Building a culture at the Abbey that allows Cambridge United to flourish in League One

Cambridge United squad 2022 - 23 season.  Picture: Keith Heppell.  (58228718)
Cambridge United squad 2022 – 23 season. Picture: Keith Heppell. (58228718)

Since Mark Bonner has been at the helm of Cambridge United, a clear identity has been created among the playing squad.

It is one that is defined by tenacity, character and resilience, an ability to remain level-headed and not get carried away by the good results, or despondent by the less palatable.

You could say that a lazy trope is to continuously ask the U’s head coach about the resilience of his side – after all, you would not suggest to Pep Guardiola that Manchester City had passed the ball well in a match, as in both cases it is a non-negotiable and defines the squad.

At the Abbey, it is abundantly clear that a culture has been created around the first team, and so it begs the question which came first, building the culture for the first team to fit into? Or finding a culture to fit the team?

“I think the two go together really. I don’t think you can have one without the other,” says Bonner.

“In the end, you’ve got to be a good football team, you’ve got to have good players, you’ve got to have players that understand exactly what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to play .

“Then you have to create values ​​and behaviors in which you operate so those two things in tandem were what we set out to try to do.

“I’ve always built teams like that, in any job I’ve done. That was the challenge from day one really.”

Although it is easy to challenge that point.

For instance, you could have an outstanding player that might be ideal for the team, but with a slightly different personality that might not quite match the rest of the group.

“I think the culture is set by the history of the club,” explains Bonner.

“Your culture has got to be in line with your club. My upbringing in this club was that I always thought teams had certain characteristics that I wanted to build in the team we had.”

Outlining how this had become a key aspect during his time working within the academy, it was something he sought to translate into the first-team squad when taking charge.

“Some of those players already existed here and then in terms of building a team with a common goal, I feel resilience is a huge part of any successful team or sportsperson so we’ve tried to recruit players that have proven they’ve got it ,” says Bonner.

“In doing that, you get a group of people together that have got similar stories – different places but some of the back stories are the same and some of the ambitions and goals are the same.

“When you take people that are either under-rated, or haven’t had their best days yet, all of a sudden there is something you’ve all got in common which is something we can drive the team with.”

Bonner believes that the timing of building the first squad during the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic was helpful.

Values ​​and behaviors were at the forefront for everyone, not just in sport, as the wider world adapted to a new way of living, and it put a priority on what was important.

It formed a basis for the squad, making sure the foundation was there to get the best out of people in order to perform for the team.

“You’ve got to have that safe platform to begin with, that solid base, which will always be the people, the relationships and then the behaviors every day that can allow players to be the best versions of themselves,” said Bonner, pictured below.

Mark Bonner on the touchline for Cambridge United in the pre-season match against Norwich City.  Picture: Ben Phillips (58105186)
Mark Bonner on the touchline for Cambridge United in the pre-season match against Norwich City. Picture: Ben Phillips (58105186)

“Part of that is the environment, the way you train, and they go on the pitch knowing exactly what is expected of them – that is a major part of how we try to build this team.

“Ultimately, when you can’t go and get the best players in terms of huge resources that others spend, you’ve then got to make sure you’ve got other things that are your unique points.

“That characteristic and togetherness of our team is definitely a big thing for us. We’re not ashamed of that at all, it’s brought us success – I think it’s the thing that will keep getting us it as well.”

Unsurprisingly, it is why background checks on players are so important.

For potential new signings, building up a portfolio before meeting the individual is crucial.

Research can include talking to the target’s former team-mates, managers, agents and others involved in the game, and scouring the internet and social media to get a take on the character and their interests.

The next step is to then set up a meeting with the player, and Bonner admits that it is one of his favorite parts of the job, meeting players for the first time.

“If you spend an hour and a half with somebody and get them talking about literally everything in the world, you can get to know someone,” he says.

“You can see whether there is a connection there, see whether they are interested and see what their interests are, can they hold a conversation, what intelligence level have they got, how into their football are they, how into their own development are they – those sorts of things become really clear when you sit and meet with them.

“Until you’ve got them you don’t know, do you? Until they’re actually with you, you never know someone but you just try to do as much work as you can, that you’ve got firstly the right character and secondly someone who is going to fit into your squad the way you want them to play.”

Having put all those pieces of the jigsaw together, it is then a case of making some difficult decisions.

It may be that an excellent footballer is a potential signing, but they may not be so within the system of the team.

“I think that’s often a mistake that is made – signing players that have done brilliantly somewhere, but they have done brilliantly somewhere because of the position they’ve played or the style in which they’ve been playing,” explains Bonner.

“If that doesn’t transfer to your team, then it’s not the right person to sign or the right player to sign. You have to be brave enough to say no to good players to make sure you get the right ones that will be able to perform in your team.”

It does make recruitment harder in that there are fewer players in the pool to pick from but, on the other hand, easier in that by being selective, the options can be narrowed down straight away.

“Once you go location, price, position, profile, character and interests, and you deal with all those things on your list, the number of players available is much, much smaller,” says Bonner.

Cambridge United head coach Mark Bonner.  Picture: Simon Lankester (55809279)
Cambridge United head coach Mark Bonner. Picture: Simon Lankester (55809279)

Up to 1,000 players may be out of contract every July, but once all factors are considered – including the appetite for a player to join any given team – the pool narrows, and quite often many teams are after the same player.

“I would rather be really clear in what we’re after rather than just 11, 12, 14 players and then at the end say right, how shall we play? I would rather start with the end in mind and try to build a team to fit that,” says Bonner.

This summer has seen new additions kept to a minimum.

James Holden, Saikou Janneh, Brandon Haunstrup and Zeno Ibsen Rossi have arrived so far, with the potential of one or two others still to join.

With minimal recruitment required after what had felt like two continuous seasons for United – after the first Covid lockdown and then promotion – they savored a seven-week turnaround to refresh and re-energize.

“It’s been a really good pre-season and now we look forward to the season,” adds Bonner.

“I think you’re always just hungry and competitive, that’s why we do this job, we love it.

“But you’ve got to recognize the opportunities when you need a break and you need to get away from it so that you can come back full of energy for the new one.

“I think everybody is quite excited about the new season and looking forward to having a real go at it and seeing if we can create some of the highs that we did last year.”


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