EFL Reporter @simgholam
Michael Duff interview: Cheltenham boss discusses their League Two rise, Sean Dyche and Burnley
Michael Duff won the Sky Bet League Two Manager of the Month award for September
Last Updated: 30/10/19 2:54pm
As the games ticked by and he waited for a first win, there must have been times when Michael Duff wondered why he didn't just stay at Burnley.
Duff arrived at Cheltenham Town, his first job in management, last September, and had to wait until his 10th League Two game in charge for a first win. Now, just under 12 months later, the club are in the top seven and looking up.
His departure from Turf Moor is now looking like a very good decision.
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"I probably had a job for life at Burnley," Duff, a two-club man who spent his entire playing career at Cheltenham and Burnley before joining the Clarets' coaching staff after retiring in 2016, tells Sky Sports. "I had an unbelievable relationship with the club and the manager and I had access to the first team, so it wasn't like I was just with the U23s.
"But a lot of things lined up for me. The family wanted to come home and the kids were at the right age to do it. I've only had two clubs in a long career and it felt like the right thing to go back to where I started. I didn't apply for it but Cheltenham came to me and I knew at some point I wanted to stick my head above the parapet and have a go. I didn't want to get to 50 or 55 and think 'I could have done that'. I may get the sack next week and never get another job, but at least I know now that, even if I fail, I've had a go at it.
"There were some soul-searching moments during that poor run of why I had come here, and I'll always be appreciative of how little pressure there was on me from the club. I know at other clubs, managers have been sacked within eight or nine games, particularly when you've come from an U23s background. But any pressure I felt came purely from within."
Cheltenham had grabbed a couple of cup wins under Duff in the FA Cup and EFL Trophy, but it was his first victory in the league in mid-November that saw things swiftly start to come together. Their home form, in particular, has since been especially impressive and they are unbeaten in their last 16 games at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium.
Duff arrived 13 months ago with his own coaching and management principles, but has learned that those things can quickly change when you're the main man at a club.
"I thought I had my own ideas of how I wanted to come in and play," he said. "I wanted to go 4-4-2 and almost 'Burnley-fy' the place, if you like, getting them organised and hard to beat.
"But then I didn't win a game in my first 10 and you realise you need to try something different. So we ended up going another way, playing 3-5-2 because it suited the players we had. We play a really expansive style, normally with about 550-600 passes a game, which is a lot at this level.
"I thought I'd get them organised and more in a reflection of me, but I'm actually quite enjoying watching them play. Although I'm not stupid enough to think that if you play 500 passes and get beaten every week you're going to keep your job!"
They may play a different formation and style to Sean Dyche's Premier League outfit, but there are other ways in which Duff has 'Burnley-fied' Cheltenham. The former defender has trimmed a bloated squad to make sure they are a tight, motivated unit, all willing to work and fight together.
"We had 29 players when I arrived and then I brought in Luke Varney to make it 30," said Duff. "It was too many and you can't keep everybody happy. On my first day we did an 11 versus 11 and we had seven players sat on the sidelines! How are you supposed to keep them all motivated?
"Naturally when that happens, whether you like it or not, there will be a few unhappy faces and they will be sucking the life out of the dressing room. Even if they don't mean to do it, it will be having an impact on the people next to them. It's just a human thing.
"It was a bit of a risk because we had a few injuries at the start of the season and it left us down to the bare bones, but it just makes it more manageable. How can you keep players alive and motivated when they can see four players ahead of them? You are asking them to do things but from their point of view there is no point if they know they're not going to play. With a smaller group, even the players who weren't starting will know they are only one injury, a bad defeat or someone losing form away from getting into the team, so they have to be on it all the time.
"It keeps them alive in training and keeps the professionalism and standards better around the place. The most successful teams I've been a part of as a player normally came when there was a good core of players that were all pulling in the same direction. It is difficult to do that if you've got too many."
Duff worked closely with Dyche at Burnley for many years and it is clear that his former boss, both from his time as a player and as a coach, has had a huge impact on him.
"He was brilliant in that 10-game run and he rang me more than anyone else," said Duff. "I've got a brilliant relationship with him, not only as a player, where we won two promotions, but then also when I stepped over the other side.
"He brought me into his coaching setup and involved me in everything. I had half an hour every Saturday with him in his office when the coaching staff would go out, and I would just pick his brains for nuggets of information, which were always invaluable because he is so open and honest. In that bad run he would always call me up and see if he could help me in any way, and even now he still does.
"Our first home game of the season was at the same time as Burnley's, and afterwards I went into my office just after the game and saw a message on my phone from him, just after they had beaten Southampton 3-0. It just shows what kind of man he is that they had won their first Premier League game of the season and he text me straight away to say well done on us beating Scunthorpe. He's a good bloke who gets it, and is obviously also very good at what he does.
"There have been other people as well but I've probably spoken to him more than anyone else in the last 12 months."
But can Duff see himself replicating Dyche's achievements and one day managing at the highest level? As a player he rose from non-league to the top flight, and he hopes he can do something similar as a manager.
"I know I'm not going to get Cheltenham to the Premier League," he said. "I've got my own aims of what I want to achieve and where I want to be, but the main way of doing that is to keep doing well with Cheltenham. If I do better, the club does better, the players get more money and we get better attendances. If the players are doing well on the pitch then it reflects well on everybody.
"I know I'll never get to where I want to be if the club doesn't keep winning the next game. It took until I was 30 as a player but the aspiration was there, and anyone who says they don't want to manage in the Premier League is a liar.
"I obviously didn't go shouting it from the rooftops when I was playing in the Hellenic League because people would have thought I was mental, but it doesn't mean it's not inside you. You just have to keep working and striving and hopefully get a little bit of luck on the way."