Why Bristol Rovers should go all out for Michael Duff

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 16 November 2020, 12:57

After a 4-1 defeat to Fleetwood, Bristol Rovers dismissed Ben Garner as head coach.

There is certainly no ill will at the Mem towards Garner, who is respected as a good man, but equally it would be difficult to argue with the club’s decision given results.

Rovers have accrued 22 points from 26 games under the former Crystal Palace coach’s guidance and while the personnel did not suit his methods last season, the 40-year-old was backed well this season and delivered only a modest improvement in form.

Here’s why we think Bristol Rovers should go all out to get Michael Duff (20/1) to replace him.

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Progress with Cheltenham

Duff inherited a Robins side in a League Two relegation battle in September 2018 and kept them up comfortably that year with outstanding home form.

Duff’s side could have challenged for automatic promotion last season had it carried on organically and they are in the mix once again this year.

The former centre-back has had 87 league games in charge of Town and overseen a fantastic return of 136 points.

Cheltenham have had a middling League Two budget ranking similarly to Rovers in League One, so there is no reason why the Northern Irishman could not deliver similar success.

Same stylistic principles

Bristol Rovers have recruited to play possession-based football.

Brandon Hanlan, for example, rarely thrived as a lone striker while at Gillingham because he was playing in a direct system, meaning he needed a taller strike partner like Tom Eaves or Mikael Mandron to bring his pace and persistent running to the fore.

Rovers, though, signed him to lead the line because they felt Garner’s football on the deck would minimize the downside of Hanlan’s aerial limitations.

Zain Westbrooke, a title-winner with Coventry last season, is an attacking midfielder that likes the ball to feet, as is Erhun Oztumer, on loan from Charlton.

Oztumer starred at Walsall, where he both scored from his own half and from a corner, such was his individual quality – but when he played in a long ball Bolton side at Championship level, the games unsurprisingly passed him by.

In short, Bristol Rovers next manager has to be able to coach possession football and Duff has done so successfully.

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Could Michael Duff switch Cheltenham for Bristol Rovers?

Same formation

Ok… technically Garner has favoured a 3-4-2-1 while Duff has generally plumped for a 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2 at Cheltenham, but there are many parallels.

Duff had dabbled with 3-4-2-1 in pre-season and although he ultimately went for the two formations above, it shows his thinking is similar.

Cheltenham have had 17 different strikers under his guidance – Tyrone Barnett, Rakish Bingham, Sam Jones, George Lloyd, Manny Duku, Liam McAlinden, Kelsey Mooney, Luke Varney, Billy Waters, Alfie May, Tahvon Campbell, Tom Nichols, Reuben Reid, Gavin Reilly, Jonte Smith, Andy Williams and Callum Ebanks – even if a few of those preferred operating slightly deeper.

For that reason, it has made sense for Duff to incorporate two strikers, but he is certainly capable of tweaking his methods to suit the squad at Bristol Rovers, which has only Hanlan, James Daly and Jonah Ayunga as potential front men.

Duff likes to play three at the back, which suits the Gas’ strength at centre-back while the 42-year-old will get a lot of out rampaging wing-backs such as Josh Hare and David Tutonda, who have been vital.

Hare and Tutonda are both athletic, direct runners, so when Bristol Rovers’ play out from the back becomes awkward under an intense press, it is an advantage for them to be able to play a quick diagonal to set either away and relieve the pressure.

Strong leadership

Garner is clearly full of innovative ideas, so it could be that man management is a side of the job that he found challenging.

He was credited for being a good youth coach then first team coach at Crystal Palace but, when working with senior players, he had the advantage of working with strong characters in Ian Holloway, Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock and Alan Pardew.

Duff is somebody who has the conviction to implement his ideas, perhaps more clearly.

Many Gasheads have said that Garner is a nice guy but, interestingly, such observations are rarely made of Duff – Cheltenham fans do not love their manager because of any exceedingly altruistic charm, but rather because of what he has achieved for their football club in two different capacities.

Duff is brisk, driven and businesslike in his conduct, as well as very honest.

He is intelligent enough to recognize that shouting at his players after every below-par performance might not appeal to the modern footballer, but he does tell the truth – that way, players know where they stand. 

Wouldn’t need to re-locate

It was just over two years ago that Duff chose to leave Burnley Under-23s to begin the next chapter of his association with Cheltenham Town.

His family, at the time, were settled in East Lancashire according to Duff and there may not be a great appetite to move again to another part of the country.

Bristol Rovers are one of just three League One clubs, along with Swindon and Oxford, that Duff could realistically move to without needing to re-locate.

League One football

Duff may feel he needs to be managing in League One to have a chance of working in the top two divisions of English football.

Gary Rowett was the last manager to be headhunted by a Championship club from League Two and the then-Burton boss had a prior association with Birmingham, whereas Duff does not have that link with any current second-tier outfit, so it’s unlikely he will be able to jump two divisions.

We have, though, seen the likes of Grant McCann, Danny Cowley and Paul Hurst get shots at Championship level off the back of good work in the third tier.

Duff may feel he can get there with Cheltenham – and all credit to him if he decides to stay at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium (Whaddon Road) – but there would be certain risks attached to not being open to a mid-season move.

Firstly, if Cheltenham finish outside the top three then their season will be extended until late May or early June for the Play-Offs, leaving them with essentially a one in four chance of promotion.

In that situation, Duff could not either leave before the Play-Offs are concluded or agree a deal elsewhere outside the accepted practices without tarnishing his legacy at the football club.

If he remains and Cheltenham stay down, he would have missed a great opportunity to progress his career.

Individual coaching ability

Bristol Rovers would need to agree compensation with Cheltenham and they have not paid fees for their managers under Wael Al-Qadi’s regime, with Darrell Clarke and Graham Coughlan having been on the coaching staff and Garner having been out of work prior to their appointments.

It is unclear the fee required to prize Duff away from Gloucestershire, but it may well be worth the risk.

Ben Tozer was a middling League Two number six before working with Duff and is now a fantastic centre-back, while defenders Charlie Raglan and Will Boyle along with midfielders Chris Clements and Conor Thomas have all turned into consistent, top three League Two performers.

There is no reason, therefore, why Duff could not work wonders with Alfie Kilgour and Cian Harries, who are two very talented ball-playing defenders and convert them into multi-million pound footballers.

Duff’s coaching would also develop Chelsea loanees Josh Grant and Luke McCormick, thus strengthening the trust of the West London club.

If Bristol Rovers are prepared to pay compensation and Duff is willing to leave Cheltenham, they could be a force together.

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Ben Garner
Ben Garner
(Bristol Rovers)
14th November
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