Over 17 years on from Cheltenham’s first play off final success, Robins legend John Finnigan reflects and looks ahead to what Duff’s side can achieve this season.
The Cheltenham legend scored the third Robins goal in their 3-1 play off final victory over Rushden and Diamonds at the Millennium stadium in Cardiff. A victory which promoted the Gloucestershire club to the second division at the time (now known as the Championship).
Reflecting on the momentous occasion at the Millennium Stadium, Finnigan spoke about the nerves he was feeling playing in such a big stadium.
He said: “It was brilliant. The second time you almost knew what to expect having experienced it the first time. But the first time for me it was like a lower league players’ FA Cup final growing up.
“Having that cup final atmosphere and 15,000-16,000 Cheltenham fans down there- pulling in on the bus and seeing a sea of red and white everywhere, it was a great feeling and winning the game was great.Embed from Getty Images
“Being lucky enough to score at the end was a weird feeling. I felt sick when I scored running back to the halfway line. The emotions took over. It felt weird- I never had it before and never had it since.
“But it was a massive day for the club and a great experience for me personally.
“And a great stadium aswell by the way.”
Michael Duff’s side will be aiming to at least make it into the playoffs this season and maybe even another play off final like in 2002. But the 43-year-old club legend revealed that a lower placed finish outside the play off places and in the top half of the table will still mean a successful season for the Robins.
“I think they have done unbelievably well so far”, Finnigan said with assurance. “At the start of the season, if someone would have said to me that we would have had a top half finish- I would have snapped hand off for it after two or three seasons of finishing around 19th place.”
“The budget that we have got- I don’t know exactly what the board give him to spend on players, but I imagine that we are in the bottom eight of what he gets to spend on his team out on the pitch.
“So, I think anything in the top half would be a fantastic achievement for Michael to do. Obviously, he has set the bar high and expectation have been raised.
“And if we get in the play offs, I think it would be an unbelievable achievement. Arguably one of the greatest considering the resources that he has got available to him.
“Now I know a lot of people would be disappointed if we dropped out of that. But I think if we finish 10th, I don’t want us to finish 10th- I want us to finish in the top seven, but if we finish 10th this year, and next year Michael looks to the board and says give me this and give me that, we can then push on to the next bracket.
“But top 10 and hopefully play offs a year after, but if we achieve that early, then fair play to Michael and his side.”
Football back in the day was more of a tougher sport in terms of the amount you could have got away with. But as football has evolved, tactics and the way the game is studied has also evolved.
Despite the evolution of football from 2002 to nowadays, the ex-Cheltenham midfielder was still able to state the similarities and a few differences between the promotion winning side that he was a crucial part of and Duff’s current side.
He said: “I think there are a lot of similarities in the way this team won’t give up. So, when they go a goal behind, you never feel like they are out of the game.
“In the past few years, if we go a goal down, we felt like it would be tough to get back in it. Now if we go a goal down with Michael’s team now, you always feel like there is a way back in.
“We can even win the game, not even draw it. I think the spirit in the team is similar, but I think there is a lot of differences to the way Michael’s team plays and the way we played back then.
“We were a little bit more direct- get it to the front and go play off. Now, the build-up play is more playing it out from the back. The formation was different. We were a four four two [rigid], whereas they play three at the back now.
— Martyn Bishop (@MartynBCFC) February 1, 2016
“So, there are similarities with the spirit, like they have that fighting spirit that we had in that play off final to get back into games. But the style of play is quite different, and football has changed quite a bit since we were playing.
“You used to be able to kick lumps out of people. But now it’s a bit nicer now. The sort of build-up and passing is a little more continental now.
Bradford City first visited Cheltenham Town in September 2006, when John Finnigan was sent off after a ‘painful situation’ involving Dean Windass and the Bantams won 2-1 #ctfc pic.twitter.com/fjIqG0NDhG
— Jon Palmer (@JonPalmerSport) September 17, 2019