Mark Bonner’s Cambridge United have won their first two games of the season 8-0: he says there’s still more to come, but watch out for him, and them…
If you Google Mark Bonner, the algorithm first tries to tell you you’re looking for the actor Mark Bonnar.
Then it brings up another Mark Bonner, the 46-year-old former midfielder who had a very respectable career in the Football League, mainly with Cardiff and Blackpool.
Eventually, you get to Mark Bonner, Cambridge United manager who has overseen the most impressive start to this strange 2020/21 season, but is so low-key that he still doesn’t yet have a Wikipedia page.
“I’ve been at the club for ten years,” he told The Totally Football League Show: Extra-Time this week, by way of introduction.
“I’ve worked my way through the academy. It’s my second spell here. I spent six years at the academy of Southend United. I’ve been academy manager, taken the under-18s, under-21s, I’ve been first-team coach and assistant manager for a few spells. I’ve worked under Richard Money, Sean Derry, Joe Dunne, Colin Calderwood.
“I was assistant to Colin last season when the decision was made that he moved on, that was a real kick for all of us, and we had to recover really quickly. I took the team, we had a good spell, and I was really grateful to get the opportunity.
“About five days after I was offered the job, we went into national lockdown. So it’s been a very strange period.”
Well quite. But it’s a strange period in which Cambridge, under Bonner, have started this still nascent season like a train, following up a 3-0 opening day win over Carlisle with a 5-0 thrashing of Morecambe last weekend.
These are extremely early days, of course, but also promising ones for the team that came 19th in League Two last season (after that recovery under Bonner) and haven’t finished higher than ninth in the fourth tier since returning to the Football League in 2014.
“To us the league table always matters – we’re obviously going to say that now. But what’s important is you can’t read into what the table is going to look like in 46 games by what it looks like now.
“The start period for us is ten games. We’ve had an excellent beginning to the start: we’re delighted with the performances and the results we’ve had, but we can’t take them for granted.
“We’ve got a group of players who like a challenge and have lots of development left in them, in many cases.
“We’re very early on in our cycle as a new team. There’s lots more to come from us yet. Hopefully that’s reflected by the league table as the weeks and months kick on.”
What does Bonner believe they can improve?
“The results would say we’ve been ruthless in both penalty areas. But we know that between the boxes and in general play we can try to be better with the ball and maintain possession for longer periods. And we can make sure that in the periods where the opposition have the ball, we limit the number of chances on our goal.
“We’ve got lots of younger players, some who are perhaps playing in the Football League for the first time. There are some that, in the last few years have perhaps dipped from the level we think they’ve got in them. Individually there are certainly lots of improvements to make technically and tactically. And we want to be able to add more variety to our game and develop.
“There’s loads to learn in victories, and sometimes I think that’s the best time to learn: people want to learn, want to listen, want to improve, want to keep doing better and keep winning. Sometimes minds begin to close and fear starts to creep in if it isn’t going so well.”
One of the driving forces behind their early success has been Wes Hoolahan, now 38 and back in England after a brief spell with Newcastle Jets in Australia.
“It’s great for all of us. He showed his level this weekend. With older players, they never lose that touch and that technique and class: sometimes it might be the physical element or motivation.
“But he’s getting fitter and stronger, so we’re confident he can add value over the season. And there’s certainly not a dip in his motivation. As a role model and example to everyone, he’s excellent.”
You hear the full interview on The Totally Football League Show: Extra-Time. Listen ad-free on The Athletic – subscribe for £1/month here.
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