From play-off despair to promotion party – how Cheltenham Town won promotion back to League One

Monday 22nd June 2020. A night of play-off disappointment for Cheltenham Town. Two goals to the good against Northampton after the first leg before crashing to a three goal defeat in the second. Promotion gone in a flash. A 2019-20 season destroyed by COVID could have seen automatic promotion, a campaign where points-per-game had to settle the scores, how the campaign would have finished is the great unknown.

Fast forward to a new season, the aim absolutely clear. Bounce back from the heartbreak. Go again. Go one better. It is exactly what Michael Duff sought to do as manager and now the bounce back is complete! Promotion to League One at the first time of asking after play-off heartbreak – that takes some doing!

Cheltenham fans will never forget the moment Michael Duff came through the door. Ever since a goalless draw at home to Crewe three years ago the club was in a tricky situation after dismissing Gary Johnson from his job. Two months in it wasn’t going well. Duff wasn’t making an impact, a miserable defeat at home to Stevenage, every Cheltenham fan will remember that game as a dreadful moment when things were looking bleak.

And then came the change in fortunes.

A convincing three goal win over Notts County – that was the turning point. By December 2018, two goals behind to local rivals and promotion challengers Forest Green, never would that same team have made a comeback to snatch a draw two months previous. Oh how the tables have turned!

Three seasons in charge. From serious concern over possible relegation from the Football League, improvement in the second half of the 2018-19 season before leading the club to a play-off finish. Now look at the club! Within three years the transformation of Cheltenham Town under Michael Duff and new chairman Andy Wilcox is something to admire. Bringing in new players with both experience and making good use of young players has been a key part for the success but most importantly there seems to be a will, a desire to do the best you possibly can. There have been defeats. Hard moments throughout the season. Football is going through the mire right now, so no fans makes it very hard to stomach, bittersweet in fact. One of the biggest night in the club’s history, Whaddon Road would’ve been absolutely rocking for a promotion party!

The achievement is nothing more than pure happiness for the Robins. No supporters to cheer you on, lack of gate receipts makes it a financial trauma for the club on the whole. But put no fans aside for a moment and imagine the attitude within that dressing room. It takes something special to bounce back from play-off despair and earn promotion just one year on. New players such as Liam Sercombe, Andy Williams and young players such as goalkeeper Josh Griffiths on-loan from West Brom have been imperative as well as keeping players on. Ben Tozer with a beast of a long throw, Chris Hussey (below) as the best left-back in League Two, no question, and Alfie May who as these words are published is still top scorer with eight goals. That in itself is a glaring statistic that makes the promotion even more astonishing, a team that hasn’t had a consistent goalscorer yet can actually defy the odds and win promotion. Defence has been the key. Only 37 goals conceded isn’t the lowest overall, the goal difference hasn’t surpassed last season’s best of the rest at +25, but in the end winning games to get the points is what matters most.

All in all what can be said it that this is a well run football club. A club that does the town proud. A club that deserves its time to shine.

Key moments from the season?

Victory over El Glosico rivals Forest Green for the first time since 1999 will go down as a highlight, a 5-3 win over last season’s play-off finalists Exeter City saw fans return albeit briefly, but perhaps most importantly was a seven game winless run over the Christmas period that most likely prompted a kick up the backside. A last gasp loss to Bolton, the worst performance of the season away to Barrow and conceding a cheap goal at home to Stevenage, it could have easily gone to pieces over these seven games without a win.

Back on track, more losses did follow against others battling to survive relegation but beating promotion rivals such as Tranmere so convincingly live on television was another important moment, in fact of all the teams in and around the top seven only Morecambe have actually managed to beat Cheltenham twice so far this season. 79 points accumulated so far, the highest tally in the club’s Football League history.

Not many teams have led Manchester City this season either. A first appearance in the FA Cup fourth round since 2006, Alfie May’s goal to put the Robins ahead of the all powerful Premier League champions in waiting will go down as a magical moment in club history.

More club history is being written and it is fitting to be done under the managerial brilliance of Michael Duff, former player turned manager. If the memories of 99 were incredible then what does that make 2021? Only the gaffer himself can tell us really. The man of the moment who all those years ago headed a ball into the Yeovil net to deliver a first-ever promotion to the Football League. As a Robin, Michael Duff was exceptional, as a manager he’s now a club legend alongside so many others.

From 1999 through to the glory years of promotion into the third tier in 2002, promotion up the divisions has been done before. Michael Duff as a player moved onto Burnley with just under 400 appearances and three promotions to the Premier League (the Duff dance moves have been recognisable for Burnley fans over the years!), now as a manager he’s achieved something beyond the wildest imaginations of any Cheltenham fan, their dreams come true and not a bad thing to have for a managerial CV.

I’ve followed the club since the age of ten. I was there in 2006 when Cheltenham beat Grimsby in the play-off final to reach League One under John Ward. The three years in the third division, relegation back to League Two, the stuff of nightmares under Martin Allen, Duff’s former team-mate Mark Yates couldn’t quite deliver another promotion back to League One as manager in 2012 and 2013, before all hell broke loose with relegation back into non-league football.

The journey as a supporter is nothing more than an up-down roller coaster. Gary Johnson brought back the good times with promotion back to where the club belongs and five seasons of stable football inside the EFL since, Cheltenham Town who don’t have the biggest budgets, who don’t have the best facilities in football and a town that isn’t a football town – are back in League One!

2009. It’s been a long time. John Ward, Mark Yates, Gary Johnson and now Michael Duff, these are the names that are Cheltenham Town legends. Lots to look forward to in League One next season without getting too carried away as this current season has yet to finish! Could ‘little’ Cheltenham Town be playing the likes to Wigan Athletic, Ipswich Town, Sunderland and maybe Sheffield Wednesday in League One next season? It certainly doesn’t feel like a distant dream now! But forget the big budget teams, I’m looking forward to a master versus the apprentice battle as the Robins face the Shrews. If all goes to plan then Steve Cotterill, the man who led Cheltenham Town to the Football League in 1999 up against one of his own players turned fellow League One manager – save the date for Shrewsbury Town home or away!

Tougher opponents await but that’s for next season. A promotion party one year on from play-off disappointment. What a moment for Cheltenham Town Football Club!