Cambridge United, 2020–
In football, there are a lot more funerals than weddings.
That’s what one of the directors at Cambridge regularly tells me, and it’s very true. You get more bad days than good, more bad performances than good – what’s important is how you come back from them.
We said that all the way through last season. If you lose on a Saturday, it’s not a competition to see who can be the most annoyed when you come in on Monday morning. There’s just no point. We crack on and prepare for the next game.
If you know what you’re trying to be as a team, and you know what you’re trying to aim for when you go into a game, then if you lose it you have something to judge that against. So rather than everybody just getting angry because we lost, we can work out why we lost and do something about it in the next week.
We tried to have that as a mantra through the whole season. We lost 17 games in all competitions, and won the following game 12 times. I think that says something about the resilience of the team.
Promotion felt a long way away when I had my first spell as interim head coach of the club in December 2018. It was daunting, because we were in a really bad position – losing games and getting dragged down towards the bottom of the league. As part of the staff that had been at the club before, I felt partly responsible for that.
There’s always a fall guy, and at that particular time it was Joe Dunne (below). Joe is an excellent coach and a good person, and you don’t want to see that happen – particularly when you are part of it and have good relationships with people. It was disappointing and frustrating for all of us when he lost the manager’s job, but you have to just take the job on and do what’s expected. You never know what the future holds and how much longer you’re there yourself – professionalism and competitiveness have to kick in.
"suddenly, i found myself having to prepare the team for three games in little more than a week"
I grew up in Cambridge and was a season-ticket holder there as a kid. I was a huge fan, and I still remember the special feeling you had when you actually got to meet a player. The players I enjoyed watching most were Trevor Benjamin, Martin Butler, then Alex Russell and Paul Wanless. Roy McFarland was the manager during that period; his team played a really good brand of football and he always came across as a really good person. Before last season, he was also the last manager to take Cambridge up into the third tier of English football.
I had first worked at the club after I left college in 2002, first in the community scheme and then in the centre of excellence, as it was at the time. I managed the Under-9s to Under-16s programme, but then the club fell into administration and shut its academy. I left for Southend in 2005, and worked my way through the academy there, but returned to Cambridge to take the Under-18s from 2011, when the club were in the Conference. Promotion back to the Football League in 2014 gained us access to the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) programme, so I then became academy manager to oversee that.
My position eventually developed to working with the first team, and that had been under a few different managers: Richard Money, Shaun Derry and then Joe Dunne.
Now, suddenly, I found myself in that very role, having to prepare the team for a game quickly. I took three games in little more than a week, and it was a massive challenge. We had a really close game against Northampton in the Football League Trophy, which we lost on penalties; we went to Tranmere and were narrowly beaten, and then we drew 0-0 at home to Yeovil in the worst conditions you’ve ever seen at a football match.
We had FA coach developers coming into the club at that time, and I remember telling them that there was no course that could prepare you for what I had just been through. It was the best week and a half of coach development I ever had – an unbelievable experience under what felt like incredible pressure. I knew I wasn’t ready to do the job at that time, but I also knew that I wanted to do it somewhere down the line.
The chance to do it came around quicker than I thought.
"football went into shutdown for three weeks. For us, that three weeks became six months"
Colin Calderwood had come in after my three-game spell in charge, but by the end of January 2020 he had left the club. Similar to the situation with Joe, I had been with Colin the whole time and felt as responsible as anyone for the results – but, as someone already in the building, you know where the players are psychologically and hear the whispers of what they think needs to happen.
The next game was at home to Colchester, and we worked really hard in the build-up – we wanted to make sure the players went out on the pitch totally clear as to what was expected of them. We went 1-0 down, but we came from behind and scored two late goals – both from substitutes – to win the game. It felt like everything just fell into place for us on the day.
It’s strange, really. You’re only ever looking for a moment, and maybe that was it. Winning it late created loads of drama, and doing it in front of the fans made it feel even more powerful. It seemed to lift a weight off everyone’s shoulders, convince people that things could be different, and off the back of that we went on a good little run.
It was announced that I had been made manager on a permanent basis after a game against Leyton Orient in early March. We were due to play Cheltenham at the Abbey Stadium the following Saturday; the day before, we went out to train and Ben Strang, the club’s head of football, came out to see me: “We’re off, three weeks.”
Football went into shutdown, and for us that three weeks became six months. Having got the job, to not then take a competitive game for six months was a really, really strange period.
"we wanted to be a team that players loved being part of, and that fans could connect with"
During that time, the club came alive in terms of helping people in the community, which was really important. It also gave us a chance to reset in time that we wouldn’t ordinarily have had – the turnaround between seasons is so quick, but now Ben and I had a chance to really plan the kind of squad we wanted. We let players who weren’t in our plans know they wouldn’t be staying really early on, so they had some certainty, and signed a number of players in the summer knowing the kind of team we wanted to build.
We also worked closely with the players to make sure they were keeping themselves active. The one thing everyone was allowed to do during that crazy time was go out and exercise for an hour a day; head of performance Matt Walker (below) and head of medical Mikey Burroughs ensured that the players took that seriously, and they came back in brilliant condition. That allowed us to really start playing proper football on day one of preseason.
Off the pitch, our use of a scheduling and communications platform, Kairos, was also massively beneficial. In years gone by, having a single planner up on the wall that changed every five minutes could be a nightmare. Even now, a stream of WhatsApp messages that you have to scroll back through is hardly any better – so the use of one platform on which we can share every piece of information with the players and staff is really important. It’s also been incredibly useful on the medical side, with players able to book themselves appointments and organise themselves around the physios.
In a year of so many restrictions, having something to really help with the club’s organisation has been hugely helpful – and when things go back to normal, it also means things won’t get loose. In the end, you get really annoyed as a coach if people aren’t where they need to be when they need to be there – and players get really annoyed if they don’t know where they need to be and when. Having everything in one place, which takes away all the noise and confusion, can only help the whole squad.
"paul told me he was going to break the club record of goals in a season. he wasn't wrong"
By the time we came back, we were ready to go, although we never made a statement about what we were going to be. We just wanted to be a team that players loved being part of, and that supporters could start to connect with – particularly in a season when they couldn’t watch them in person.
Unusually, our first two games were cup games – against Birmingham in the EFL Cup and against Fulham Under-21 in the Football League Trophy. We treated them like additional pre-season games, so we put out one team in the first game and a different one in the second – and we had two good results. That gives you real confidence that the work you’re doing is starting to pay off.
Our first league game was at home to Carlisle, and they were very good. We were so clinical that day, scoring three brilliant goals, but we had to defend really well for large periods of the game – there was a real strength in that result. Then we went up to Morecambe and got a big win up there, 5-0 – it was the first time we’d won an overnight game on the road for about three years. It felt like we were ticking off a lot of things that people had thrown at us in recent times. It was almost like we were saying: “Don’t judge us by the history of any other team. This is a new team now, and we’re going to write our own story.”
After that second game of the season, against the Fulham Under-21s, Paul Mullin (above) told me he was going to beat David Crown’s club record of 24 goals in a league season. He wasn’t wrong.
"i don't think there's been a better player for cambridge united in my lifetime"
Paul had come in on loan at the back end of the previous season, in January, and did well in a short period of time. He had been at Tranmere and not played much, so when they released him in the summer he was always going to be an option. We wanted to sign him for longer than the one year he agreed – but you can understand why, with the market as it was, he preferred to sign for one and back himself to earn a better contract going into the following year.
He certainly did that. He was really well assisted by Joe Ironside, his strike partner, who scored 14 league goals himself, but you can’t deny the huge impact Paul had on the team throughout the season. He scored 32 league goals, which was both a club record and a record for a single League Two season – and he was named Player of the Season to go with the Golden Boot. You can never expect anyone to score that many goals, but he was confident from the start and had an exceptional season.
We had also signed Wes Hoolahan (above) that summer – and I am really gutted for our supporters, because I don’t think there’s been a better player play for Cambridge in my lifetime. For them not to be able to see him live last season was a real shame in a really positive year for the club, because his impact was unbelievable.
He just gave everybody confidence. He makes you give him the ball, and then he gives you it back even when sometimes you don’t want it. But he made everyone better around him, and I think that’s the best sign of a really good player.
He showed everybody what top-level players look like, both on the pitch and in his character. He signed here on the worst contract he’s ever had in his life, but he was humble enough to come in and graft – you can’t underestimate how big that is for everybody else, to see a player who has been there and done it come in with that attitude. One of the reasons we were successful is the humility we’ve shown, and Wes has been a major part in that.
"we had a week to prepare for harrogate. we were 3-0 down in 20 minutes. it was carnage"
We had a really bad spell through November and December, and on December 29 we lost at Stevenage – it was a really poor performance, our level dipped massively. Our first fixture of the new year was away at Grimsby – they were fighting for their lives, had just brought a new manager in, and the pitch was woeful. We had to hang on towards the end, but we won 2-1 – and that kind of win, when you have to fight and scrap, is where you grow as a team.
At the start of the season, we had called a meeting with the squad, to talk through the values we wanted to adhere to – responsibility, resilience and respect. Resilience was a massive one, and the resilience we showed in January was pivotal to our ultimate success; Wes got player of the month, we won manager of the month, and we really turned things around after a tough period.
With 11 games to go, we called another meeting with the players. It was the night before an away game at Oldham (below), and we talked about the 11 hurdles we still had left to jump. We were in the top three and we could see the finish line, but teams below us had games in hand and I wanted the players to understand that we could easily find ourselves down in fifth without even playing a game. I didn’t want them seeing the playoffs as a disappointment.
A number of magic Tuesdays followed. No one won, and at the end of those games in hand we were still in the top three. It was clear we had a real chance of going up, but we had five of the teams in and around us in the next block of games. We rose to the challenge brilliantly – at the end of that run we went to Newport and won 1-0, then went to Leyton Orient and won 4-2.
With three games to go, we only needed one point. Stevenage at home came at the end of a really busy week and I should have made more changes to the team than I did. We’d got to the end of that run of games I mentioned, and I think the weight had come off our shoulders a bit – we put in a really tired, flat performance and lost narrowly.
Then we had a week to prepare for Harrogate – it was about the longest we’d had to prepare for any game all season. It was the Friday night too, so we were playing before everyone else and had a chance to wrap promotion up.
"fans are erratic and emotional. if you are like that in this job, then you won't survive"
We were 3-0 down in 20 minutes. It was carnage. We ended up getting it back to 4-4, which would have been enough, but we conceded a late goal. The doubts inevitably came – were we throwing it away?
We quietened the noise down quite a bit in the build-up to our final game, at home to Grimsby. We hardly posted anything on social media – you probably wouldn’t even have known we had a game, but we wanted to just focus on the fact that we had a game we had to try and win. It was a tough game to prepare for, trying to block out the fact that we hadn’t already secured promotion.
Honestly, I’ve never put a team on the pitch that was as edgy and nervous as for that final game. But we won, and in the end we won well. By the time the third goal went in, we could hear the crowd singing as they were walking towards the ground at the end. The overwhelming feeling for us all was relief, but promotion was a massive, massive achievement – and, having spent so much of the season in the top three, it was well-deserved.
The challenge ahead of us now is ginormous, and we know that success for us going forward is going to look very different to how it did in our promotion season. I think we have gained some support back from the supporters, and hopefully they will stick with us in what we hope will eventually be a packed stadium. There will be some tough moments, no doubt, and we’re going to need them.
I’m not a Cambridge fan any more, because in this position you can’t be. Fans are erratic and emotional and go from one extreme to the other. If you are like that in this job, then you won’t survive.
Instead, what I hope the fans see in me is someone who cares genuinely and deeply about their club. I want the best for it, and when my time is up here I want to look back and think I made a positive impact. If people connect with us along the way, then I’ll be really pleased with that.
Author: Tony Hodson