In the South Yorkshire sunshine, Michael Duff took his seat in the dugout at Oakwell and spoke at length about what lies ahead.
"I’m not fly by night. I’m here, I’m all in. It was such a big decision to uproot the family and do all those sorts of things, so hopefully I can make it work."
Signing a three-year deal with the Reds, the 44-year-old is making himself at home after joining just his third club in both his playing and managerial career.
“I’m really looking forward to it”, opened our new Head Coach.
“It’s taken a little bit of time to get things done and box things off but now I’m here, in the stadium, wearing the kit, I can’t wait to get going now and meet the players.”
Duff joins The Reds off the back of a successful spell at Cheltenham Town, winning Sky Bet League Two in the 2020/21 season, and recording the Robins’ highest ever finish in Sky Bet League One last time out, finishing 15th in the division.
Amassing over 500 games as a player and manager with Cheltenham made the decision to leave a tough one for the Northern Ireland born coach.
“I’ve had two football clubs in 27 years”, explained Duff.
“To leave the club I was at, my family were based there, so there were lots of decisions to be made from a family point of view. I didn’t want to outstay my welcome. I live in Cheltenham, my family will live in Cheltenham for the rest of their lives, so I wanted to make sure I left at the right time, and I think I did.
“The opportunity came around to manage a club the size of this, I’m ambitious, I want to progress. I just saw it as the next step, and I think me and the club can work hand in hand to hopefully move forward again.
“It’s a natural progression. If you look at the size of the club, look at the attendances, look at the history. I’ve been here as a player many times. Speaking to the board, they were ambitious. Obviously, it needs a bit of a shake up in terms of just realigning everything again, I think there’s been a little bit of a disconnect between the community and the club.
“I’m fully aware of all those things and I think I can come in and hopefully do what I did at Cheltenham in terms of tie it all together and move this club forward.”
Cheltenham were renowned for their intensity and application under Duff. Hard work is not a footballing lesson our new Head Coach will be unfamiliar with, plying his trade as a player and coach at Burnley for 15 years.
“One thing I can guarantee is that there’ll be sweat on the shirt”, he affirmed.
“That’s what we were known for at Cheltenham. I spent 15 years at Burnley, I think it’s a very similar type club. I think the community is a very similar type. One thing the supporters want to see is the players running around, giving everything for the badge.
“So, if we can do that, obviously you want to play nice football and the other bits that come with it, but that has to be the start point.”
There will also be a reunion for Duff after his appointment as our new Head Coach, with Martin Devaney crossing paths with our new ‘gaffer’ after their shared time in Gloucestershire.
“I’ve had a few conversations with Martin”, the Northern Irishman revealed.
“I’ve known Martin for close to 25 years. When I was a player at Cheltenham in the late 90s, he was a young lad at Coventry, but we knew each other, our paths crossed constantly.
“Obviously, I played with him for a number of years, but you just constantly keep in touch. He couldn’t be more complimentary about the club. He was saying what a great place it is to come and work, the fanbase and everything like that.
“He’ll be important, particularly at the start, in terms of trying to build relationships and finding out how certain things work that I won’t be aware of”.
Playing over 700 games in spells at Cheltenham and Burnley during his playing career, Duff is a wily campaigner in the English football pyramid.
“I’ve played in the top eight divisions. I’ve seen every level.
“I’ve seen low non-league, I’ve played in the Premier League, I’ve played international football. I’ve seen all different types of egos, different types of abilities and I think that has helped me cross divides.
“Ultimately, I’m here for the players. I’m here to improve the players, the eleven that are on the pitch are always the most important. It’s not about me, it’s not about them. The club is the most important part, but if I can help them and they all stick together, and they win a few games, it looks good for me, it looks good for the club and ultimately it looks good for them. It’s always a two-way street, and that’s what I’m here to try and do.”
The new campaign sees Barnsley tackle Sky Bet League One, a division our new recruit knows well, after last season leading his Cheltenham side to their best ever finish, placing 15th in the division. Despite a drop in division for The Reds, the quality is still high in the third tier according to Duff.
“It’s a tough league”, he stressed.
“It’s a split league. There’s two leagues within the league. You look at teams that never made the play-offs last year; you’re looking at Portsmouth, Charlton, Ipswich, Oxford – they’re big clubs with big budgets.
“There needs to be a realism. ‘We’ve been relegated out of the Championship, so we’ll just get promoted again’. There’s three or four clubs that never made the top six last year, so it’s a really tough league.
“Most importantly, we need to connect everything together, get everybody’s noses pointing in the right direction, and then hopefully results will come.”
Having played for only two clubs in your career is almost unheard for a footballer in the modern game, but it is something Duff can proudly profess amongst the chaos of transfers and changes. The trait of loyalty, he says, is in his genes.
“My Dad got an MBE for services for the forces!”, he proudly exclaimed.
“To have two clubs in 27 years is unheard of, so again, that is why my next step always had to be, what I felt, the right decision. The right opportunity. The right club.
“Hopefully I can grow it, and we can grow together. That’s what I did as a player coming through the leagues at Cheltenham. I did it at Burnley, in terms of three promotions into the Premier League with the club, from when I went in, to when I left it. I’m not saying that was down to me, but I was part of a bigger project.
“I don’t want to be here just for five minutes. I’m fully invested, and I want to make it work."