In episode five of our #ManagersAtHome series, we spoke to high-flying Cheltenham Town manager Michael Duff, who opens up about getting the Cheltenham job and his first 18 months in management.
“In my last year at Burnley we won the league but after that Sean Dyche said to me ‘look if you want to keep playing you’ll have to do it elsewhere, but the coaching option is still there for you.
“At the age of 38 I had played a lot of games, had a lot of success and to squeeze one year out, I just thought of the bigger picture and thought it’s time to look at a new career. I did a year with the U18s at Burnley, then I stepped up and did a year with the U23s, and last year I started all of pre-season with the first team and did the first six weeks of the season then and went back to the U23s for two weeks. The Cheltenham job came up, they approached me, I wasn't looking to move, I was quite happy with where I was and then ultimately I had to make a decision.
“Do I leave a Premier League club with unbelievable facilities and fantastic environment, or do I stick my head above the parapet? I didn't want to be that guy in the pub saying ‘I could've done this and that’ I want to give it a go. It’s definitely not what I expected, it’s a lot harder than what I thought but I’ve loved every minute of it.”
The ex-Northern Ireland defender spent eight years as a player at Cheltenham before becoming manager in 2018
The last two managers Duff played under were Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche - who have both gone on to manage a combined 362 games in the Premier League. The 42-year-old spoke about the difference between the two, and why it was difficult for Howe at Burnley.
“They are totally different personalities, Eddie is more of a coach whereas Dychey is properly the best mentality coach in the business. Eddie had it tough at Burnley, he’s only a month older than me and walked into an old dressing room, there must’ve been 10 players 30+, all the same age or older than him. Now I’m on the other side of it I know was probably really tough. It probably didn't quite work but I did learn a lot from him, a lot of his coaching sessions were great and the detail he used to go into was second to none.”
Duff played 110 games under Dyche, and he explains how he helped him transition from a player into a manager…
“Obviously with 'Dychey' (Sean Dyche) I was playing but I knew this was the route I wanted to go down. So I was properly studying him then, I was watching back analysis sessions and the wordings of how he delivered things. When I went into the coaching side of it, he's great in terms of the fact that he's an open book, so at home games - particularly when I was an U18s coach or with the 23s - I'd be on the earpiece sat up in the stands so when the lads went for a warm up at 2.20, it would be me and him sat in the office.
“I had 25 minutes/half an hour every week trying to pick at him and get little nuggets, and he'd go "now you've seen it from the other side, you were a player last year and what a d*ckhead he's been, look what I've got to deal with.”
“You're like yeah, I see it a little bit differently now. So he's been unbelievable, particularly when I first took the job as well - I didn't win a game for 10 games. He was on the phone, two or three times a week just making sure I was alright and saying stick with it, you'll be alright; to have someone at that level in your corner almost has been great."
Duff says that Sean Dyche massively helped him integrate into the world of management
Cheltenham finished 16th in League Two last season after Duff was appointed in September, but after a 3-5-2 formation change, results started to take an upward turn, which saw them lose just four of their final 14 league games last term.
After studying this formation by watching Antonio Conte teams and Sheffield United, the club also recruited around this style to establish an exciting new identity. Duff and his side have gone from strength to strength, which has seen him pick up two League Two Manager of the Month awards, with his team on course to earn their highest league position in nine years this season.
In March, the league was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic and it’s now being reported that Cheltenham could play in a four-team promotion play-off against Matt Taylor's Exeter, John McGreal's Colchester and Keith Curle's Northampton. Duff, however, is still not clear on any of the details.
“We just don’t know! We’re preparing to come in and play the play-offs but we’ve only been given one part in the return to play, which is the groups of five and the distancing. So we don’t know how to move it on as that’s not been brought up by the government yet.
“We don’t know if it’ll be one leg or two legs, we know it’s going to be behind closed doors but we don’t know if it’ll be home or away or at neutral venues. We’ve been given no dates and you’ve got player contracts that will be running out on the 30th of June.
“It’s a mess and it’s hard, hence why I was speaking to Matty Taylor and John McGreal yesterday, to find out what’s going on because we’re all in the dark. We’re waiting on League One I think, but by all accounts League One is a bit of a mess as well - there’s a few agendas getting in the way at that level. It is really frustrating as much as anything, the players are in the same boat, the board is in the same boat, everyone wants to know what’s going on so we can get going.
Football Manager has seen record users during lockdown and any die-hard Championship Manager fan will know how much of a legend “Mike Duff” was during the early-00s editions of the game.
“Unfortunately it was a computer game and wasn't true, I was cat food not Cafu! I think they did a 10 year anniversary and they wrote a book and I was in it; they rang me up and that's when I really found out.
“I played a little bit of it, probably 20 years ago when I played, went home and played on the computer, that's before I had kids, jobs and responsibilities. But yeah I've had to do quite a few things for them along the anniversaries and little bits that pop up.
“I ended up winning ‘world player of the year’ a couple of times, so that definitely wasn't true. I think the house would be slightly bigger than it is now if it were, though!”
Watch the full #ManagersAtHome episode with Michael Duff on our YouTube channel from 6pm on Sunday, where he gives us his three past or present isolation managers - including a left-field choice from someone outside of the world of football.