“It’s one we’ve got to relish. Ultimately for us, it’s about progressing in the competition…”
Head Coach Mark Bonner is determined to ensure his Cambridge United side overcome a potential banana skin on Sunday afternoon as the U’s make the journey to Step 6 Curzon Ashton in the First Round of the Emirates FA Cup.
The hosts have won three games to get to this stage in the competition, which is just their third appearance in the Proper Round since their formation in 1963. For context, the U’s had to gain three victories in their memorable journey to the Fourth Round last season - a feat they hadn’t achieved since 2015.
Plying their trade three leagues below United in the National League North, where they’re operating in mid-table, it’s poised to be a memorable afternoon for all concerned with the Nash. Unlike the awe-inspiring, well-documented victory at Newcastle United last season, Bonner’s men need to be unfazed by the heavy favourites tag.
“It’s what the competition is about. We obviously experienced one of our best ever days last year and they are the moments that you’re fighting for. For us to have that, we have to get through some rounds and try and progress.
“Curzon have been on a really good run to this point, beating FC United of Manchester, Scarborough in a replay and Peterborough Sports in the last round. We know it’s a challenging game for us because there will be surprises in this competition this weekend, there always are. We’ve got to try and make sure we’re not one of those.
“We were a team that was a giant killer last year. Now, I’m not for one moment suggesting we’re a giant, but I obviously understand the story being a Non-League team against us is a big occasion - the atmosphere will reflect that... we want to start the month with a really positive result.”
Bonner anticipates an optimistic, fired-up crowd, who will be galvanised by the hosts on the pitch, who he expects will showcase doggedness in defence and tenacity in their attacks. As always, he focuses on how his group can impose themselves.
“We’ve been able to watch bits of their game so we can get a basic understanding of what we expect from them and players that we think are a threat for them.
“At the same time, we’ve got to go there and take the game by the scruff of the neck. These games are always really challenging, but it’s a nice pitch and a really good environment up at Curzon, we’re looking forward to it.”
Although the injuries have piled up of late, the demanding schedule has dipped in intensity of late, with many free weeks at the U’s disposal during the run-up to Christmas.
“Up until January, it’s certainly a quieter period, we’ve pretty much got a game a week all the way through - that should help us. To be honest, we need it with the numbers being as they are at the minute. We need time to make sure our boys recharge and are ready to play.
“It’s given us a chance to have a few sessions going into a game, which we haven’t had in quite a while.”
The prospect of entering 2023 with their side still fighting in the FA Cup is the aim for all of the 80 teams preparing to battle it out over the weekend. The oldest cup competition in world football continues to throw up euphoria and cult heroes, United know that all too well. Now, the boss wants more.
“We know what this competition can bring, whether that’s club, in terms of finance and exposure, but certainly individually it can really boost profile and a platform and give a team confidence.”