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How Cambridge United secured promotion to League One for first time in 19 years

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How Cambridge United secured promotion to League One for first time in 19 years
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Have cambridge united been promoted

The U’s have done it.

Cambridge United have secured promotion to League One after a seven-year stay in League Two.

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United are back in the third tier of the football pyramid for the first time since the 2001/02 campaign.

The success is the club’s eighth promotion since their election to the Football League at the end of the 1969/70 season.

Mark Bonner joins an elite list of Cambridge United promotion-winning managers in that time, consisting of Bill Leivers, Ron Atkinson, John Docherty, John Beck, Roy McFarland and Richard Money.

United have shown remarkable improvement from recent seasons, defying the odds to secure promotion after recording 16th and 21st-placed finishes in the previous two years.

The club had completed each of their previous six campaigns no higher than ninth in the division, but were no lower than ninth at any point throughout their promotion-winning campaign.

“It’s massive (the achievement). We are competing well above where we were expected to be,” Bonner says.

“In terms of resources, there’s no way we should be competing with some of the teams in and around us,” director Graham Daniels adds.

In the most unusual of times, the start of the club’s success story came with the early curtailment of the 2019/20 season.

Bonner had been appointed as head coach on March 9, but the campaign was suspended just four days later, before he had taken a game in permanent charge.

Mark Bonner led the U’s to promotion in his first season in charge. Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire (Image: PA)

The silver lining of the curtailment for the U’s was that it had given the club a six-month window to usher in the new era.

Appointing Bonner gave those at the club early confidence that they were on to a successful season.

“I think that was a really important decision by our owner and board of directors, and chief executive (hiring Bonner to work alongside head of football Ben Strang),” Daniels said.

“That set the foundation, having the right people in charge of developing our playing side.”

And Strang adds: “At the curtailment of last season, the challenge of trying to navigate through that period was very difficult.

“They (the board) did it in a fantastic way, they communicated brilliantly with us as staff and players.

“We were just so clear in what we were doing. We made decisions, we communicated it, we were front foot with everything that we did.”

The pair set about assembling a squad that could be competitive in the division.

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The club released nine and signed ten players in the summer transfer window, with an emphasis on recruiting the squad early to be as prepared as possible for the season ahead.

United made their first signing Paul Mullin, who would go on to break records galore with a 34-goal haul. They also recruited Wes Hoolahan, who would also be recognised as one of the best players of the season.

Paul Mullin and Wes Hoolahan were two of three players nominated for the League Two Player of the Season award. Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire (Image: PA)

Sixty-two of the club’s 73 goals in League Two were scored by signings alone. Bonner had aimed for the club to score 60-65 league goals in total.

The club undoubtedly added quality to the existing squad, but assembling the promotion-winning side was about more than just that.

“Recruitment was driven in that order. Character first, competency second,” Daniels said.

“As a club, we’re simply not prepared to appoint somebody just because they’re good. It won’t do for anyone at the club, and it certainly won’t do for Mark and Ben.”

Bonner added: “The reason I signed or kept these players is because I know they’re diamonds. They’ve been outstanding. I can’t fault their attitude.”

In like-minded fashion to their recruitment, the U’s approached the start of the season on the front foot, recording 20 points from their opening nine League Two games.

Difficult months of November and December were to follow, with Bonner’s side dropping out of the play-offs and down to ninth in the table. The U’s produced a terrific response from the turn of the year, picking up 14 points from six matches in January to move top of the division.

United held their position in the automatic promotion places from then on, navigating the most challenging of run-ins to secure their spot in the third tier, and a place in the history books.

Cambridge United secured promotion on the final day of the campaign with victory against Grimsby Town. Photo: Warren Gunn (Image: Cambridge News)

All sides need to have key ingredients to be successful.

A fundamental requirement is team spirit and togetherness, which the squad have been keen to express that they have had from the offset.

“It’s a great group of people, there are no egos here,” the club’s longest-serving player, Harrison Dunk, said earlier in the season.

“It’s just a humble group. We never get too high. If we lose, we come in Monday still laughing and smiling,” midfielder Paul Digby insisted after the club suffered its joint-heaviest defeat of the season, a 4-1 loss at home to Exeter City.

“I think this is one of the better groups I’ve had, if not the best,” captain Greg Taylor, who has been at the club since their Conference days, said.

“You can normally go out and bond, and do activities together to try and gel us as quickly as possible, but we haven’t had that, and yet we’ve still managed to become a real close-knit team.”

That team spirit has helped the U’s to come out on the right side of games in the balance.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of this has been the sheer number of late goals that the club have scored this season.

The U’s netted 21 of their 83 goals in the 80th minute or later, with their late strikes crucially contributing to nine league points gained. Much of that is down to desire rather than quality.

Team spirit has helped the U’s to score a number of late goals this season. Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire (Image: PA)

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“Since I’ve come here, that’s all I’ve seen, a winning mentality and a real drive in the team,” loanee Hiram Boateng said.

“There’s a real mentality to always be better. That’s definitely a key thing for the squad.”

Top scorer Paul Mullin adds: “We’ve got a real grit and determination about us to keep going to the end, and that’s been evident all the way through the season for us.”

A standout characteristic of the side this season has been their resilience.

In the most challenging of campaigns, the U’s have consistently shown their ability to deal with tough moments.

United have picked up 17 points from losing positions this season, relinquishing nine points in the opposite direction.

Particularly striking has been the club’s record after defeats. The U’s lost 17 games in all competitions this season, but followed them up with 12 victories.

“I told the players when I took the job, the biggest thing that I wanted to see [from] the team that walked out on the pitch that were representing our club was a team that had grit and resilience. We’ve got it in abundance,” Bonner said after his side came from behind to claim a 4-2 victory at Oldham Athletic in March.

The club has also navigated the challenges that a unique season has posed in an exemplary fashion.

Restrictions in response to the pandemic have caused significant disruption to working methods. The U’s have had to do gym work and hold team meetings in an outdoor marquee, with access to the indoors largely restricted.

Despite these complications, the club have had just two postponements all season – neither of which were at the Abbey, and neither due to Covid infections in the U’s camp.

“Mikey (Burroughs) the physio is always on us saying, ‘Don’t go too close to each other’, trying to organise that all season, and it played a massive part. We haven’t had any games off,” Digby adds.

Ian Darler, the ground staff and volunteers worked wonders to get United’s draw against Southend United on in February. Photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire (Image: PA)

The weather has also posed its problems, with Bonner insisting throughout the season that his side have been “desperate” to avoid postponements.

The 0-0 draw against Southend United in February epitomised this, with the U’s hosting one of just two matches in League Two that beat the freezing weather.

“There are picnic benches, heaters, electric lamps, heat tunnels, all sorts going on [with] that pitch to try and get it ready,” Bonner said before the game.

Fittingly, at a time when Covid infections were at their highest in the country, and pitches in their worst condition, the U’s had their best month of the season, claiming 14 points from six matches in January.

United have produced a promotion-winning side that fans have been proud to support this season. The attention now switches towards League One football, when the U’s will face the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton Athletic and Ipswich Town.

One thing that is certain is that the club heads into its first campaign back in the third tier for 19 years in an optimistic frame of mind.

“It’s the most joined up we’ve been as a club for years,” Bonner said following the club’s promotion.

“First of June, I’ll have been here ten years in my second spell. It’s the best we’ve been in terms of that togetherness all the way through the club, from the owners all the way through.”

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