Champ Man Legend #1 Mike Duff
For me, if anyone mentions Championship Manager, or Football Manager for that matter, the first name that springs to mind will always be Mike Duff.
He was officially a right side defender/defensive midfielder, never the most glamorous position, even with today’s modern rampaging ‘wingbacks’ they’re never the big stars. Yes there’s Dani Alves, Nathaniel Clyne, Branislav Ivanovic and Pablo Zabaleta… but they aren’t going to be the best players, and if they are its likely the team isn’t the best. Mike Duff is usually nowhere to be found in any of these lists, even if his actual position is centre back. I say actual position, I’ve no reason to doubt he could play anywhere (or do anything… astronaut, Prime Minister, Moviestar…).
American actress Hilary Duff, once said:
“People are going to say what they want to say and think what they want to think, and I cant change their minds”
Well Hilary, I hope we can change a few of the anti Mike Duff crowd today.
Mike Duff was at Cheltenham for the start of the 01/02 season, and could be picked up from anything from a few thousand to around thirty thousand, I have vague memories of once having to pay over 100k for him, outrageous. Regardless of the team I’d taken over, or the league in which I was managing he would be on my list of players to buy!
I’m sure everyone has one player that they bought irrespective of the team they were managing, and for me Mike Duff was that man, whether I was managing Bradford City or Barcelona. One of the main things I loved about him was that he wasn’t a player I was immediately aware of – these were simple –pre-Google days where I tried him after seeing him do well at another club. The joy was in the discovery of a hidden gem and not simply searching for the best players on the WWW.
I always played 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 with Duff on the right of three centre backs. And even as I amassed the best centre backs in the world: Nesta, Hofland, Ferdinand, Campbell, Cannavaro et. al, the only player I would never even contemplate resting was Duff. Now some might argue that my emotional attachment to him had gone too far, that it was blocking my managerial decision making ability, and they may well have had a point but how much would a Champions League victory be worth without him in the team? Deep down I knew it would be a hollow victory.
For the best part of fifteen years Duff was the rock of any team. Never averaging below 8.0 over a season he put many bigger (and substantially higher paid) so called superstars to shame; it’s no surprise I often installed him as Captain too. Furthermore, he often chipped in with important goals and let’s not forget his penalty taking prowess, often taking his tally for the season into double figures.
Sadly he would never get the England recognition he deserved (obviously he is actually Northern Irish- more on this later) due to being down on the game as a right back, (despite often featuring in teams of the year as a right midfielder, ha ha) and occasionally he’d get to around 10 caps if Gary Neville had picked up the odd injury or suspension (we can only imagine how Tony Hibbert felt for all those years).
Only if you took on the England job could you release Duff’s full potential. Often I’d make him Captain and penalty taker. And boy did he deliver. It’s with fond memories that I recall many a happy night in 2001 (when I should have been revising for my English Literature A Level) watching Duff captain England to World Cup glory. Bobby Moore and Mike Duff has a nice ring to it don’t you think?
I don’t know why, but for many years I was oblivious to the fact there was actually a real Mike Duff. Given that, I hadn’t thought to see how this ‘real’ Mike Duff’s career was progressing. I’d grown to love him on Championship Manager but how was he actually doing in real life?
Gradually, and with his move to Burnley in 2004 (brilliantly he signed for them for 30k!), Duff’s name began to appear more and more in the national football press. To this day, seeing his name in match reports or team sheets, or hearing his name in commentary always brings smile to my face.
It was approximately three or four years ago that I started to feel bad that I hadn’t actually seen him play. As The Simpsons DuffMan once famously said:
“Are you ready to get Duffed?”
I definitely was. Yet it wasn’t until April 5th 2014 at Vicarage Road, Watford (as part of my quest to visit the 92 Football League grounds) that I finally got to see the man in action. He started at centre back for Burnley. You won’t be surprised to discover he was as solid as ever in a 1-1 draw that pushed the Clarets towards promotion. I’m sure some other things happened that afternoon, but all I have as memories are poorly taken photos of Mike Duff’s back during the warm up.
Wonderfully, with Burnley’s promotion he achieved the feat of playing in the Premier League joining a rare breed of modern footballer to play in the top 8 divisions in England, and getting substantial playing time over the top 6 of those. He amassed 337 appearances for Cheltenham over the Southern Premier, Conference, League Two and League One then 358 more with Burnley in the Championship and Premier League. In total to date he has notched 23 goals (15 at Cheltenham, 8 at Burnley) but just think how many more he could have had if only they’d let him take pens!
Interestingly Duff’s younger brother Shane also played for Cheltenham Town but was forced to retire at the age of 29 due to a serious back injury.
He even has 21 caps for Northern Ireland, notably appearing in their famous victories over England and Spain in 2005 and 2006 respectively. We can only assume that if they’d played him more often they’d have not only qualified but quite probably won at least one major international tournament by now.