It is a romantic rise that has the hallmarks of a homegrown hero making his name on Football Manager but, whereas that is a world of fantasy, Mark Bonner is calling the shots in the dugout having earned his stripes at his boyhood club. He started coaching Cambridge United’s under-eights almost two decades ago before roles as academy manager, first-team coach, assistant manager and spells in caretaker charge paved the way to becoming the head coach.
“Growing up in the area and having been a supporter as a kid, it is a very unusual [story] – I know that and I don’t take that for granted – but at the same time I haven’t won a competition to be here,” says Bonner. “You can’t do this role as a fan because fanatic behaviour is not what you need in this position. You need to be calm, stable and make good decisions. I love the club and I want what’s best for it but I have to make unpopular decisions sometimes to try and have a chance of being successful.”
Bonner seems to be making the right calls. Cambridge are top of League Two, boast the division’s leading scorer in Paul Mullin and one of the standout performers in the evergreen Wes Hoolahan, while across the Football League only Brentford and Exeter have outscored them. They have nothing to celebrate yet, however, with five points separating the top seven teams – eight separate the top 10 – and third-placed Carlisle among those with games in hand. Even Mansfield, 14th but resurgent under Nigel Clough after five wins in a row, may quietly fancy their chances of making the top six. “It’s madness,” says Hoolahan. “There are so many teams in the mix. I think it will go all the way to the wire.”
A congested landscape makes for an exciting climax to the season, but for Bonner there was a strange start to management. He took permanent charge a fortnight before the lockdown last March. The season was curtailed and Bonner furloughed. “That period gave me lots of time for reflection, lots of time to plan and get my head around: ‘What do I want pre-season to look like?’ I’d like to look back and think that was the upside to a really down period,” he says. “It was probably a bit of a reset point for us as a club. That’s been the platform that we have built from.”
At 35, Bonner is the second-youngest manager in the top four tiers, after Russell Martin at MK Dons, and younger than Hoolahan, the former Norwich midfielder who turns 39 in May. Unlike Martin, he has never played professionally. “There’s always a perception about age being ‘bigger’ than it is,” says Bonner, whose assistant is the former Wycombe manager Gary Waddock. “I’ve always done a job ‘I’m too young to do’ in the eyes of many people. There is sometimes a stigma around people being too young to go on and coach or play in the first team, when ultimately it’s about talent. If you’re fit, hungry and talented it doesn’t really matter – young or old – what you are.”
Hoolahan, signed last summer after a spell in Australia with Newcastle Jets, is perhaps the most salient example. “It’s about knowing your body,” he says. “I usually won’t train until Tuesday or Wednesday. I’ll have a couple of days off where I’m just doing some stretches, get on the bike to get the legs going, taking in protein and recovery shakes – it’s a lot different now from how it was 13 years ago. But it seems to be working.”
Cambridge consider themselves a mental-health-friendly club and have worked with the director and lifelong fan Godric Smith, the chair of Heads Up, the Duke of Cambridge’s campaign around mental health, on initiatives to encourage conversation in the community. Bonner and his staff are mental health first-aid trained. Thursday marks Time to Talk Day, dedicated to getting the nation talking about mental health.
“We have to show people that, actually, vulnerability is strength sometimes,” says Bonner, who also spent six years working in Southend’s academy. “We are trying to create a culture where it’s OK not to be OK, whilst still being really competitive, really driven, aggressive, really intense but understanding that you have to get the best out of people first and then the best out of players will follow. We are trying to do that in a high-pressured environment that is insecure, unstable and often quite short-term, so it is a real tough balancing act but it doesn’t mean that we cannot strive to do that.”
In 2002, the year Cambridge last tasted third-tier football, Bonner was a teenager coaching in the club’s schools’ programme. They have not finished higher than ninth in League Two since but visit Barrow on Saturday hoping to maintain an unlikely promotion push. Bonner is relishing a role he always wanted, but his profile has not stopped the odd case of mistaken identity. “The Mark Bonner that played for Cardiff and Blackpool is often the one I’m known as in the opposition matchday programmes. I’m really comfortable with being a nobody and it doesn’t worry me at all,” he says, laughing. “I’m a baby, really, in terms of this role and I’ve got to fight to stay in it as long as I can.”