The U’s will finally welcome back fans to the Abbey Stadium this weekendBen Phillips/@capturedcambridge_sport

Born and raised in Cambridge, Mark Bonner is set to take charge of his boyhood club’s first campaign in the third tier of English football since 2002. Trading season-ticket viewership on the Abbey Stadium terraces for touchline management, Bonner joined the coaching ranks of Cambridge United’s academy back in 2011 and eventually worked his way up to the permanent position of head coach last year. In his debut season at the helm, Bonner guided the U’s to a monumental league promotion, finishing second in the table and top scorers of League Two with an impressive 73 goals.

Although this dominant level of form will be difficult to replicate in a higher division, Bonner’s side will look to go into the campaign with an air of self-belief: “we’re certainly going to embrace the challenge and attack it as best we can”. Cambridge United rank as relegation favourites amongst media outlets and betting companies, yet this judgement cannot override the shrewd standards of performance that Bonner’s men produced last season. Winning twelve of seventeen matches following defeats and suffering back-to-back losses on just two occasions in all competitions, the U’s have demonstrated a strong ability to correct mistakes and avoid losing ways. Bonner admits that “we like the tag of underdogs, but we’re going to be confident underdogs”.

“we like the tag of underdogs, but we’re going to be confident underdogs”

A determining factor in the bookies’ judgement was likely the departure of star-striker Paul Mullin, who joined National League side Wrexham in what proved to be an unexpected move. Bagging 32 goals in 46 league appearances, Mullin spearheaded Cambridge United’s attacking force and, in doing so, eclipsed David Crown’s record of 24 league goals scored in the 1985-86 campaign. However, Bonner dismissed any need to focus on reproducing Mullin’s individual contributions: “you’re not trying to replace 32 goals, you’re just trying to make sure you’ve got a team that has an attacking threat”.

With the recent signings of Sam Smith and James Brophy joining the likes of Joe Ironside and Wes Hoolahan, the U’s will hope to nurture a prolific presence in the final third this season. On the importance of having Hoolahan in his side, Bonner dubbed the midfielder “a vital player”: “we want him to use his quality and experience to have composure in big games and pass that confidence onto other players”.

Unlike Hoolahan’s years of involvement in the top levels of English football, Bonner is still a fairly new face on the professional scene. With only 61 games of management under his belt, the upcoming season will serve as an opportunity for Bonner to further his coaching acumen: “I think a season itself challenges you in lots of ways, as you have a million decisions to make a week as a manager yet you’re constantly making right ones and wrong ones”. Despite the freshness of his career, Bonner boasts a win record of 52%, which is the highest figure of any Cambridge United boss since the club’s election to the Football League in 1970. Putting aside the statistics, however, Bonner adopts a more comprehensive outlook on his development as a head coach: “the aim for me is to keep us moving forward by improving everything around the ground and within our environment, as well as the performances on the pitch”.

“fan groups and clubs always have a responsibility to look after their supporters”

Looking beyond the Abbey Stadium’s four stands and to the wider city of Cambridge, Bonner recognised that social advances away from the field are just as important as those made on it, boosting local initiatives in accordance with a growing standing in the football pyramid. Over the past couple of months, Cambridge Fans United has been working closely with the city’s community, forming a link with the YMCA Youth Hostel to help provide kit and equipment for those in need, as well as organising a food collection point at the ground on match days to then donate to local food banks. On these developments, Bonner explains that “fan groups and clubs always have a responsibility to look after their supporters”. He goes on: “we’re a football team that plays on a Saturday and we’re there to entertain people, but a football club is so much more than that and we’ve got a big chance to make an impact socially”.


Mountain View

Cambridge United: A football club at the heart of its community

Returning to the field, an opening victory against Oxford United would leave a strong imprint on the side’s confidence going forward at a higher level. Although the fixture does not quite hold the same degree of intense rivalry that drives the respective universities, Bonner anticipates a tough matchup for the U’s: “we’re going to have to go out and perform well against a team that reached the playoffs last year and regularly do that”. Nevertheless, Bonner asserts that the game will allow him “to see where we sit at the moment and how much work we’ve got to do”. He continues: “where we are in the first few weeks of the season isn’t where we’re going to be as we go on, as players will want to better themselves and us staff will design sessions and provide analysis that helps them improve”.

Varsity will be reporting on the debut game of Cambridge United’s League One campaign against Oxford United this Saturday (07/08).