Cheltenham Town manager Michael Duff has been speaking to the press ahead of their home tie against Salford City on afternoon.
The Robins come into this key clash on the back of a disappointing 2-0 loss to Barrow on Tuesday night.
Read what he had to say in his press conference on Thursday morning.
Why do you think it’s been so difficult this season for teams to go on a good run of form?
It’s not Covid, it’s the crowds. Obviously Covid means that the crowds can’t come but it is down to having no fans. It’s hard to get momentum when you’re asking the players to go again and again, and again. That’s the one thing that was untested until this season: that mental fatigue. Players would normally get a buzz and a lift off the crowd, but they don’t have that energy to feed off now. It’s more mental tiredness than anything else. It’s not about the players’ love of the game, it’s that concentration and being able to go week after week. It’s tough and you can see that across every league.
How difficult is it for you and your coaching staff to enjoy the process of preparing to play so often?
It’s tough. It’s difficult for everyone at the moment. I’m conscious that the supporters will be bored of hearing me speak so often. It’s the same voice all the time, so that’s why we’ve changed it up a bit over the last few weeks. It is monotonous.
The players have been good. They’ve been great in terms of sticking to the process and sticking to what works, but again it’s tough and it’s relentless. You’re having to watch a lot of football. You’re spending more time in the classroom than on the training ground, which is where the players want to be. If they’re not playing a game, then they want to be on the grass training, but you can’t let them all the time because of the physical side of things.
It’s tough and it’s the same for everyone else. Other than Manchester City, the build-up has affected everyone.
Is it important to remind the media and fans alike that the players are just humans too?
I think that supporters sometimes forget about that aspect because football is all they’ve got to look forward to at the minute. They’re getting up for the game and they’re watching it on iFollow or following it on social media and the club’s website, and it’s probably their highlight of the week. I’d just like them to remember that it is difficult for the players also. There are no crowds, you’re getting changed in boardrooms and bars, and the pitches are poor at the moment, so there’s lots of things that aren’t going their way. That’s not necessarily an excuse because it’s their job and they’re getting paid to do exactly that, but it’s not quite as easy as saying “Why can’t you play like that every week?” because I don’t think that we’re the only team that want to win games. Obviously, we’re top of the league, so we’re managing the current climate more than most. It’s just a case of us staff pushing the players on and controlling them towards the end of the season. There’s only 20/25% of the season left, so there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully next season it’ll get back to normal.
What does success look like for you over the next three weeks?
If you are asking for a points total, I won’t give you one because I think that this week has proven more than any that you can’t pick and choose who you pick up points against. I’ve got an idea in my head how many points we’ll need after the next eleven games, but I won’t be breaking that down game-by-game. We’ll go into every half of every game. If we’re not winning one half then we’ll go again and try to win the next one. We talked about a process at the start of the interview and that’s exactly what we’re aiming for in the next few weeks.
Gary Neville complemented the club for their performance earlier in the season, what do you make of that praise?
It’s always nice when people say positive things about you and your team rather than negative things. Gary understands the game better than a lot of people and to be fair, Richie [Towell] said exactly the same thing after the game. He said it’s one of the best points he’s ever got in his career as a manager. It was clear to see for everyone on the day that we were the better team but credit to them. They’ve got the best defensive record in the league, they’re hard to beat and they held on well as you have to do. I think it’ll be a different type of game this time around, but it’s up to us to try and repeat that performance.
How much have you been able to watch of Salford recently?
Enough. I watched their last two-and-a-half games, so I know that they’ve tweaked what they do from when we last faced them. A 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 seems to be Richie’s preferred formation. He has toyed around with it a bit though this season and has been known to play a back three on occasion. They can’t quite easily flick between the two because of their personnel. There’s not many four or five nil’ers in this league. Most games are tight and that could be seen last week. Even when we went three-nil up, they ended up getting two back. It’s going to be really, really tough.
They’re just outside the play-offs now and have nothing to lose in a way. Does them not walking the league as some people thought they would show how difficult League Two is?
I think that’s disrespectful. I said it at the start of the season, but they still could go on a good run to win the league. If you look at their squad on paper, and I know that winning on paper gets you nothing, but to say that they’d romp the league is unfair. It’s incredibly difficult. They’ve some great players, incredible depth and a very good manager, who won the league last year with Swindon, so they’ve got all the ingredients. They are the marquee team in the league, so I’m sure that they have to deal with players always getting up for it when they play against them because they all know that if you are not at it, they’ve got players that can really hurt you. We know that we’re going to have to be at our best to beat them. You have to be like that every week though. We weren’t at our best on Tuesday, and we got beaten.
Do your ‘speak up’ sessions help after incidents like Tuesday happen where mistakes are made?
Yeah, because it’s players taking responsibility. It’s easy for me to come in and point fingers, but they have to understand that they play a massive part in the process too. It’s nothing major because we don’t tell them that they’re the best team in the world when they win games, and we equally don’t tell them that they’re the worst when they lose. It’s about trying to take the positives out of every game and moving with that. The positive might be a negative if that makes sense. If someone has made a mistake and we help them to learn from that and they move on, then we’ve flipped the negatives to be a positive. The good thing about these sessions though is that the players are all talking in their own environment. Sometimes when the staff walk in, players will shy away because they don’t want to talk in front of a whole group or in front of staff, so these scenarios allow the players to talk in a comfortable environment. I’m able to get what I need from the meetings and it allows me to avoid having to sit there and ask them all what the problem is.
There’s not been many times this season where you’ve come out after a game and said the opposition wanted it more, but that was the case on Tuesday. How do go about preventing that from happening again in the future?
I think that after watching back the game, we’ve conceded two freak goals and I know people say different things about stats, but we’ve had six or seven times the xG [expected goals] they were putting out. They’ve scored from a cross that we’ve missed and watched go right into the corner, we’ve hit the post and had it cleared off the line twice, so when you take the emotion out of it, I was more just disappointed with the second half because there seemed to be a lack of urgency. If we play that game again, nine times out of 10 we win. Let’s not create a crisis. There’s no crisis. We need to make sure that we play with a little more intensity and that was the main thing we talked about because this week has proven that teams can go anywhere and pick up points. Tranmere travelled to Grimsby yesterday and everyone thought they’d win, but they drew. People expected us to beat Barrow, but we didn’t. People expected Newport to win, and they didn’t, so it’s not just us that are acknowledging it tough. We’re asking to go again and again, so it’s difficult to get the type of regular intensity that Manchester City have at the moment, every game, but that’s our job to replicate that standard.
Second play third this weekend, so does that effect your thinking before the game this Saturday?
I’m really not bothered about anyone else’s results. Genuinely. If we get enough points ourselves then it won’t matter who plays who. It’s also the case where they’ll probably go and play bottom of the league in their next match and people expect them to win but they don’t. 100% of my focus is on us. I’m not bothered and don’t spend time looking at other teams. I obviously see the different results, but I’m not actively thinking “oh, how are they getting along?”. It’s irrelevant. Our points total will affect where we finish and only that will affect us.
Did everyone come through Tuesday ok?
Yep. Everyone is fit that was available for that game. I don’t think anyone new will be available.
Good to see Ellis Chapman back. Is he ok?
He’s similar to Sercs [Liam Sercombe]. We’ll have to manage him the same way; get him fit on the job.
Is it three weeks that George Lloyd will be out for?
It’s 19 days, I believe. I’m not quite sure why it’s that long, but the ruling is obviously there for a reason. It’s irrelevant how he’s feeling at the moment. It’s a minimum of 19 days.
Josh Griffiths called up for England Under-21s. When you see some of the other players, he’s in there with, it’s quite the achievement isn’t it?
For sure. As a first-year pro he’s come here and played loads of games. It just goes to show that loans are important. He’s now in a squad that’s full of Premier League players from big, big clubs. Obviously, he’ll be one of the younger members of the squad, but it’ll be a great experience for him to train with those type of players. Even the honour of pulling on a tracksuit with the three lions emblem on will be great for him. That must be a nice feeling for a young player, it’s good for him and the club that he is getting recognition for his performances. He’s a West Brom player, but he’s been ours all season.
Is it just Morecambe F.C away that he’ll miss?
As far as I’m aware.
Ben Tozer has played every minute of the league season. How important is it to have a player that reliable?
I hope you haven’t just jinxed him! You want to keep your best players fit. He’s been good, he’s been lucky, he’s a good pro, but he’s been lucky also. He’s the captain and has become famous for his long throw, but he’s more than that. He’s been a big part of what we’ve been doing this season. He was one of the big reasons why we changed to playing the formation we do at the moment and he’s one of the main reasons we have been successful over the last few years. He probably goes a bit under the radar because he plays every game of the season, but his performances are generally at a good level.
Have the players been set a target for wins or points?
No. They’re job is to win the next half of football. That’s all they need to worry about. I don’t want them thinking about how many points they need to get. I don’t worry about the points either myself as I said. I’ve got an idea based on history what sort of total gets you to certain positions. That’s a genral top seven, top two and champion level. Whatever level we hit; we’ll probably finish there.
Is it hard to manage a team when results can vary so often?
I don’t know if I’m honest. I might look back in 20 years’ time and think that this was the biggest learning curve I had. I’ve been here for two and a half years and we’ve had a relegation battle, a promotion campaign behind closed doors and now we are having a tilt at the right end of the table with no crowds and in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s all I’ve known really because I’ve not got enough experience of football pre-covid. I do think it will help me because it makes everything quite challenging on the man-management side of things rather than tactical.