Cambridge United took a punt on Mark Bonner as the boss never kicked a ball in professional football

Cambridge United manager Mark Bonner is following in the footsteps of some of the game’s great minds.

Like legendary AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi, Bonner has not kicked a ball in professional football.

‘I never realised that in order to become a successful jockey you have to have been a horse first,’ Sacchi said when his credentials were questioned.

Sacchi won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990 with AC Milan

Cambridge United manager Mark Bonner (left) is following in Arrigo Sacchi’s (right) footsteps

He earned a living as a shoe salesman before coaching in Italy’s semi-professional leagues and working his way up to the AC Milan job, where he won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990.

So a stellar playing career does not necessarily translate to the dugout. Premier League greats Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are living proof of that.

Even so, in a city famous for punts, appointing Bonner was an almighty one for Cambridge — and yet the gamble has paid significant dividends.

Before taking this job, Bonner was a coach of the club’s Under 8 team, then had roles as academy manager, first-team coach and assistant manager.

The AC Milan coach was a shoe salesman before coaching in Italy’s semi-professional leagues

The AC Milan coach was a shoe salesman before coaching in Italy’s semi-professional leagues

He took the manager’s job a fortnight before the first Covid-enforced lockdown last year. The season was curtailed, with Cambridge finishing in League Two’s bottom half, and Bonner, now 36, was furloughed.

That time away allowed him to forge a masterplan of how his team would play.

Cambridge took League Two by storm last season, winning promotion as runners-up and climbing into England’s third tier for the first time since 2002.

In that year, Bonner was working as a coach in the club’s schools’ programme, as a teenage Cambridge fan. So like the club, Bonner is punching above his weight. Eight years ago this weekend, they were playing Salisbury in an FA Trophy tie in front of just 727 spectators.

Their opponents on Saturday welcomed 33,000 to the Stadium of Light in the Premier League that weekend. The Black Cats are one of a growing number of fallen giants in the third tier but, so far, Cambridge are performing well among them.

Cambridge United faced former Premier League side Sunderland in League One on Saturday

Cambridge United faced former Premier League side Sunderland in League One on Saturday

Goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov could not stop Sunderland taking the lead through Alex Pritchard

Goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov could not stop Sunderland taking the lead through Alex Pritchard

A play-off push might be too much of an ask but Bonner’s men look comfortable in mid-table, well clear of the relegation battle which the bookmakers had them down for in pre-season. ‘You have to strip away the badge of the opposition quite often,’ said Bonner before the match.

‘It’s 11 against 11, we’re capable of competing with everybody.’

And they did that on Saturday against Sunderland in a thrilling game that could have gone either way in difficult conditions.

‘You’re only here to see Sunderland,’ chanted the 2,561 away supporters to a rare sell-out crowd at the Abbey Stadium, a gate just shy of 8,000.

Sam Smith (left) levelled for Cambridge in front of the sell-out crowd at the Abbey Stadium

Sam Smith (left) levelled for Cambridge in front of the sell-out crowd at the Abbey Stadium 

Maybe true, though they also saw Cambridge throw everything at the promotion favourites, but come up just short.

Indeed, the U’s were by far the superior side in the second half. With the wind behind them, Cambridge peppered Sunderland with 12 corner kicks and a flurry of long balls from deep.

But they couldn’t find a second breakthrough to cancel out first-half goals by Adam Pritchard — straight from a wind-assisted corner of their own — and Nathan Broadhead.

There is nothing wrong with losing to Sunderland and Bonner knows that.

Nathan Broadhead (right) curled a goal in to restore the visitors lead before half-time

Nathan Broadhead (right) curled a goal in to restore the visitors lead before half-time

‘It’s been a should-have, could-have week for us,’ he said, also noting a midweek draw at Wigan after being two goals up. ‘We deserved more.’

He was right. His team will take heart from knowing they gave big-spending Sunderland a real scare or two.

Avoiding relegation would be an almighty achievement for young Bonner and his team, though it feels the only way is up for Cambridge.

Recalling Sacchi’s quote, Bonner was not a successful horse here, but Cambridge will surely have plenty of bookie-bashing victories with this young coach in the saddle.

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