff, then an 11-year-old in Nottingham Forest’s school of excellence, attended with his father, John, who spent 50 years in the military and was then based at RAF Leeming. “There was this lad, in my mind he was early 20s, crying his eyes out, tears streaming down his face, trying to rip off this advertising board to create a stretcher,” he recalls. “He went: ‘I’ve got five brothers in there and I can’t find fucking one of them.’

“They started taking what, looking back now, were clearly dead bodies on stretchers into the corner. The horses made a big ‘wall’ on the halfway line and then my dad scooted me off. We nearly got home by the time we got to a payphone. Everyone used to watch the semi-final of the FA Cup. My family was watching it, knowing we were there, but not where we were sat. Every phone box had 25 people outside it, trying to ring home and say: ‘I’m all right.’ I don’t particularly like going back there. It always stirs up strange emotions. It was a sad day.”

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On days off Duff often finds himself at the training ground to watch his eldest son, Tommy, who plays for Cheltenham under-14s. A tee time at his nearby golf course – Duff plays off three – is the only time the phone goes away but he acknowledges the goldfish-bowl feel of being immersed in the town has its pluses and minuses, taking up a story about an evening with his former Burnley teammates Joey Gudjonsson and Steve Jordan.

“We had a game on the Saturday so I’d gone: ‘Lads, no one out tonight.’ We went into a piano bar and the girl who walked us in said: ‘I’ve just got to get some people off your table’ … two of my players,” Duff says, deadpan. “To say they looked like they had seen a ghost was an understatement.”

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