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Sat 21 May15:00
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What next for Cheltenham manager Michael Duff?

Michael Duff has been in charge of Cheltenham since 2018
Michael Duff has been in charge of Cheltenham since 2018

Cheltenham Town’s marriage with Michael Duff is approaching a crossroads.

The legendary Northern Irishman had plenty of goodwill at the Johnny-Rocks Stadium (Whaddon Road) when he first took charge, because of his achievements as a player.

After a nervy 10-game winless streak at the start of his inaugural job in management, though, it’s been all uphill for Duff.

Immaculate home form in the second half of the 2018-19 campaign ensured comfortable survival, before a sustained promotion push the following season ended in a heart-breaking semi-final loss to Northampton.

Town roared back to secure the title the following season under Duff’s guidance and, despite challenges such as the summer departure of captain, key centre-back and long throw extraordinaire Ben Tozer, they look set for their highest ever finish.

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After a 4-0 thumping of Doncaster last time out moved them three points off the magic 50 mark, the Robins have soared to 14th in League One, with their current best being 17th at this level in 2006-07 under John Ward.

It may not concern Duff, who is typically brisk and business-like with little time for abstract musings, but the 44-year-old is already rivalling his former gaffer, Steve Cotterill, as the Cotswold club’s greatest ever manager.

With that in mind, Duff’s tenure could go one of two ways.

He could go from being a club legend to a club icon, much like Gareth Ainsworth at Wycombe or John Coleman at Accrington Stanley.

Not likely, exactly, but not impossible either, given that Duff is already at a club where he is adored, him and his wife already have a house in Cheltenham and the kids are at school there.

Then again, there is a limit as to how far the Robins can realistically go as a club, even with brilliant management, and that limit is not far off where they are right now.

While it may be true that clubs with broadly non-league histories in Yeovil, Burton and Wycombe have reached the Championship in the last decade, it’s getting harder for League One underdogs to replicate those feats.

If Cheltenham are to pull off a miracle in the next year or two, they will have to rely on two things.

Firstly, they will need some of the big clubs in their division – a few of Ipswich, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Portsmouth, Bolton and Charlton - to make mistakes, as well as well-structured outfits like Oxford, MK Dons and/or Wycombe to drop-off.

While there may still be some question marks at one or two of those aforementioned clubs, it’s hard to see League One opening up so much in the next couple of seasons that a huge underdog can make the top six – especially if, theoretically, we add Barnsley and Peterborough into the mix.

Secondly, Cheltenham must operate very smartly as a club, which involves selling players for big money, recruiting intelligently and improving the infrastructure.

That, too, is difficult to imagine, because so much of the club’s rise is down to the brilliance of Duff’s coaching, as opposed to the merits of the structure in place.

Cheltenham have a decent scouting setup, as Adie Britton joins from Bath City to assist Micky Moore – the man behind the scenes, having been appointed just after Gary Johnson’s departure – and John O’Dwyer: all three are experienced figures with an eye for a player.

Elsewhere, though, there remains some question marks over issues such as transparency, ticket pricing and budget relative to that, despite a fair recruitment drive in January.

The chances are, Cheltenham could only stay in their current position with Duff – and probably decline significantly if he left.

The Championship?

Last week’s article on The Sack Race talked about another talented coach elsewhere in this neck of the woods, in Rob Edwards at rivals Forest Green Rovers - scroll down to read.

In some cases, though, bottom half Championship clubs can be reluctant to take a punt on a lower league boss who likes attacking, expansive football, because they perceive that to be too much of a risk or ineffective in a potential dogfight – although Ryan Lowe is faring superbly at Preston North End.

An extremely broad-brush accepted rule of thumb in the second-tier is that a poor route one side will often beat a poor possession side, but a good possession team will beat a strong direct outfit.

It tends to only be bottom half Championship clubs that have interest in managerial talent from League One and League Two, thus more likely to find themselves at risk of a dogfight and in need of pragmatism.

Where Duff will appeal is that on the one hand, he can whip a team into shape.

While Lowe has built the kind of teams that he, as a former striker, would have loved to play in, Duff, as a former centre-back, would love to play in too.

Key to Cheltenham’s rise in League Two has been a solid, consistent, reliable defensive trio of Charlie Raglan, Tozer and Will Boyle, who knew one another’s game inside out and thus always got the right distances by instinct.

It has taken some time to rediscover that familiarity in League One due to Tozer’s exit, occasional injuries to Boyle and a more significant one to Raglan, but with the latter two now fully fit and Mattie Pollock faring superbly in the middle, they’ve brought it back.

Pollock’s development, especially, is a feather in Duff’s cap: the Watford loanee is only 20 but, having already played 72 games in senior football, he is maturing very quickly.

The former Grimsby academy graduate is bulking up quickly, becoming dominant and aggressive beyond his years, surely benefiting from the quality of coaching.

Plus, the Robins under Duff are so often well-drilled collectively, as well as in terms of the defence itself.

In the victory over Doncaster, for example, the midfield trio of Elliot Bonds, Jacob Ramsey and Callum Wright held no orthodox destroyer, with each of those players being under 22 and naturally attack-minded – yet this was not a naïve, lightweight side wide open in the middle.

Each player took responsibility for the ground they covered when Cheltenham needed to stay compact, which meant they could carry a variety of threats in that midfield, without being vulnerable defensively.

Essentially, what Duff offers is tactical balance, and the ability to master more than one phase of play.

This is appealing for bottom half Championship clubs, because he ticks the box required for those looking to stabilize, re-organize and go back-to-basics, but he is not a quick fix.

It’s possible to appoint Duff as a short-term measure, whilst still having a long-term vision for progression within the division – and on a low budget.

Bristol City, if Nigel Pearson were to leave at any point, would be a smart move for Duff, because it would allow him to test himself at a higher level without destabilizing his family life.

Cardiff might have been an option, but the Bluebirds have committed to Steve Morison for another year, so the only obvious remaining alternative would be Burnley.

Sean Dyche may feel, if the Clarets are relegated, that he has done more than enough to earn a Premier League job and thus choose to depart Turf Moor, which could open up a window for Duff, but a move to East Lancashire would require more personal and familial change.

Whatever move he makes, this is a man for the future: and Cheltenham fans should enjoy Duff while they have him.

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