We speak to those who have known Michael Duff during his playing and
MICHAEL Duff took himself from the eighth tier of English football to the Premier League as a player and Cheltenham Town from the brink of non-league to their highest ever position in his first managerial role and will now be looking to make more history after being named Barnsley’s head coach.
The 44-year-old, known as ‘Duffo’, began his playing career at Cheltenham then spent 12 years at Burnley, making more than 600 appearances for the two clubs combined across 20 years. He was the first player to be promoted to the Premier League three times with the same club and the first to play in the top eight English leagues.
He appeared in the Premier League for the Clarets, keeping clean sheets against the likes of Robin van Persie for Manchester United and Sergio Aguero’s Manchester City.
He also helped Northern Ireland – where he was born and for whom he won 24 caps – to famous victories over England’s ‘golden generation’ and a Spain team who would win the next three major tournaments.
His first managerial job with Cheltenham has marked him out as one of the best young coaches in the EFL.
Duff was a Cheltenham team-mate for five years with Martin Devaney, who moved on to Barnsley and will be a first team coach.
Kayode Odejayi also played with Duff and Devaney at Cheltenham before moving to Oakwell. The striker told the Chronicle: “Duffo was a really confident lad and always there to help you out if you needed it.
“His brother was at the club as well and his mum and dad were lovely people.
“I’ve got nothing but positive things to say.
“We came up against each other in training and had some good battles.
“He was a very good centre-back, very good on the ball, technically astute with a good football brain. It was only a matter of time before he moved on and it was no surprise that he played in the Premier League.”
During his time at Burnley, Duff played with Stephen Foster who later moved on to Barnsley.
The defender told the Chronicle: “I had a difficult time at Burnley but Duffo certainly helped me feel welcome.
“He was very dedicated and took football extremely seriously. You could sense then that he would make a good coach.
“He was a very good player but what stood out were his attitude and how much he cared.
“He always seemed one of the wiser heads at the club. He was a good character to be around.
“He had a winning mentality and didn’t like losing. He’s a Steady Eddie and level-headed.
“He has a presence about him. You want to be on his side and would be willing to work for him.
“We played under Steve Cotterill who worked us very very hard, so I am sure he has taken a lot from that and gets his players fit.”
Duff retired from playing in 2016 aged 38, having helped Burnley to the top flight for the third time, then coached their under 18s and under 23s until returning to Cheltenham as manager in September 2018 after the sacking of Gary Johnson.
He took them from battling relegation to non-league football to their highest ever position in less than four years.
Jon Palmer, who covers Cheltenham for Gloucestershire Live, said: “When he took over, he had come from Burnley and had been very much under the influence of Sean Dyche.
“He started off playing 4-4-2 and quite direct but it didn’t really work.
“He’s a club legend so the fans backed him even though he didn’t win for nine games.
“He switched to 3-5-2 against Arsenal under 23s in the EFL Trophy and they won 6-2.
“That was when the fortunes totally changed.
“They had looked like a relegation team but he kept them up comfortably.
“They should have gone up in his first full season, they were the best football team in the division, but Covid-19 ended the season then they threw it away in the play-offs.
“They kept the 3-5-2 but they added a bit of steel for the next season and won the league.
“They didn’t play as much good football but they were bigger and more robust.
“They could mix it with the footballing teams but also compete with the physical teams.
“They won League Two with the 17th highest budget, then finished 15th in League One with the second-lowest budget.
“You can’t argue with the job he’s done and it’s no surprise he’s been given another opportunity.
“He seems destined for a very good managerial career.
“As a person, he’s very affable with a good sense of humour. Most of the time you wouldn’t be able to tell by his mood in the post-match interviews if they have won or lost.”
Duff is known for getting his teams organised and extremely fit.
Palmer said: “There is a clear plan.
“All the players know exactly where they are supposed to be at all times.
“The fitness levels, organisation and man management are excellent.
“He understands players – having been at the top level relatively recently.
“He came in and laid out non-negotiables that the players had to do from the start, and they responded well.
“One of his greatest strengths is being able to spot tactical tweaks or changes during games which need to happen. He has shown a real knack for that and is tactically aware.
“There have been times where they’ve been really high-pressing but he has been quite flexible depending on the game, and sometimes they stand off teams.”
Odejayi is hoping his former team-mates Devaney and Duff have success at Oakwell.
“I think it will work really well.
“Martin and Duffo know each other really well, they go back a long way. They got on very well when we were at Cheltenham and hopefully they can hit it off again as coaches at Barnsley.
“It feels like a good fit. Martin has been a great servant to the club and honed his skills as a coach, Duffo has done a brilliant job at Cheltenham. I just wish them all the best. I get down to Barnsley games from time to time but maybe more now those two are in the dugout.”
Foster added: “It’s exciting and I am feeling quite positive about it. My son is a big Barnsley fan and has just bought a season ticket so I will be driving him over for quite a few games.
“Duffo did a very good job at Cheltenham with limited resources. He’s a young manager so will bring that desire and passion into the role.
“Barnsley have followed a certain pattern recently but have come out of it a little bit.
“Duffo and Davvers are good friends and there should be a good working relationship there. Davvers loves the club and knows it well.
“It’s an exciting prospect.”