Cambridge United: Coming out of hibernation in League Two

Walker puts the Cambridge squad through their paces

Walker puts the Cambridge squad through their paces

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CAMBRIDGE UNITED Head of Performance Matt Walker describes returning to training this month as “a bit like coming out of hibernation.”

The League Two side played their last competitive match on March 7th and most of their players and staff were furloughed shortly afterwards.

In between, there were fears they wouldn’t even have a club to return to.

“It was an anxious time for a lot of people,” admits Walker, who has headed the U’s performance department since 2012.

“We were worried about redundancies and didn’t have that safety net the bigger clubs maybe have. At our level, with no TV income, we rely on fans through the gates, hospitality and the odd Cup run.

“Suddenly that was all gone. It was very difficult, but I think the club have been brilliant in the way they’ve handled it and we’ve come through the other side.”

Players and staff returned to the training ground like long-lost friends on Saturday August 1st for pre-season testing. They were confronted with a new post-Covid world - one of sanitisation stations, temperature checks and safety protocols.

“They arrive in small groups at pre-arranged times,” explains Walker. “They’re already in their kits, because the changing room has to be closed.

“They have a temperature check in their car before being able to enter the training ground, which we lease from Clare College at Cambridge University.

“The gym is outside now and we’ve bought them all their own individual foam rollers and stretch bands. They have chairs outside, which are socially distanced, to put their stuff on.

“We direct them through sanitisation stations at different points at the training ground and food is individually portioned for them to leave with.”

“It’s been a big adjustment but we’ve made it work. The lads are excited to be back and want it to work, so they’ve just got on with it.”

SCHEDULING AND COMMUNICATION

With these new protocols to contend with, organisation is key. That’s where the scheduling and communication tool Kairos has come in for the U’s.

Walker and manager Mark Bonner found out about the platform, which is the brainchild of former Ireland rugby international Andrew Trimble, in June and were able to bring it in for the start of pre-season.

Kairos has a daily calendar, real-time notifications and instant updates. Training schedules and sessions can be uploaded into the system, while appointments can be booked by a player or member of staff, be it a physio, analyst or sport scientist.

Walker says: “Kairos has removed the stresses we used to have with players being bombarded with information from different sources, be it WhatsApp, Dropbox, email or text. That leads to muddled communications.

“Now that information is all in one place. Everyone downloaded the app when they came back and watched a short video explaining how it all works.

“You can front load the schedule, so players know four or five weeks in advance what they’re doing. For the small group training, they know who’s in when and the flow of the day.

“They know when they can use the outdoor gym, because we can only have a certain number of people in there at a particular time and all the equipment has to be wiped down after use.

“The medical staff can advertise the slots they have available and the players book in for them.”

Walker, who worked for the club in a previous stint as Centre of Excellence Manager from 2008 to 2010, says the system has empowered the players and encouraged them to take more responsibility for their own schedules.

“What it’s removed is the lazy questions,” he says. “They can’t say ‘What time do we have to be there?’ or ‘I don’t look at my emails’ or ‘I walked past the noticeboard,’ because all the information is there, in the palm of their hand.

“Notifications pop up on their phone and they acknowledge that they’ve read something. They’ve really welcomed it. The modern generation is very good with technology and like their information to be immediate.

“A few of us are admins, able to add users and so on, but otherwise everyone is engaged and interacting with the platform.”

BACK IN ACTION

Cambridge’s first competitive game back is away at Birmingham City in the Carabao Cup on Saturday September 5th - six months after their last outing, against Leyton Orient in League Two on March 7th.

Then they play in the EFL Trophy against Fulham Under-21s on Tuesday September 7th, before their first league game of 2020/21, at home against Carlisle on Saturday the 12th.

It feels like a new dawn for the club for a number of reasons. They have a new manager (even though he was permanently appointed in March) in Bonner, who is the second youngest boss in the Football League (after Russell Martin at MK Dons).

They also have new players, including Wes Hoolahan, who, at 38, is four years older than the manager.

Bonner (pictured) knows the club inside out, having been Academy Manager, first-team coach and assistant manager.

Walker says: “It’s been stop-start for Mark, because he was caretaker manager for a few games and then got the job on a permanent basis just after the season was curtailed.

“This pre-season has been a fresh start and things have been really positive. Mark knows a lot of the younger players after working with them in the Academy and he has high expectations of them.

“With smaller squads now, I think there will be a lot of opportunities for younger players.”

And the qualified teacher believes former Republic of Ireland and Norwich midfielder Hoolahan will set the perfect example for them.

“Wes is a model pro and it’s great for the younger players to see how he works and how he conducts himself,” Walker says.

“He’s played most of his career at the highest level, but still lives and breathes being a professional footballer.”

With no crowds for the foreseeable future, new protocols to contend with and distant away trips to the likes of Barrow, Carlisle and Harrogate, it’s going to be a campaign like no other, but Walker says it’s one he and the club will relish.

“It’s going to be a tough challenge for everyone, but we’re just glad the club has survived and that we’re back.”

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