Ironside celebrating automatic promotion at the start of May (pictured right)Ben Phillips

Joe Ironside joined Varsity’s Zoom call from the comfort of his living room sofa, boasting an image of relaxation that makes the exam-ridden Cambridge student slightly envious. Nevertheless, this break from football is well-deserved. Contributing a modest fourteen goals and an impressive seven assists towards Cambridge United’s recent promotion campaign, he joined the ranks of Paul Mullin, Wes Hoolahan and Hiram Boateng in a U’s team that solidified League One status for the first time since the rebranding of the Football League in 2004.

Briefly putting aside this collective success, the 2020-21 campaign marked Joe’s debut season in a Cambridge United shirt. He has had some impressive achievements in his career when it comes to goal contributions. In his brief tenure with National League North side Nuneaton Borough, he converted 18 goals in all competitions, while over a two-year stint (2017-19) with Kidderminster Harriers he racked up a total of 48 goals in 86 appearances. With a slight drop when playing alongside League Two’s top goalscorer Paul Mullin, who bagged an outstanding 32 goals over 46 games, Joe views the strike partnership as representative of the entire side’s “hard-grafting” nature. Speaking to each other before the season, the pair felt that their own styles of play would “complement each other well”: “I just played my game and then Mulls played his, and it all married in together”. 

“if you give it your all, no-one can say anything”

In considering his move to Cambridge United, Joe cemented himself back in the Football League, following a five-year absence that initially came to an end upon joining Macclesfield Town for the 2019-20 season. Reflecting on his time with The Silkmen, Joe holds “people in high regards at Macclesfield”, as they handed him his return to professional competition. Unfortunately, the side dropped back into the National League in the wake of a season that was afflicted with financial hardship, eventually leading to the club’s dissolvement in September last year, meaning that Joe faced little choice but to ply his trade elsewhere. By avoiding this fall back into non-league, Joe has demonstrated an ability to go shoulder-to-shoulder, quite literally, with defenders in the EFL.

On his capacity to maintain form whilst moving up the divisions, Joe suggests that he has “fundamentally played the same way” and, aside from watching video replays to improve “the finer details” of his game, goes into each match with maximum intensity: “if you give it your all, no-one can say anything”. With this approach, he continues to climb the football pyramid: “I’m back in League One where it started, it’s been a bit of a journey but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it”.

“at the moment, it’s just about recovering and then being ready to go when we return”

After spending a year now with the U’s, Joe serves under the watchful guidance of Mark Bonner, one of the Football League’s youngest managers. In his first full season at the helm, Bonner steered Cambridge United to an automatic-promotion finish, placing second in the table just two points behind league winners Cheltenham. Complementing the team’s performance, Bonner was also named League Two Manager of the Month in both September and January, following unbeaten runs in each period. Basking in this success, Joe explains that “first and foremost, the gaffer is a really good bloke, and when he’s a good man you want to work as hard as you can for him”. Despite the side’s late blip in form that almost cost them an all-important promotion, Joe admits that “there was no difference from the last three games to the first three games”. He added that everyone on the team continued to clock into training “with a smile on their face”, which is ultimately a testament to the positive working environment that Bonner has managed to create.

However, this cohesion at the club has been built on the back of a football season crippled by two national lockdowns, disrupting both fan attendance and team bonding outside of the training ground. Although Cambridge United introduced iFollow as an official match-streaming service, the energy of an actual crowd was something that Joe went without. Discussing the nature of his relationship with the U’s faithful, Joe’s connection with the fans “came through the club” and the buzz that accompanied the achievement of their campaign: “even though we couldn’t see them face-to-face or hear the roar, we knew that they were there and rooting for us”. After climbing the stadium roof to celebrate their promotion-securing win against Grimsby in the final game of the season (08/05), Joe recalls finally catching sight of the fans that lined the streets in jubilation, describing it as a “moment that they’ll never forget and we’ll never forget”. The side’s success became a shared beacon of hope that solidified the bond between players and supporters.


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Meanwhile, the pandemic’s disruption had an effect on the usual routine of building team chemistry. In the absence of pubs, bars and golf, Joe explains that “we bonded a lot at training, afterwards we’d all stay behind, eat our food and socialise together”. But he was also keen to strip away the footballing aspect of the lockdown, insisting that “the pandemic has affected everyone and, fundamentally, you’re all just humans and we were together, and that’s how we bonded”.

Looking ahead to next season, Joe’s current focus lies with his family: “at the moment, it’s just about recovering and then being ready to go when we return”. Yet, the prospect of getting one over on newly-relegated Sheffield Wednesday was something that sat well with him. As a boyhood Sheffield United fan, Joe confessed that “a lot of my mates are Wednesday fans and so that’s all everyone’s been saying, but hopefully I can get a few tickets to the games″.