Unconventional is the word that Cambridge United boss Mark Bonner uses to describe his route into management with his boyhood Club.
Propelled in at the deep end, the Cambridge-born coach guided the U’s to promotion, despite having no playing background of his own.
United have settled into life in the Sky Bet League One following promotion last season in the throes of a global pandemic and the Cambridge boss is keen to maintain momentum and continue the upward trajectory.
“The curve has gone up very quickly in a short period of time,” he said. “We don’t want to have one year and have a look at League One and pop back down, we want to stick around and build our Club.
“We’ve made a good adjustment to the level so far. We’ve had some really challenging, tough games in there and played some big Clubs.
“We know where we are in the food chain in terms of being able to compete with those Clubs on some levels, with history, infrastructure, fans and budget. Some will dwarf us but we’re all in the same League for a reason, and we’ve earned the right to be here. We can’t be overawed by that.”
The U’s have rubbed shoulders with former Premier League teams; one of which Bonner’s men will come up against this evening in Sheffield Wednesday.
Cambridge host the seventh-placed Owls at the Abbey Stadium, coming into the contest on the back of a 2-2 draw with East Anglian neighbours Ipswich Town at the weekend.
“The last time I was watching them was at Hillsborough in the League Cup in 1998 and then back again at the Abbey Stadium in the second leg, meeting (Paolo) Di Canio and (Benito) Carbone, with Danny Wilson as manager.
“When you’re in a small Club like ours, you’re close to the action and the players. I benefitted from being a fan of this Club because you get access in a way that you don’t at a bigger Club, and that was the hook really for me as a younger person trying to buy into football.”
Having grown into the various positions, from academy coach to first-team manager, the 35-year-old’s self-professed “crazy” journey from the terraces to the dugout has seen him become the youngest U’s boss to win an EFL promotion with the Club.
“You can never get exactly the same understanding of what a player is going through if you haven’t been in their shoes from that perspective, so that’s an interesting one,” he continued. “If I can stay in the job long enough, people will soon forget about that background and I’ll become known as the manager, and that will be enough to be respected in the position.
“Somehow, by hook or by crook, I’ve ended up in this position. I know my route into it is very unconventional, but it’s not from the PlayStation to the stands because that really wouldn’t work!
“Having supported Cambridge as a kid, I’ve been at the Club for 10 years and worked all the way through the age groups and the academy. I know the Club inside out. It’s been a whirlwind. When you get given an opportunity, the best thing you can do is take it and roll with it. That’s what I’m doing.
“I was probably the right person at a time when the world was a bit shook and didn’t know what was happening next.”
Last season, Cambridge bounced back to League One for the first time since 2002, as the U’s secured promotion from the Sky Bet League Two on the final day of the 2020/21 campaign with a 3-0 victory over Grimsby Town.
“It was a really unique season for supporters to watch it in such a different way. You could say it was a sad time to do it because lots of people didn’t get to see us do it in the stadium.
“What we managed to do was connect with our supporters in a way that we haven’t in a number of years. We’re probably closer to them than ever before. They knew it was a routine on a Saturday where they could get on iFollow and watch the game. It gave people something to focus on in a really difficult year.”
However, despite breaking records as the EFL’s second-youngest manager, behind Swansea City’s Russell Martin, age is just a number to Bonner. Surrounding himself with former players, he insisted that his side can’t afford not to have experience on their side.
“What do you get as a younger one?” he questioned. “Less inhibitions, not too fearful yet, lots of energy and work ethic to go towards things, and willing to take a risk. They’re good qualities to have.
“But the experienced people in the game need to be in the game and we need to surround ourselves with that because it’s understanding what experiences haven’t I got and what skills haven’t I got?
“Sometimes, there’s a trend where people go for the next young person and whilst there’s some strength in that, it’s important that we hold on to those that have got huge experience in the game.”
And Cambridge’s idyllic balance between experience and youth will stand them in good stead this season, as they march on in League One, currently occupying 18th place with ambitions to go even higher.