It’s been a season of three thirds for Cheltenham.
A fine start up saw Michael Duff’s side in the League Two automatic promotion places in the middle of October. Then for a couple of months they couldn’t stop drawing, a run of one win in ten games seeing them slip out of contention. And since the turn of the year they have dragged themselves back, with seven wins from the last ten and their 2-1 victory over Northampton on Tuesday was their fourth on the spin.
Naturally, as things are pretty congested at the top of the table, but that win certainly leaves them within striking distance of the top three. After a consolidating season last term, his first in charge and first as a manager, Duff is still learning the ropes.
But having spent the second half of his playing career at Burnley, he had some pretty good teachers.
“Steve Cotterill was a big, big influence on my career. He’s the one that gave me my chance at Cheltenham. He took me to Burnley, give me my chance at Burnley, and I still speak to him a lot.
“As regards to personality wise and the way I think, I learned the most on the management side from Sean Dyche. As much as because I got to 38 and I had an idea that this [management] is what I want to get into, this is what I want to do, so started analysing debrief sessions, pre-match sessions, coaching sessions, just because he’s not a bad one to learn from. I think we’ve got similar sort of values, similar sort of backgrounds.
“The two the two key influences would be Steve, who I still speak to a lot because he had great success playing 3-5-2. I do pick his brain about the tactical side – with Bristol City I think they won over 100 points in League One. He understands the system unbelievably well.”
That 3-5-2 system has proved successful, but only after some experimentation, which Duff says is crucial to discovering the best way for a team to play.
“I’m not too bothered by the word philosophy – it’s giving the players the roles and responsibility so they understand the formation. When I first came in, I tried 4-4-2, I tried 4-3-3 and it didn’t work.
“Something I learned quite quickly is it’s alright having these ideas, my ideas, but you’ve got work with what you got. Now we’ve found the 3-5-2 – or 3-4-1-2, dress up as you want – players do have clear roles within it. So when certain players had the ball, people had to make certain movements. Centre-forwards make runs off certain people, not off other people.”
Having a defined system is even more important for those centre-forwards, given that Cheltenham have so many of them. Luke Varney came off the bench to score the winner on Tuesday, but one of Duff’s key task is to manage the eight forwards currently on the club’s books.
“Varney and Reuben Reid have been out for a big chunk of the season – we’re trying to manage them, so they’re almost taking it turns. So the last three games Reg has started and Reuben’s come on and scored, and we swapped it around on Tuesday. It makes me look good, but I think everyone realises that no one cares – as long as somebody scores, as long as the team’s winning, we’re all winning.
“It’s not ideal: we’ve got eight centre-forwards. But Reuben was out for pretty much the whole season up until Christmas and broke down just in and around Christmas. Varney was out for nine or ten weeks. We were getting to the end of the window, and I went to the board and I said, “look,the position that we’re in, I’d rather cover all bases and have too many than not enough.”
“Now, luckily, they’ve both stayed fit and both scored goals. But we brought in Alfie May, so there is competition for places. It probably is too many, but I’d rather have too many and get into the position we are in now, rather than thinking ‘I wish I would’ve brought one or two in.’”
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