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Five names in the frame to replace Michael Duff at Cheltenham

Whoever replaces Michael Duff has huge shoes to fill in the Cheltenham dugout
Whoever replaces Michael Duff has huge shoes to fill in the Cheltenham dugout

How do you follow that?

Michael Duff’s long and happy association with Cheltenham Town started when he was spotted by scout Derek Bragg for his performances at youth level for Carterton in 1996, and ended with him delivering a highest ever finish as a manager in 2022, prior to an expected move to Barnsley.

Much has been achieved by the Northern Irishman with Cheltenham in playing and managing capacities across the intervening 26 years, even if he was away from the Cotswolds for 14 of them.

And, with only memories left of Duff’s reign, his successor is in something of a tight spot.

The best that can realistically be achieved, when half the league are either giants for the level or clubs that are at a very different stage of their trajectory, is another midtable finish – and however huge an accomplishment that would be, it may not feel as fresh to some given what’s gone before.

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Cheltenham are naturally one of the smallest clubs in the division, and the work of Duff, assistant Russ Milton, first team coach Wade Elliott and Director of Football Micky Moore has helped them not only bridge the budgetary gulf to achieve what they did, but also mask imperfections at boardroom level.

For all Town have achieved on the field, they could reasonably be criticised for not being particularly proactive off it: especially when it comes to attracting new supporters.

The ticketing policy is very fair to the hardcore demographic, less so casual outsiders, the match-day experience is mixed for those drawn by more than just the 90 minutes and for a long time, the club put a lot of responsibility on inexperienced figures in areas such as commercial and marketing.

Some of these issues are being worked through this summer: the in-ground food should be improved next season, a head of commercial in Richard Morris was appointed in February and he is recruiting to expand the department, so Cheltenham can start to operate like a League One club.

Without underestimating the financial and logistical challenges that come with this, it’s crucial that the Robins strengthen other muscles in order to consolidate at this level, because they can no longer bank on consistent managerial brilliance.

Although, these five possible candidates may be hoping they can pick up Duff’s work and make 2022/23 the start of a new era, rather than the end of an old one...

Gary Caldwell
Gary Caldwell

Gary Caldwell

Why he should get the job

Cheltenham could do with three things from their next boss: experience of managing in senior football, top level contacts in order to secure the best loan deals, and somebody who is young enough to connect with the modern generation whilst still learning and evolving.

Caldwell has all three of those things. He has won a title at this level with Wigan in 2015/16, just 15 months after retiring from playing and was, at that stage, regarded as one of the most exciting young bosses in English football.

The former defender is remembered very fondly in West Lancashire, and since his controversial dismissal just three months into the following Championship campaign, a few things have gone against him.

It’s often claimed that anyone could have won the league with the ‘Tics given the advantages in terms of budget and strength in depth – valid up to a point, although Sheffield United finished 11th that year - yet few mention external factors in more difficult times.

Chesterfield was a poisoned chalice, with a toxic director in Ashley Carson and an owner in Dave Allen who was voted the worst in English football; while Caldwell could have dealt his cards better in Derbyshire, it was a tough job for anyone and that was proven in the club’s subsequent decline.

At Partick Thistle, Caldwell delivered a seventh-placed finish in the Scottish Premiership, but upset the fans by moving on some influential figures, then did not get the time and autonomy he required to change the culture and playing style.

Despite this, Caldwell remains highly regarded by Premier League clubs and was head coach of Newcastle’s Under-23s for a period, as well as being Man City’s loans manager.

City are one of the world’s most successful clubs of the modern era, they are meticulous in how they operate and do not give jobs out without rating the candidate.

Those tenures give the 40-year-old a huge advantage in the loan market: we have already seen what an impact Elliot Anderson, James Trafford, Callum and Tommy Doyle have made in the EFL.

Cheltenham cannot afford transfer fees unless nominal, or poaching players from two or three leagues below, they will struggle to offer bigger wages for players out of contract in the same division, so the loan market is their best chance of getting high-end quality for minimal outlay.

Caldwell holds the keys to that area of business, and his various experiences in management equip him for the challenges ahead of Cheltenham better than a coach coming into senior football cold.

Why he might not

Perception is a factor in the way a lot of clubs operate.

The noise that surrounds Caldwell - some of which is genuine criticism and some of which is clouded by elements of fabrication and misinformation – means the appointment would require some patience and open-mindedness from supporters.

Cheltenham are losing a revered, legendary figure who has succeeded overwhelmingly for four seasons in succession, so to plump for someone who has not conclusively thrived in senior management for six years would be a risk and take a certain amount of thinking outside the box.

Verdict

A bold pick, but would win over a section of initial doubters and strike crucial loan deals that could prove game-changers for Cheltenham.

Darren Ferguson
Darren Ferguson

Why he should get the job

Ferguson is a vastly experienced EFL manager, having won five promotions in his career, including with Peterborough in 2020/21.

Cheltenham are in a period of uncertainty, with a fantastic manager leaving along with Will Boyle and possibly Alfie May, while loanees like Callum Wright, Kion Etete and Mattie Pollock are unlikely to return.

It could be a huge plus, therefore, to have a proven League One manager in situ to settle everything down and help Robins fans breathe a little easier while the club undergoes the biggest squad rebuild for four years.

Fergie Jr’s Posh promotion-winners of 2020/21 flipped between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-1-2, thanks to the versatility of Nathan Thompson, Dan Butler, Joe Ward and Sammie Szmodics.

The formational flexibility afforded by having a core of adaptable operators would mean Cheltenham could run with a smaller squad, and focus more on quality over quantity.

Not only that, the Scot’s credentials mean he can attract oven-ready League One performers in their late-20s and early-30s, which is something the current squad could be short of once Alfie May goes – generously, Matty Blair and Liam Sercombe are the only ones who come into that category.

Why he might not

Ferguson’s only bona fide success as a manager has come at Peterborough.

His time at Preston North End in 2010 was a failure, and the Glaswegian oversaw relegation at Doncaster in 2015/16, before getting them back up at the first attempt the following campaign prior to a steady first year back in 2017/18.

Ferguson has a great relationship with Darragh MacAnthony as Posh chairman and Director of Football Barry Fry, and it could be argued that he relishes working with a charismatic board.

Cheltenham are more understated at boardroom level and Ferguson would need to be happy with a different working environment.

Not only that, ‘head coach’ will be the job title, which hints at a younger, tracksuit tactician willing to focus on the grass, leaving day-to-day operations to Moore: a description that may not represent a natural fit with the former Wrexham midfielder.

Verdict

A steady hand to help steer Cheltenham through a potentially awkward campaign, but might want more autonomy than the remit allows for.

David Artell
David Artell

David Artell

Why he should get the job

David Artell has overseen progress in five of his six seasons as manager at Crewe, developed some of the EFL’s most exciting talent and got his side playing, broadly, attractive football in the process.

There were plenty of mitigating factors in the relegation campaign that led to his dismissal as Alex boss – chiefly injuries, the loss of key players on low release clauses and a lack of support in the recruitment process.

The latter is less likely to resurface at Cheltenham, because Director of Football Mickey Moore is highly regarded internally, even if he isn’t a particularly vocal figure at Town.

Moore’s good work in player identification means Artell can be freed up to channel his energy into what he does best.

Plus, Artell is credited with bringing the academy much closer to the first team at Crewe; Cheltenham have rarely produced EFL calibre players in their own back-yard, but with the former defender’s input, they can improve the progression plans for homegrown talent.

Artell would likely be rather bullish about the importance of an Under-23s setup, which the Robins do not currently have and thus, it becomes harder for youngsters to make the jump.

Why he might not

Artell has a reasonably young family and a home in Cheshire, which would be approximately two hour’s drive from Whaddon Road.

In order for him to take this job, therefore, he would need to either relocate his family, or have a secondary base in the Cotswolds and make tough compromises.

On top of that, the climate of modern football dictates that perception of managers and players can fluctuate wildly in short periods of time and recency bias can prevail in some quarters.

Some can get fixated on having the manager who is immediately high in stock, over the manager who has done more over a longer period.

Verdict

A strong appointment if Artell is willing to make the logistics work, and if the club can commit to a more academy-orientated blueprint with which to move forward.

League One 2021/22: Top Five Managers of the Season

The standard League One campaign is now complete, so ahead of the eagerly anticipated play-offs we thought it would be an ideal time to reveal our 'Top Five Managers of the Season', courtesy of Football League expert Gab Sutton.…

Russ Penn

Why he should get the job

Cheltenham’s better managers in their modern history have had a prior affiliation with the club: Steve Cotterill is a Cheltonian by birth, while Mark Yates and Michael Duff had been key parts of Town’s rise over the late ‘90s and early noughties.

Russ Penn was part of the Robins side that twice reached the League Two Play-Offs under Yates, losing in the Final to Crewe and the Semi-Final to Northampton in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

A driven, tenacious midfielder in his playing days, Penn has translated those qualities into management, inspiring not only a National League North promotion challenge in 2021/22, but also a historic FA Cup run.

Penn’s Harriers side reached the Fourth Round for the first time in 35 years by beating Championship side Reading, and came within a whisker of defeating Premier League West Ham.

The spirit Penn has cultivated at Aggborough is quite special and something the 36-year-old would look to replicate at Whaddon Road.

Not only that, Penn’s knowledge of the non-league scene will allow him to locate possible gems for the Robins.

Accrington Stanley have stabilized at this level on the lowest budget by plucking Tommy Leigh, David Morgan, Colby Bishop, Dion Charles and Sam Finley from that market with plenty of success; Cheltenham could look to do similar.

Why he might not

It may be harder for Cheltenham to land the top available talents on loan from Premier League clubs with Penn as manager, than perhaps someone else, because he does not have the contacts at the top of the game.

Equally, he doesn’t have the pull of somebody in the Darren Ferguson mould, in terms of attracting experienced League One players.

Given how well the Robins will have to recruit this summer with the size of the rebuild required over the next six weeks, Penn does not represent much in the way of pulling power which could leave them starting the campaign on the back-foot.

Verdict

Would be a romantic choice and capable of captivating a room, but lack of clout in the transfer market means he might not be the right fit for a summer that requires so much business.

Wade Elliott

Why he should get the job

A lot of the fans want him.

Wade Elliott is a highly respected figure in the dressing room, in the board room and with the supporters. At a time of upheaval, having a semblance of stability in the dugout could be huge in terms of keeping everything on an even keel.

The 43-year-old has been part of the club’s journey for the last two seasons and given how successful the team has been in that time, it makes sense to minimize disruption.

Plymouth Argyle lost a promotion-winning manager of their own in Ryan Lowe, and appointing Steven Schumacher proved a master-stroke: they marginally improved under the former assistant, got to 80 points and were hugely unlucky to miss out on the Play-Offs.

Cheltenham can bolster the management team by promoting Antoine Thompson to first team coach as aid for Elliott and Russ Milton, then recruiting a new Academy Manager to fill the new vacancy – which would be a cost-effective option that would allow for more money in the kitty.

Town have a relatively young squad: defender Lewis Freestone, all-action left-sider Ben Williams, adaptable midfielder Ellis Chapman, tough-tackler Elliot Bonds and talented forward Charlie Brown could benefit from continuity.

Also, choosing the manager that fans want will maintain the feel-good factor which is in jeopardy now Duff has left, which takes some of the weight off the PR, commercial and marketing teams.

If the fans are happy, it makes selling the club to people in various forms that much easier.

Why he might not

Choosing the manager that fans want might keep happy families for a while, but it’s not a rigorous, scientific recruitment method that will lead to sustained results.

There are thousands of coaches out there, any one of whom could be perfect for Cheltenham, so is it lazy to plump for the person who is already employed by the club and whom supporters are calling for?

Many fans might want Elliott, and should of course have their voices heard, but they are not the ones doing meticulous due diligence on alternative candidates and so, up to a point, Moore and co. must distance themselves slightly from the consensus.

The 43-year-old has had a decent but not esteemed coaching career and has worked as a caretaker manager previously but never as a number one.

Cheltenham are appointing a head coach to either go toe-to-toe with the experience of John Coleman, Darrell Clarke, Derek Adams and Steve Cotterill, or – perhaps more likely, based on the job spec - the high-end coaching credentials of Ben Garner, Ian Burchnall and Mark Kennedy.

The appointment of Elliott, it could be argued, risks falling short on both counts.

Plus, Duff distanced himself slightly with players at times, which may have allowed Elliott to forge closer relationships, the dynamics of which could be difficult to alter – something that would be essential if he were to become head honcho.

Verdict

The manager who would immediately galvanize the fanbase, connect with the existing players and give Cheltenham the best chance of starting 2022/23 strongly – but sometimes a board must go against the grain and cast the net wider to make the best appointment.

Elliott should be given the job not because the fans want him but because, after an extensive, detailed search of all the possible candidates, he sticks at the forefront of Moore’s mind.

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