Michael Duff preparing for the ‘ultimate free hit’ against Manchester City

Cheltenham Town manager Michael Duff feels his side have “the biggest free hit in history” ahead of Manchester City’s FA Cup fourth-round visit tomorrow night.
Michael Duff, manager of Cheltenham Town. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)Michael Duff, manager of Cheltenham Town. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
Michael Duff, manager of Cheltenham Town. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

Duff, who was born in Belfast and earned 24 senior caps for Northern Ireland, took over at Cheltenham, where he spent eight years as a player, in September 2018 and led them to the League Two play-offs last season.

The Robins lost out to Northampton Town in the semi-finals but another promotion bid is on the cards in this campaign with the Gloucestershire outfit sitting sixth in the table at the halfway stage.

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Victories over South Shields, Crewe Alexandra and Mansfield have set up a dream tie against Manchester City, who have won the Premier League title four times in the past decade, and Duff says his side have nothing to lose.

“It’s why you play in the FA Cup games, it’s why you talk about getting to the third round or beyond to try and get a plum tie and it’s absolutely what we’ve got,” he said in his press conference ahead of the game.

“There will be a little bit of trepidation because they’re not bad! It’ll be a nervous excitement among the players.

“It’s an opportunity to get away from the league, which has been relentless, asking the same players to go again and again Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday.

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“A total free hit. The players will all get a bit of kudos in terms of the next couple of days, which will be nice for them, a little bit of attention. The biggest free hit in history and then move on.”

Pep Guardiola, the winner of 29 major trophies, will be in the opposite dugout while a team of internationals will be running around the Jonny-Rocks Stadium pitch against Duff’s men.

The 43-year-old was in attendance as City beat Aston Villa 2-0 in the Premier League on Wednesday evening and although admittedly not learning much more about their style than he already knew, Duff enjoyed the occasion and admires the way City play.

“You’d be there well into next week trying to look for a weakness,” he added.

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“They are what they are, the best at what they do and have been for the last three or four years.

“Liverpool have overtaken them, but they are having a dip at the minute.

“City are the in-form team and it’s just enjoyable to watch.

“It’s artistry watching the best players in the world play the best football.

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“I am not sure it’ll be enjoyable to watch on Saturday, but it’s the ultimate free hit - give the best account of yourselves you can because nobody is expecting us to win.

“You don’t want to be humiliated either, so the lads will be right on it, I can guarantee that.”

Cheltenham have developed a reputation for themselves as one of the best teams to watch in League Two and Salford City co-owner Gary Neville described them as “head and shoulders” above any other side he had watched his club play against this season.

They have suffered a dip in form in the league and are currently seven games without a win and Duff is more than aware that City provide a completely different challenge to the one they are used to.

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“We’ll do everything we can and we are not going to try and ‘out football’ them, quite clearly,” he said.

“You just have to give a really good account of ourselves and you never know what might happen. It is the FA Cup.

“We have a long throw, we have people good in the air in terms of set plays, but the key is can you get a throw in their half to start with?

“We’ll do our work, do everything we can to make it as difficult as possible and you never know.

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“With the way City move the ball it doesn’t really matter who is playing.

“It’s just numbers and you replace one for one and (Riyad) Mahrez came on for (Raheem) Sterling and it’s the same patterns, the same movements, just a fresher pair of legs with the same quality.

“So they are on top form. It’s fair to say they are the form team in the country if not the world and to add to that we’ve not won in seven!”

Duff spent the final 12 years of his career in Lancashire with Burnley, playing almost 400 times in all competitions and twice winning promotion to the Premier League.

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It will also be a different experience for City, who are used to luxurious changing rooms at the Etihad Stadium, as they’ll be getting prepared in Cheltenham’s bar.

The winner of the tie will set up a fifth-round away trip to either Swansea City or Nottingham Forest, who both play in the Championship.

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