Mark Bonner’s Cambridge exit reminds us of the strange existence for managers

<span>Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA</span>
Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

You may not know who Mark Bonner is. If you do, it’ll probably be in passing, perhaps after Cambridge United beat Newcastle in the FA Cup in January last year, or this week from a one-minute clip on Sky Sports News announcing his sacking as our manager after almost four years in charge. It may not have even registered. It’s just a man’s name and a League One club you haven’t thought about for a while.

So you may have to change the names, players and era in this thank you letter for it to resonate, but all fans spend intense periods of their lives loving, hating, cheering, yelling at a middle-aged man sitting in a tiny shed by the halfway line occasionally writing notes on a scrap of paper – before suddenly having to move on to the next one without time to process their impact.

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It’s slightly different with players. You actually see them doing things, see them move, score, send some winger into the terraces, continually slice clearances over the Habbin Stand. But somehow with managers you build a bond from identical pre-game Zoom press conferences where they tell you how strong and physical the opposition are, and two minutes post-game where they tell you they’re also disappointed with losing 3-0 at home to Lincoln City.

The truth is we made Lincoln look like 2011 Barcelona on Tuesday night, and although I don’t watch Lincoln a great deal, I don’t think they are 2011 Barcelona. Our form is bad. Very much like last season, where we barely got a point between October and April before an extraordinary last-day escape – we’re a British summer time team; clocks change, it’s cold and dark, let’s wait for spring. We’ve won one in 13 in the league. The portents were not great. It may be the right decision.

Yet when I heard the news I was shocked, and that shock has given way to some kind of crestfallen devastation. The phrase “they really understand the club” is overused. Much as we like to think our football club are different and special, in reality they are all pretty similar entities. A stadium, some players, a training ground, some fans. Down the divisions it’s one local reporter, two local radio commentators, one photographer – at Cambridge we even had a song for him back in the 90s: “Cyrus, Cyrus Daboo and his lens.”

But Bonner really did understand the club. He was a season ticket holder as a kid – we’d have gone to so many of the same games. He worked his way up from coaching the kids. This was a dream appointment and it worked.

He wasn’t an identikit lower-league manager, but empathic and thoughtful. It is fascinating how a manager can dictate the mood of a club. His commitment to caring about mental health and working with the community created a wonderful atmosphere. Off the pitch this is the best position we’ve been in since the early 90s; the attendances are great. He was refreshingly honest, he didn’t lambast referees, he supported his players. Fans naturally want every manager to succeed, but this was with real heart. Of course without success, being a good person doesn’t really matter in football – but there was so much joy in these four years. Perhaps our second greatest manager after John Beck.

Promotion in the Covid years. Spotting Paul Mullin before he was famous. Building a team around Wes Hoolahan – he could still do a job. With four games to go I somehow found myself in a flat that overlooks Brisbane Road in 2021 as we went to Leyton Orient on the verge of promotion. There’s an embarrassing video when Shilow Tracey bundles in a header from a corner and you can just hear a nasally “Come on!” repeated over and over. No fans in the ground, but there was us and another group who had got a pitchside Airbnb. He spent ages with them afterwards.

So many late winners. Adam May at Carlisle, Liam O’Neil at Port Vale, Mullin at home to Walsall. Then there was Newcastle away. Joe Ironside’s goal. A five-minute VAR check. Thousands of delirious fans in the sky at St James’ Park. Dimitar Mitov’s last-minute save from Joelinton. I just welled up watching the highlights again.

Our budget means surviving in League One is an achievement. He did it twice. We won at Ipswich. We beat Peterborough late last season. It feels unfair that there’s no send-off – that he takes his stuff home in a box and the games just carry on.

It must be the strangest profession. The intensity of it, and then nothing. How strange it will be for him on Saturday when we play Fleetwood in the FA Cup. There is that thing happening on Saturday that Bonner has been central to for four years. In that bubble for every game, so many mind-sapping coach journeys, so many training sessions – answering so many of the same questions and then the diary is completely blank.

Heady days on Tyneside for Mark Bonner’s Cambridge.
Heady days on Tyneside for Mark Bonner’s Cambridge. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Managers aren’t normally around long enough for you to divide your life into the chunks of time that they’ve been in charge of your team. It’s rarely John Lyall or Arsène Wenger these days. But four years has been enough time for me to emigrate and start a family, for us to live through a pandemic – all the while staring at Bonner’s face a couple of times a week as he peers over a laptop to tell me if Harrison Dunk will be fit for the weekend.

I will be over this short-term grief pretty quickly, and then be hoping that Gareth Ainsworth, Gary Rowett or whoever tips up can achieve similar highs. There is no time for sentiment in football – which is strange when football is in many ways entirely sentimental. But thanks Mark, I hope another club gives you the same opportunity soon – they won’t regret it.