When Cheltenham Town next reconvene for a video conference call, the mosaic of on-screen faces will resemble a game of ‘Guess Who?’ with a twist, given several players and staff are sporting buzz cuts after shaving their heads to raise funds for the NHS.
The club captain, Ben Tozer, was the first to give his teammates a shock on Friday morning. “I’d just done the Joe Wicks PE workout with my son in fancy dress, so I jumped straight on to the conference call dressed as Woody from Toy Story, whipped my hat off and a few of the lads had a laugh, so it’s all good fun,” says Tozer, who hopes the money can go towards funding a ventilator to help tackle coronavirus.
Sean Long, George Lloyd and Alex Addai have followed suit and, by the time the defenders, goalkeepers and management staff next link up for a remote coaching session, they could be in for more surprises, with Tozer hopeful of roping in the manager, Michael Duff. It seems inevitable that the baton will end up being passed on to the former Burnley defender, with his assistant, Russell Milton, and goalkeeping coach, Steve Book, having already taken the plunge.
“It does seem to be heading my way,” says Duff, laughing. “I’m fortunate to get to 42 and still have hair so, hopefully, it will come back. I’d like to think there would be a few more players in line before me – they are probably a bit vainer than me – but it wouldn’t bother me one iota. I’m not too proud; if it’s going to raise a little bit of money for the NHS, I think it’s a brilliant idea. From a random idea, it’s snowballed.”
Tozer’s friends in the Devonport Services rugby union team planted the seed in his head and he was also inspired by those around him, including James Campbell, the Cheltenham-based former Commonwealth Games javelin athlete who has raised almost £30,000 by running a marathon in his six-metre long garden, and Joe, a friend who works for the NHS at Plymouth’s Derriford hospital, which has been supplemented by the city’s football team offering the use of their Home Park stadium for the foreseeable future.
“He works on the administrative side and basically delegates where the ventilators go; he’s working from home but in conference calls daily regarding it,” Tozer says. “I’m in regular contact with him and it just sounds so awful and surreal. I sat there one night and got quite emotional thinking about the NHS and what they’re going through, people going through back-to-back 12-hour shifts and not getting able to see their families.
“My wife is seven months pregnant so I cannot go out and volunteer on the frontline to help, something a few of my friends are doing and I’d love to do, so I thought: ‘What can I do to contribute?’”
Between digging out the razor and raising funds for the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the League Two club’s players have been given tailor-made programmes and ‘homework’ using Hudl, a scouting and analysis tool, which they feed back on in twice-weekly Zoom meetings.
“We showed them Inter Milan and Wolves clips, because they both play 3-5-2 like us and next week we’ll show them Sheffield United, so it always references back to what we do,” says Duff. “It gets them to watch the best at doing what they do. We told the defenders to watch the game, but focus on the back five.”
Duff, who also played for Cheltenham, is one of the Football League’s most exciting managers and acknowledges he could not have wished for a better coaching education than he got at Burnley, starting his badges aged 29 after damaging knee ligaments.
“My last two managers were Eddie [Howe] and Dychey [Sean Dyche], so not bad guys to learn from,” he says. “Completely different personalities and people, but both very good at what they do. I didn’t win any of my first nine games and Dychey was on the phone more than anyone else. He was the first person I spoke to when I got offered the job. We won our first home game this season 4-1 [against Scunthorpe] and they [Burnley] had just won their first Premier League game and by the time I’d walked from the touchline to my office, he was the first person to have texted.”
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