Words: Sid Lambert 
Images: Eidos and Cheltenham Town

Sid runs that Proper Football account on Twitter. Follow him at @sid_lambert for an onslaught of football nostalgia.


You wait patiently at the entrance to the bus. You’d never done this before. But then again you’d never been here before. On the brink of history. Ninety minutes from a legacy that few will ever come close to.

For five years you’ve been building to this moment. Your mind drifts back to that first day on the training ground. A club mired in mediocrity. Shorn of its pride. You looked around at that group of players—whose paltry work rate was a disgrace compared to their princely wages—and promised things would be different. You’d raze this cursed place to the ground and rebuild it brick-by-fucking-brick.

You didn’t waste any time. In came a flurry of free transfers and bargain buys. Tired old faces were shown the door and replaced by an influx of youth. The press and the fans were dubious. No experience. No big names. You can’t win anything with kids and all that. Soundbites. Especially when you’re fighting for your lives in the bottom of the second tier.

But you knew. You knew these boys would blossom into men. And those men would one day become champions. Mind you, even you didn’t think it would happen this quickly. You’ve seen them grow up. From wide-eyed wonder kids to top, top talent in the blink of an eye.

One by one now they filter towards the bus, surprised to see you waiting. You wanted to be here to greet them. It’s the eve of the biggest game of their lives. You know they’ll be nervous. You want to look them in the eye and tell them that you believe in them.

Because you do. You really fucking do. There’s nothing this group of lads can’t achieve. Look at them. That big beautiful bastard Cherno Samba. Mark Kerr, a midfield general. Kennedy Bakircioglu and Kim Källström, fleet-footed and fearless. Julius Aghahowa, that lad could outrun his own shadow. Tieme Klompe, Ibrahim Said, Sébastien Frey. The list goes on and on and on.

Destiny awaits, you say as you shake their hands. Your shoulders back, chest puffed out. You exude confidence. You couldn’t be prouder. Tomorrow is a foregone conclusion.

Hold on a second. Where is he? Did he sneak onto the bus? Must have done. He hates the limelight, that fella. Won’t listen to a word of praise. Probably crept on at the back somehow so he doesn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of being told how good he is. Good old Mr Dependable. Never mind, you’ll catch up with him later, when it’s quiet.

As you turn to enter the bus, you suddenly hear heavy footsteps behind you. It’s your assistant manager, his burly frame bounding frantically in your direction like a man fleeing the flames of Hell.

“Boss,” he splutters.

Cheeks turning a dangerous shade of red, he can barely breathe.

“It’s Duffer.”

The vein in the side of his head looks like it’s about to explode.

“Hamstring,” he puffs out frantically. “Gone.” His face contorting in anguish. With that he slumps to the concrete, his back leaning against the side of the bus. His head in his hands contemplating the prophecy of doom he had just foretold.

Oh Christ, you think. We’re in the shit now.

"Cheltenham's most successful youth product" is an accolade, certainly, but perhaps not the most exciting one. In reality, he had a fine career: 20 years as a professional, over 600 league appearances and 24 for his country. He was a solid, dependable campaigner.

But on Championship Manager 01/02, he is the foundation of every manager’s fortress. Empires are built upon the shoulders of this defensive wall, who holds firm while repelling the globe’s deadliest attackers.

This legendary rock is unearthed in Cheltenham, among the muck and nettles of the Second Division. It’s ironic that each year thousands of people pilgrimage from across the world to worship Stonehenge in search of answers to mankind’s ancestry. They could go just a few miles further down the road and see a real deity in action. Duff’s there every week at Whaddon Road, almost single-handedly dragging the Robins away from the relegation zone. That’s a fucking miracle in itself.

Not that he would ever admit it. He’s a humble God, you see. You sign Duff for £30k and a wage that barely amounts to the price the club pays for the bulk bought boxes of ready salted in the cafeteria. In return, he’ll give you the greatest years of your managerial life. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. That’s good enough for Duffer. New contracts are done over a handshake and a pint of bitter. There’s no question of him ever deserting the cause.

Not that he has much opportunity. For some reason, the biggest clubs never quite come calling. For them, he’s not quite sexy enough. This is the era when clubs become corporations. It’s about glory and Galácticos. Shirts and sponsorships. Juventus, Barcelona, and Milan want superstars; they want Thuram and Cafu. They don’t care about the Mike Duffs of this world. More fucking fool them.

For over a decade Duff goes toe-to-toe with the best left-wingers to ever grace the game of association football. Nedvěd, Rivaldo, and Giggs have all the flicks and tricks. But they don’t scare Duff a jot. He laughs in the face of their Creativity 20.

Tackle by metronomic tackle he chisels away at their psyche until they retreat to the sidelines in surrender. Like Ivan Drago, slumped in his corner between rounds, they look across at their tormentor in disbelief. He is not human; he is a piece of iron.

They’re right. Duff is that and more. A precious metal, a jewel, an indestructible rock. A true Championship Manager legend.

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