Okenabirhie speaks to the camera ahead of his transfer revealBEN CONWAY

Two days before the League One season kicks off (28/07), I was invited to Cambridge United’s training ground (also known as Clare College football pitches - who would have thought) for a preseason press conference. Ahead of their second year at this level, manager Mark Bonner, star striker Joe Ironside, and new signing Fejiri Okenabirhie gave their thoughts on the upcoming season. 

Any season in England’s lower leagues is a tough one, and by all accounts this one could be particularly difficult for the Us. Having finished 14th last season, they are now the bookies’ fifth relegation favourites (as of 29/07), as many predict that second season syndrome will kick in. However, Bonner dismissed the ailment’s entire existence, let alone its applicability to his side, saying that “in the last seven years, 28 teams have made the jump, six didn’t make it to a second season because they either went up or down, eleven finished higher in their second season, and eleven finished lower”. He doesn’t think that it’s a thing; “it’s only a thing if you make it a thing”. A man who does research and uses numbers to make his point - a man after my own heart.

“The league looks like two leagues and we know which one we’re in”

I asked him if he takes any notice of public opinion; bookies, pundits, fans, the lot. He gave a resounding no - while it is “really fun” to follow, “there are now, because of social media, a million pundits”, and he “wouldn’t dare try and predict the league because anything can happen”. That’s what I believe to be true of the Football League - because games come so thick and fast, a purple patch can propel a team up the league very quickly. But when I asked him if he could see the Us as one of the “twelve teams that expect to get promoted or certainly be in the playoffs”, he said that “anyone who thinks Cambridge are vying for playoffs is a little bit mad”. He recognises that there are teams with differing aspirations this season - “the league looks like two leagues and we know which one we’re in”.

He was bouncy though, excited for the season to get underway. “We’ve had a brilliant preseason”, he said, but “it becomes a drag”. “If any manager tells you they love preseason they’re lying… the players are desperate to get started properly”. And MK Dons on Saturday (30/07) will prove a formidable challenge. They finished third last season, only one point off of the automatic promotion places, and have made several high-profile signings. He noted that Dons “like to dominate the football, patient, with goal threat”.

As for his players, he let us know that “every individual has got a ceiling which is higher than where they’ve been so far”. “We should be as a team wiser and more experienced for last year’s challenges”, he says, and he also hails the newfound squad depth, thanks to six incoming transfers this summer. “We’ve got some really good depth in our own squad this year”, as well as “quite an exciting group of leaders”. This is in addition to the ability to make “like-for-like replacements” on a matchday “which will allow us to have that continuity” as the new five-substitute rule comes into action this year. 

The sprinklers are out ahead of the team's penultimate preseason training sessionBEN CONWAY

Overall, he hopes that “people come to Cambridge this year and think ‘that’s a tough game’”. Last season’s slogan was “confident underdogs”, and while he still sees his side as underdogs, he has changed the slogan to “better never stops”. The bottom line is, he says: “whatever number of points we’re going to need to finish on to finish in a higher position is a very big number, and it’s a long way from zero”. There’s a lot of work to do - but they’re excited to get started on it. 

“We work as a team and if we can help each other get goals that’s perfect”

Ironside echoed Bonner’s thoughts. He confirmed that the players are raring to go; “it gets to a stage where your body feels ready and I think we’re all ready to go” - “we feel really fit and strong”. Personally, he just wants to “score my goals, play well, and everything else will take care of itself”. He bagged fourteen goals last season, one less than strike partner Sam Smith, and when I asked him if this fact incites a friendly changing room rivalry between the two, he answered diplomatically and reassuringly. “We work as a team and if we can help each other get goals, that’s perfect”. This encapsulates their team spirit; “we’ve got a great unit here, everyone’s together” and “whoever we bring into the squad over the years has fit in like a glove”.

One of those newcomers is Okenabirhie, who was the most reserved of the three - unsurprising, given that this interview took place within his first hour at the club. But as a player with much experience at this level (25 League One goals split between Shrewsbury Town and Doncaster Rovers), he appeared eager to get started, and bounce back from the injury that saw him sidelined for the entirety of the previous campaign. “I’m looking to get back on the pitch and get back to doing what I do well” - “[it is] a fresh start for me and I'm looking forward to helping the team”.

The team's preseason video

He states that it “was quite an easy decision to come here”, because “the manager and Ben [Strang, who is the sporting director] showed a lot of belief in me”. “They really believe in me and want to help me get back to my best, and that’s what you want to hear as a player, especially after having a tough time”. And reiterating Ironside’s remarks on the unity at the club, he said that Smith, who he played with at Shrewsbury, “only had good things to say”, and “even just today, meeting everyone, everyone is really friendly and welcoming… from what I heard I expected nothing else”.


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Bonner holds him in high regard. “The reality is I think if he was fit and flying last season he wouldn’t be here”. “We’ve got a player of really high pedigree” who “helps us become the team we wanna be”. While “he’s gonna be a little bit of time away from being able to play”, he can play “anywhere in that attacking line”, has “pace and power to beat people”, and is “an excellent addition if we can get him back to where he was before his injury”.

Verdict: having observed firsthand the positive spirit around the club in preseason, and particularly Bonner’s infectious enthusiasm, I am confident in the club’s ability to use last season as a stepping stone. Varsity predicts a 12th placed finish, and a 2-1 win vs MK Dons on Saturday.