The U’s last played Newcastle United back in 1993, when they suffered a 3-0 league defeat@CambridgeUtdFC/Twitter

On the back of an unbelievable promotion campaign last season to reach the lofty heights of League One, followed up by a steady run of form that sees the U’s currently sitting 16th in the table this time out, head coach Mark Bonner goes into Saturday’s (08/01) FA Cup Third Round tie away to Newcastle United in a positive mood.

“There is absolutely zero expectation on us to win the game,” Bonner tells Varsity at the team’s press conference, which remains on Zoom due to Covid-19 precautions. “We understand the difference and we understand the level. It’s a new experience for all of us.” Despite the 41 places between the two sides, Bonner is not one to shy away from a challenge. “At some point at this stage in the competition there will be an upset and we’d like it to be us.”

A result against this Newcastle team, albeit in the relegation zone of the top-flight, would be a complete shock. However, Cambridge are no strangers to FA Cup upsets. U’s fans don’t have to cast their minds back too far to remember the 0-0 draw against Manchester United at the Abbey that took the Third Round to a replay at Old Trafford in 2015. The 5,000 Cambridge fans travelling up north on Saturday will do their best to buoy their team to a similar result. “Hopefully we can create one or two moments that live long in the memory for them,” Bonner adds.

“I know it’s a cliché, but it is just another game. You don’t want the occasion to take over”

Despite this recent FA Cup heritage, the head coach is keen to express that the current squad do not have a wealth of experience against teams of Newcastle’s calibre. Aussie Jack Iredale, who has been playing at centre-back this season, admitted he has only ever been to one Premier League stadium – West Ham’s – to watch a game. Yet Cambridge do have former West Brom and Norwich midfielder Wes Hoolahan, 39, in their ranks, and Bonner is aware of the value of his experience: “He’s been there and done it and thrives on those big occasions.” The U’s will need Hoolahan, along with striker Joe Ironside, to play a perfect game.

Ironside, who has scored 11 goals in 24 games this season up front for the Yellows, doesn’t want to get over-excited going into the clash: “I know it’s a cliché, but it is just another game. You don’t want the occasion to take over.” For the fans, it’s hard to avoid feeling the size of the game. For many, as well as for Ironside, Newcastle and St James’ Park, with its capacity of 52,000, brings back memories of Alan Shearer. “I idolised him growing up,” remembers Ironside, a childhood Sheffield United fan. His last time at St James’ Park was to watch Shearer against Sheffield Wednesday as an eight-year-old. To go as a player is a dream come true: “It’s the kind of thing you never forget. When you’re watching the draw, it’s what you’re hoping for.”

“Whatever happens, it will be a memorable day for Cambridge United supporters and a boost for the club’s finances. That is, after all, what the FA Cup is about”

Cambridge United are without a win in their last three games. Their previous match against 8th-placed Portsmouth, rescheduled due to a Covid-related postponement, resulted in a well-earned 0-0 draw. Prior to that was a 1-0 defeat to Rotherham and a disappointing 2-0 loss to Charlton. “We were sitting in the changing rooms after the [Charlton] game and thinking how didn’t we get anything from that?” Jack Iredale laments, “We’ve had a few of those kinds of games this season.” The U’s will have to put all that behind them on Saturday, and Bonner is optimistic they can do so: “The tag of confident underdog is a tag we’ve used a lot this season and we’ll have to do it again.”

Winger Sam Smith will miss the Newcastle game after picking up a red card against Portsmouth, but Bonner is not worried about replacing him. “We’re a bit light on numbers,” he mentions, in reference to the touch-and-go Covid-19 situation at the club, “24 hours is a long time [but] we’re okay right now.” Bonner will need to keep all eleven men on the pitch on Saturday to stand a chance, which might prove more difficult with the players’ first experiences of VAR. “I’m not too sure [how I feel about VAR],” says Ironside, “We’ll see what decisions we get.”

Bonner is also looking forward to going face-to-face with Magpies manager Eddie Howe, a source of inspiration for all lower league managers after having guided Bournemouth from League Two to the Premier League in just five seasons. “We’re certainly not equals,” Bonner jokes, “there’s a lot he can teach me and not much I can teach him. Hopefully I get some time with him after the game to pick his brains. It was a great achievement [with Bournemouth] and I’m not sure it will be repeated.” If Bonner can’t best Eddie Howe in terms of successive promotions, perhaps he can stage an upset on Saturday.


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Bonner certainly has some experience in giant-killing, having knocked out Birmingham City in last year’s League Cup with a 1-0 away win for the U’s. He isn’t talking himself up though, making sure that his priorities are straight. “[We want to] give a performance that is reflective of the team that we are,” Bonner expresses, “to play with a bit of freedom.” Iredale agrees, and emphasises how significant it is for the fans too: “We didn’t know whether we’d be having fans in the stadium. [Now] it’s looking like a healthy crowd. It should be a good occasion for them.”

Whatever happens, it will be a memorable day for Cambridge United supporters and a boost for the club’s finances. That is, after all, what the FA Cup is about. It would be a delightful bonus if, as Iredale prophesies, “Joe can [summon] his inner Shearer and bag a hat-trick up front.”

Keep an eye out for Saturday’s 3pm kick-off as the U’s take on Newcastle United in their biggest match of the season so far.