Matthew Crichton: Cambridge currently sit 15th in League One after finishing second in League Two last season.
How is your squad coping with the step up in quality?
Julian: Overall, it’s hard not to look at our start to the season as anything other than positive. The sole objective for the year is to stay up, and with our points return so far we’re on track to do that, having now faced most of the top sides in the division too. In fact, it’s against those top sides that we’ve got some of our best results so far: Ipswich, Wednesday, Plymouth all held to draws, with a win away at Pompey on top of that.
Where we might lack a bit of individual quality, we make up for it with a committed squad bursting with team spirit and willingness to give everything for the manager - forget the one million goals that Mullin scored last season, that’s what really got us promoted.
Mark Bonner prefers to work with small, tight-knit squads. We did some decent work in the market this summer, bringing in Jubril Okedina from Spurs on a permanent deal for 2 years being a particular highlight for me, as well as strengthening in most areas of the squad. But it’s still very threadbare for my liking, and it only takes two or three injuries for that to be made clear.
Against Wigan on Tuesday night, on the back of 6 games in 3 weeks, it was made abundantly clear as we simply didn’t have the legs off the bench to see the game out. So overall they’re coping just fine, but we could do with a few more through the door.
MC: Aged just 36, I think it is fair to say Mark Bonner did an excellent job in his first season in management!
How did him becoming manager come about and what are the main factors behind his success?
J: Still feels strange reading it back - just 36! A whole three years younger than Sir Wesley Hoolahan. Mark’s story is one of those Championship Manager fairytales; the last time we were in this division, he was standing a season ticket holder in the Habbin Stand, a United fan just like the rest of us.
Fast forward twenty years, after picking up coaching as soon as he left school at 16, spending a few years at Southend before returning to coach in the academy and working his way up every single role to assistant, caretaker, interim, then permanent manager. For him it just means that little bit more, and it’s not lost on us.
As mentioned above, it’s the spirit within the squad that’s the real factor. Tactically, it’s nothing too special - although he isn’t afraid to experiment. His game management possibly lets him down in that he can be a touch naive at times. But the way he can build squads and create an environment where everyone is committed to the cause is his real strength.
It’s no wonder we score a lot of late goals. He signs players on personality not just quality, and we’ve had countless loan signings give interviews saying they’ve never seen a dressing room like it.
MC: Sunderland fans will remember facing Wes Hoolahan during his days at Norwich in the Premier League, has he still got it at 39?
J: I’m not sure there’s quite enough word count for me to go fully into this answer, but yes, he absolutely still has it. Put simply, he’s our best player, and I haven’t seen many better creative players face up against us so far this season.
He’s a wizard, just a split second ahead of everyone else mentally, and if it wasn’t for a few signs of his legs just slowing down on him a touch, he could easily still be doing it at a higher level, even though he does take Tuesdays off and only trains on Thursdays and Fridays.
It goes without saying that last season at times it was a bit unfair. More than anything though, he hasn’t lost an ounce of his hunger. He still cares as much as the rest of them and you’ll see him closing down and chasing every ball just as enthusiastically as a man half his age.
MC: Striker Paul Mullin left Cambridge to join Phil Parkinson’s Wrexham two divisions below in the National League, were fans frustrated to see your top scorer leave?
J: I think there was a collective consensus amongst our fanbase that he would go elsewhere in the summer. He had an incredible season, gave us great memories, and we’re all extremely grateful.
We offered him everything we could for our very modest budget, and we all expected him to bag himself a big move somewhere and really push on - there were rumours of Championship clubs in for him at the time.
The frustration with going to Wrexham comes not from Mullin himself because we all know football is a short career and put yourself in his shoes you wouldn’t be able to turn down the sum he got offered, I’m sure. It comes from the fact a team two divisions below us can afford to pay these sorts of wages.
It’ll be listed as a ‘fairytale’ at some point and the Hollywood aspect has given them unprecedented PR, but it’s an example of some serious moneywashing going on in non-league football all in the name of ‘content’, and it just doesn’t sit right with me. I’m sure it’s a similar answer with Cheltenham fans and Ben Tozer, and Bolton fans and Antoni Sarcevic.
But personally I wish Paul all the best: they’ve got Bromley at home this weekend, we’ve got Sunderland, so I’m not thinking about it too much right now.
MC: Joe Ironside has scored eight League One goals for Cambridge so far this season.
After playing in the lower leagues for most of his career, what are the factors behind his form?
J: He’s the definition of a ‘handful’ for centre halves. They really, really don’t like playing against him. The geezer could flick on an incoming asteroid, the only problem is no one would get on the end of it.
He had a great campaign in our promotion season that went unrecognised as well due to Mullin’s ridiculous numbers, but he’s a real fan favourite. For someone not that physically imposing, he puts himself about, and when we’re under the cosh he’s an amazing out-ball because his hold up play is phenomenal and this year he’s shown he can make the step up and add goals to that too.
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, who will Sunderland have to be cautious of?
J: Adam May in central midfield has made quite a remarkable unexpected step up to this level having been a bit of a bit part player last season and is a real danger shooting from distance.
Similarly, Jack Iredale at left back (or maybe centre half tomorrow) has been, for my money, our player of the season, and hardly ever puts a foot wrong - he can be a real danger bombing forward too.
But aside from the obvious Joey and Wes, Sam Smith has a really tidy finish in him, and if Shilow Tracey is fit enough to play off the bench he will cause real problems down that right hand side as a direct, attacking winger.
MC: What style of play can Lee Johnson’s side expect to encounter from Bonner’s side?
J: You’ll probably see us be prepared to sit in without the ball, find a way to soak up pressure and possession without giving up big chances and then counter quickly through Big Joe and Brophy, Smith or Tracey attacking your full-backs either side of him.
Having said that, Bonner has been much more bullish in this week’s presser, talking about how important it is to play the team in front of you not the badge or name on the shirt.
A big criticism amongst fans have been we often give bigger sides too much respect in the early stages and it takes a long time for us to grow into games, so potentially we might see that change and United will put it on Sunderland’s backline early doors.
MC: Which eleven players do you think will start the match for Cambridge?
J: Given injuries, I’d think we’d only make the one change from Tuesday, but I’d love to see Okedina start at centre-half.
Mitov; Williams, Masterson, Iredale, Dunk; Smith, Digby, May, Brophy; Wes; Big Joey Ironside.
MC: Sunderland and Cambridge haven’t faced one another in a competitive match since 2002!
What is your honest prediction of the final score?
J: This will end up on that ‘EFL images that precede unfortunate events’ page in an absolute heartbeat, but I’m feeling quietly optimistic.
I’ve heard the rumours about your injury list but just to save my own embarrassment should it go horribly wrong, I’m going to say 1-1. But there’s a little guy inside me that thinks a sold out Abbey might just play in our favour, and we may be hearing Coconuts come the full-time whistle...