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Mark Bonner On Managing Cambridge United And His Future Aspirations

Mark Bonner On Managing Cambridge United And His Future Aspirations

An interview with Mark Bonner, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

Before we talk about your time as the first team manager of Cambridge United, your journey towards becoming first team manager was unique. You worked in the academy set-up and then under several managers in different roles as first team coach, then as assistant manager. Can you talk me through your journey to becoming a first team manager?

Absolutely, it’s certainly a unique story but it’s probably becoming a little more common now that there are a lot more coaching roles within academies.

“I know Cambridge United inside out, so for me to be able to work in the club for a long period of time and work with others to set up the academy upon promotion to the Football League was a great experience.

“Working for so many years with such varied age groups of players allowed me to experience many challenges out of the spotlight.

“Those years were vital for me because you want to learn from your mistakes and gain experience without the same scrutiny that first-team football has especially when you are a young coach.

“Over the course of time, I was able to improve my coaching skills, communication skills, management of players, the building of relationships and much more.

“I think that those experiences set me up nicely so that when I came into a first-team environment, I’d had a lot of coaching hours behind me, which really helps when you go into that environment, albeit a very different one.

“Then, I started working with the first team under many experienced coaches who had played at good levels themselves, so they were able to give me a whole host of opportunities to learn and develop further ideas.

“Some of coaching is about pinching the best ideas from other people, but they have got to be the right methods for you, and you have got to be authentic in the way that you deliver them.

“I saw my time working as a first-team coach and assistant as an opportunity to develop myself to be prepared if the opportunity to manage at first-team level ever came my way in the future.”

You initially had two spells in a temporary charge of Cambridge United before you went on to become permanent manager in 2020. How did you approach that temporary role to begin with?

“I had two spells as interim. The very first one was a short period of time over Christmas when the team was in a really difficult period, and it was very clear from the outset that there was going to be an experienced appointment coming in to take the team, so I was really just looking after things for a couple of games.

“The role of an interim manager is interesting especially when you know internally that you aren’t the candidate to take over or you do not want the job.

“It is a different feeling when you want the job because you have to see your interim role as a job interview and your own opportunity to take the reins.

“My first time around was the former, it was an opportunity to just experience being in control for a few games which was a great learning experience but wasn’t something I was ready or looking to do.

“My second time around came at a time when we were having difficulty on the pitch. I was assistant manager at the time, we were struggling, the club was probably quite divided and there wasn’t a huge connection with the supporters, and it was about reuniting everybody in that period.

“I’d been in the building a long time and I was really hungry to have a go at doing the job myself, so I had to use that as an opportunity to showcase myself.

“I made it very clear to the owners and the board that I wanted to be considered for the job at that time and I also made it very clear that I wouldn’t stay at the club if it wasn’t my time to be able to take the job on a permanent basis.

“At that point, I knew that I was taking a risk really because a change of management with someone else coming in would have meant that I was out of a job.

“That means that I had to approach that spell like I was the manager, not the interim manager. My mindset was very different, and I was very assertive and confident in getting the job done.

“I was going for the role and trying to make that my own. The first interim experience helped me when the second one came around but my timing within the club at that point had made me believe that I had a good opportunity to go after the job.

“The opportunity itself came quicker than I thought it would because the manager who’d recently departed, Colin Calderwood, had just signed a long-term contract so obviously you don’t expect a quick turnaround in those circumstances but once he had gone, it was a job that I wanted to make mine.”

You made the job yours and were appointed permanently in 2020. You went on to take Cambridge United back to League One for the first time in nearly two decades. Just how proud were you, not only for yourself but for the full club given the circumstance that you came into where, as you say, it was divided?

“Yeah, I played a big part with a number of other significant stakeholders in the club at that time. Bringing us back to League One while reconnecting people was crucial to everything.

“We became record breakers really in that time and did things that people didn’t expect of us. We had some huge achievements, and it was a really proud moment to get promoted.

“The only downside was that we got promoted behind closed doors due to the pandemic which meant that the best year we’ve had for a long, long time wasn’t able to be experienced live by our supporters.

“Thankfully, when they were able to come back to the games, we sustained ourselves at the level in League One, which the club had not been able to do for a long, long time.

“I was also adamant that we needed to build on promotion to that level and continue to try to improve to stay there, while, more importantly, showing some ambition to aim higher and do better than just survive.

“When I look back at my time at the club, I am really proud to have achieved success with my boyhood team because Cambridge United is a club that I was associated with for many years of my professional career, and I will always be associated with going forward as a supporter.”

In terms of the pandemic, what was it like to be a football manager during that time?

“It was a bizarre time for everyone in society and it was a strange situation as a football manager.

“For example, it took me six months upon my appointment as permanent manager to taking charge of my first official game.

“So, it was a strange period in that regard, but it also gave us a chance to plan and prepare. The pressures were different because, you know, supporters weren’t there throughout that whole season behind closed doors.

“It was different for us when we played away from home in terms of the facilities we could use because of social distancing measures.

“We were changing in hospitality suites or in the concourses at football stadiums because of the rules at that time. We even had to use a tent and a marquee for our meetings.

“The pandemic was very tough because the job was so different but, in a sense, it was also a real privilege because while other people couldn’t go to work and could not see people, we could still get together as a group.

“It felt extra special to be working with young people, full of enthusiasm who were doing what they love doing and spending time together.

“We knew how privileged we were to be allowed to play football in those tough times and there was a real purpose about us because we were living as normal a life as we could and as close to normal as possible.

“Obviously, when we left the football training ground, we couldn’t go and see many people for a large part of that year so we didn’t have the chance to share our promotion success with anybody but the privilege of being able to go to work brought us joy during a period of time that no one wants to go through again.”

I have to ask you about the FA Cup success against Newcastle United at St James’ Park. That was an incredible day for the football club. How proud were you of the players and your staff that day?

“It was amazing, and we went to a lot of huge venues, many of them for the first time upon promotion to League One but being drawn away to Newcastle United in the cup was a different level altogether.

“There was a huge motivation about the team, almost we created a mindset that the bigger the occasion, the better we got, and the more we knew we could handle it.

“There was no bigger moment for us in that season than a sold-out crowd at St James’ Park. It was an incredible occasion and one that I think will be remembered forever in the history of the club, and rightly so.

“I also think what it shows is when you’re at a club like a Cambridge, for example, there’s probably more funerals than weddings so you have to enjoy those occasions.

“It’s really hard to constantly repeat and outperform your resources year after year and that’s why when success comes to smaller clubs, it will be remembered forever because you have short periods of time where you really connect with a team, where that team achieves something that’s really special.

“The game at St James’ was an incredible example of that. They’d just been taken over by PIF and there was a huge buzz around the club.

“They’d just signed Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid, and he made his debut as part of a really strong team.

“Despite being underdogs, my players delivered. They played out of their skins and pulled a huge performance out of the bag which was even more impressive given that we were quite depleted that day.

“We had an incredibly young bench, and not even a full squad so it was more than a miracle.

“To have five and a half thousand Cambridge fans in the gods at St James’ Park enjoying it, along with the rest of us meant that it became an occasion that I don’t think people will forget in their lives.”

How do you reflect on your time as Cambridge United manager as a whole?

“I reflect on it with great pride because we made huge improvements in the time that we were there.

“I think if people would have said in the three and a half years that we would reach League One, stay there and defeat a club like Newcastle in the FA Cup then I don’t think anyone would have believed you.

“Of course, we had some tough times in there, and a heck of a lot of change because there is a constant cycle of having to recruit new teams, and that creates a huge challenge for everyone in the club, to keep up with others,

“You are always looking to find those top players every year that can make a difference when you lose players each year.

“Invariably, you have to try to replace them for similar resources or slightly less resources which is a really tough challenge that makes it a high bar to try to keep up to.

“However, we set out to try to change the mentality of the club and to try to connect with the players, to help them grow as people and professionals.

“We worked incredibly hard to develop an identity and a culture that people could connect with.

“Of course, you have good days and good runs as well as bad runs and bad results, but it was a hugely successful period that I think will be remembered for decades.

“Whilst I was frustrated that it ended, all you can do is make a difference in the time that you are in a club and, whatever happens next, hopefully Cambridge United can continue to grow, and build on the foundations that we started.”

Finally, Mark, in terms of your next step, are you open to working outwith England or are you targeting a return to the EFL?

“I think the possibilities are huge because football is such a global sport now.

“There are an incredible number of opportunities for coaches, and I’m really open-minded as to what the future brings.

“The next project for me has to be one where I have the opportunity to work in an environment that gives you a chance to implement your ideas and where you’ve got a good training facility to work within.

“Going forward, location is not so important for me, but what the reality at the club looks like is really important.

“I’ll almost travel anywhere in the world to go and do a job if I think it gives me a chance of improving and continue to build on the start to my management career that I’ve made.

“I’m really excited about where that might be next and what that could look like.”


  • comment-avatar
    Noel Blake 4 months ago

    Great read from a very inspirational young manager with great aspirations to continue improving himself in the coaching/management world.

  • comment-avatar

    I like Mark Bonner and feel that he shouldn’t have been sacked , his heart is Cambridge United,   he is local lived and brought up in this area  he knows Cambridge as well as anyone, I have supported The U’s since Bill Leivers and  Southern League days about 60 years  and I believe the club should have stuck by him,  all managers go through sticky periods , If things don’t get turned around very quickly we face the drop and I’m not impressed yet by what I’m seeing,
    But I shall still be a supporter of my local club whatever happens 

  • comment-avatar
    John Henderson 4 months ago

    Typical of Mark Bonner: in lockdown he phoned me out of the blue (along with every other season ticket holder at the club). To ask if I was coping ok and if there was anything the club could do to help. It was a genuine chat, as natural as you please.
    He’s special in football.

  • comment-avatar