by Stuart Hayden (@StuartHayden16)
At the time of writing this Cambridge Utd are teetering on the brink of relegation to the fourth tier of the English football pyramid. Cambridge Utd have a number of problems but also a number of reasons for supporters to be positive, even if it doesn’t feel like that at the moment. I am not going to talk about specific players, especially as lots of them won’t be here next season. I wanted to more generally assess both positives and negative aspects and consider; where do we go from here?
The Manager/Head Coach Situation
Mark Bonner will go down as a Cambridge Utd legend for being one of the few Head Coaches’ or Managers’ that have managed to achieve a promotion at Cambridge Utd. In the few years that he has been in charge at the club we have seen a lot of success and a lot of that is down to strong leadership and management from Bonner. He is adaptable and a good communicator and when Championship Rotherham came knocking for his services, he had one of the best win percentages of any EFL manager. This suggests that Mark Bonner and his team know how to send out a side to win games at this level and the level below. Mark Bonner was the manager that went from St James Park to St Georges Park after the biggest win of his career and the clubs biggest scalp for many years. He is a ‘student of the game’ and you would hope that he would learn from the mistakes of this season and implement changes for next. As we all know, he is also Utd through and through and this emotion can’t be separated from cold hard facts in the assessment of his performance. This season
Bonner has faced a significant injury list and the change to five subs has given an advantage to bigger clubs which have made it harder for smaller clubs to compete. He also has a history of youth development and that should be the model we develop over the next few years as we embed talented youngsters into the team. We all want Bonner to succeed and do well and based on terrace chat, this would be the vast majority of Utd fans’ view.
However, one cannot fail to acknowledge that the wheels have fallen off the wagon since September. The board have made it clear that Bonner will be our manager next season and realistically, at this stage, there is no point in making a change. Bonner is very lucky to be in his job after three wins in 27 games or 14 points in 27. These statistics are stark and lots of these poor results go back to decisions by the Head Coach. Bonner has always had an issue with making substitutions, he doesn’t like to do so and often his substitutions seem to be too late or badly considered. This has been exacerbated this season with the rule change to five permitted subs and a weak, limited or inexperienced bench giving fewer options. There are also several tactical issues that we keep getting caught out on such as players at the edge of the box not being marked or closed down quickly, leading to goals. I am not an XG bore but if you look at the statistics, they are not pleasant reading and suggest significant issues around goal scoring and linked to that, recruitment.
It is fair to say that the last three transfer windows have not been particularly successful, indeed shit show would be more accurate. The Tolaj debacle should have been a sign for the summer but all supporters were still hopeful we would kick on. Instead, recruitment was a mess and stunk of complacency. Hindsight is a wonderful thing they tell us, but this has really cost us this season. Only eight first team starts for the players signed in the summer is damning but the failure to recruit a central midfielder in the summer and one or two strikers in the January window will relegate us. A small squad was Bonners choice too so he needs to own that. Some fans’ have talked of emotion overriding sound decision making such as in the case of Taylor and O’Neil, but I wonder if it is more about budget, character and a reward for a comfortable mid table finish last year.
Not one supporter could foresee such as disastrous season or that forward players that were a threat last season would regress so significantly. They say that in football ‘everyone is a shark and everyone is a fish’. It’s a food chain and a £2m budget in League One is tiny. That has clearly impacted us signing a combination of crocks, risks and kids. Cambridge can’t always get who we want as other clubs can outbid us, but recruitment must improve going forward.
The Youth Academy
One huge area for positivity is the youth system at Utd. We are starting to consistently produce good players at the club and hopefully some of those players will embed themselves in the starting eleven over the next season. They FA Youth Cup run was nothing short of magical and the likes of Yearn, McConnell and Hoddle look like they could be the future of the club over the next 5 or 10 years, if of course we can keep them. We also gain compensation for players who are in younger age groups and several have gone to top clubs in this country and others over the last few years. We have to use
this to our advantage as a club and build a team around talented young players as it is clear that is the only way we could compete long term in League One without significant investment.
A lot has been said about the ownership and the board over the last few seasons. Paul Barry is a Utd fan and he has attempted to get extra investment into the club. Credit must be given for seeing the potential in Bonner as a Head Coach, the buying back of the ground and the development of the training ground is fantastic. However, it’s fair to be critical of decisions that have or haven’t been made depending on where you sit on Bonner’s position and it’s reasonable to ask if we are doing enough as a club to bridge the investment gap in order to compete at League One level. However, it is hard to be too critical when you look at other clubs and at least we have stability and a committed owner who appears to have some vision for the club going forward.
Overall, whilst this season has been poor, we do have a number of reasons to be positive for the future of the club. It is likely that we will be in League Two next season and a good summer of recruitment and embedding talented young players will be key to any success next season. It would be wonderful to be able to celebrate promotion properly as a fanbase this time…
Good article, with lots to agree with. A couple of thoughts. Recruitment has been poor, and ultimately the squad isn’t good enough to stay in League One. That’s the bottom line for me.
I believe MB has been trying very hard to get a tune out of the squad and has certainly changed his attitude to substitutions, particularly after the Fleetwood game – where Fleetwood made five changes and we made none, ultimately losing to a late goal. That was on MB.
The half-time changes vs. Charlton showed MB can make an impact from the bench. (We’ll just forget and never mention again the George Williams incident – apart from asking a penny for Kai Yearn’s thoughts?)
Moving forward, we are going down. I think the club is more stable with MB as manager again in L2, but recruitment has to be perfect in the summer. If we don’t bounce back, we could be in for a long stretch in L2, which is below the level we should be. I appreciate we’ve come a long way from the Conference, but as a season-ticket holder I’m not overly excited to be back in L2.
I think that’s a Well balanced article. I think it is easy to look at results on the pitch and assume everything is awful, when in reality there is lots to be pleased with, indeed proud of, when you think of buying back the abbey and the progress of the youth team. Recruitment was poor and this needs to be addressed. We need to look down the ladder more I think, and some of those youth teamers have to have opportunities whichever league we end up in next season (league 2, I’m under no illusions!!) I’ve got 100% faith that Mark is the man to lead the reset, but if we are struggling come Christmas then consideration must be given to his tenure.