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Gillingham appoint 38 year old League Two promotion-winning head coach

Gillingham appoint 38 year old League Two promotion-winning head coach Mark Bonner as the replacement for Stephen Clemence.

Pete O’Rourke first reported that Gillingham were set to name the former Cambridge boss as their new manager, with the initial reaction from the fanbase going down well.

Cambridge sacked Mark Bonner after a 3-0 home defeat by Lincoln City in November 2023, after the Cambridge-born was appointed in January 2020, initially as interim boss, and agreed a new “long-term” contract in September.

CLUB STATEMENT:

Gillingham Football Club is delighted to announce the appointment of Mark Bonner as our new First-Team Manager. The 38-year old has agreed a two-year deal at Priestfield and begins work with immediate effect.

Bonner arrives at ME7 having successfully taken Cambridge United out of League 2 to League 1 at the end of the 2020-21 season.

Managing Director Joe Comper said: “We are thrilled that Mark has agreed to join us. He has the experience to get us where we want to go. We were specifically looking for a leader with direct experience playing successfully in League 2. We were also looking for someone who had promoted a team out of the League and had the skills to build that sort of ambitious culture.”

Mark began as Academy Manager at Cambridge United before working under then boss, Shaun Derry, and Assistant Joe Dunne in the First-Team.

In January of 2020 Bonner stepped up to temporarily take charge of First-Team matters, winning four on the bounce which saw him given a two-year contract to take the role full-time.

In his first full season at the helm, Bonner guided Cambridge to promotion from League 2 by finishing as runners up in the fourth tier to Cheltenham Town. He then led them to survival in League 1 the following season. He remained at Cambridge until November 2023.

After arriving at Priestfield, Bonner said: “I am delighted to join Gillingham FC and can’t wait to get started as Manager, as we get to work on preparing for the new season and building a team that supporters enjoy watching and a culture that the players love being part of. I have to thank Brad and Shannon for this opportunity and look forward to working closely with them, Joe, and Kenny to achieve the ambitions of the Football Club.”

The Club reacted quickly last week, engaging in a collaborative process to appoint Bonner. According to Director of Football Kenny Jackett: “I am thrilled to welcome Mark to Gillingham. Mark is a strategist and a thinker. He has proven himself in League 1 and League 2. He has a vision and an expertise on getting the most out of his players. I look forward to collaborating with Mark during this very important recruiting window. He has a specific way he wants to play and our department will do its best to give him what he needs.”

A full interview with the club’s new Manager will be on iFollow shortly. Mark will be presented to the media later this week. Mark’s backroom staff continues to be finalised and supporters will be updated in due course.

Owner Paul Barry said at the time of Bonner’s exit at Abbey Stadium the he would go down as “one of the most important people in the history of Cambridge United”.

“All of us – owners, board, staff, players and fans – know how lucky we have been to have him and how hard this decision has been,” Barry added.

“Cambridge United has made huge strides on and off the pitch over the last five years and Mark has been instrumental in building our strong foundations for the future, creating special memories and moments for all of us along the way – most notably promotion during lockdown, Newcastle away in the FA Cup and the great escape last season.

“He has done it through his leadership and energy, his talent as a coach, his natural communication and empathy, and his desire to push the club forward on and off the pitch as someone born and brought up in Cambridge, who genuinely cares about our city and its communities.

“But in football, sometimes you do have to make decisions you believe are right for the long-term future of the club – difficult though they can sometimes be.”

The defeat by Lincoln had been Cambridge’s third in a row – a run which started with a 5-0 thrashing at Peterborough in the Cambridgeshire derby.

They had only won one of their past 13 league matches before the decision to sack.

“We’re really disappointed because it’s been a bad few days for us,” Bonner told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire after defeat to Lincoln.

“It’s nothing that can’t be fixed if everybody rolls their sleeves up, has a little bit of belief in themselves that they can do it.

“We’re definitely a few wins short of where we should be but on the one hand we have to remember who we are, because playing at this level is tough for us, and on the other, do better than we have if we want to make sure we are a team that’s having a more comfortable season.”

Bonner became part of the staff at the U’s around 20 years ago and had been assistant head coach under Joe Dunne and Colin Calderwood before taking charge when the duo left the club.

He was then named as head coach in March 2020 and led the team to promotion the following year by finishing second in League Two.

A result that will go down as one of the best in the club’s history came they won 1-0 against Newcastle at St James’ Park in the third round of the FA Cup in January 2022.

BBC Radio Cambridgeshire U’s commentator Mark Johnson said on Bonner being sacked by Cambridge: “The end of the Mark Bonner era at Cambridge United will be marked with a mixture of pride and regret; pride in the achievements of a local lad who made good, and regret that it ended with string of results that have threatened to turn this campaign into a carbon copy of last season’s all too close flirtation with relegation.

“Having worked in the Football in the Community scheme and youth development, he knew the club about as well as anyone and ‘got it’ probably better than any of his predecessors. To take the club back to the third tier for the first time in almost 20 years would have been a great achievement in itself, but to do so in his first full season in charge – and that season being the Covid one – made it something very special.

“Bonner used the promotion bounce to settle the club in a comfortable mid-table finish in League One at the first time of asking, but they struggled with second season syndrome and only avoided the drop on the final day thanks, in part, to favourable results elsewhere.

“Having survived by the skin of their teeth last season, the hope was for a more comfortable campaign this time around, but a dearth of goals, a poor run of form and a hammering at local rivals Peterborough proved to be a bridge too far.

“Having successfully appointed from within last time, the club will initially give a chance to assistant head coach Barry Corr to throw his hat into the ring, alongside Kevin Betsy.

“Whilst it might be an audition, the club will be aware that December brings a busy run of fixtures before the January window opens, so there’s not a huge margin for error.”

Fans reacted as Gillingham appoint 38 year old League Two promotion-winning head coach Mark Bonner…

@jcgfc11: Would be happy with this, experience in league 2 and getting out if it. Maybe a more realistic option on our budget than Ainsworth and Warburton?

@EJTaylor99: proven at our level, promoted on one of the lowest budgets in the division. not my first choice but I’d be happy with him nonetheless.

@btts_matt: He’s got experience and had success at our level. I’ll be content with that if he becomes our new manager. #Gills

@GFCHarry_: people will be dissapointed as they want the best of the best but i would be happy with this appointment

@BenTurn01806953: I’m feeling a bit underwhelmed by Mark Bonner. Of course I’ll support him and I really hope he does well, but it doesn’t excite me. He did well at Cambridge but there fans were very pleased when he left last year and I can’t help but feel he is a one club man, like Hess.

@al13gills: Proven at our level on a shoe string appointment, not my 1st choice but not upset if this happens either. Happy to give anyone a chance before judging them.

@Bomber_RBS: Hopefully Bonner is the right appointment. Suspect he won’t be part of the long term plan, get us promotion and build the side into league 1 fodder. Who knows hope he captivate the fans, players and attract decent players #Gills

@Champ_GFC74: If it is to be Bonner, that is fine with me, has a promotion from this division on his C.V, then again, I was happy with the manager we sacked that had a promotion on his C.V from league one 😉#Gills

@aligills10: I can get on board with Bonner, back him or will be the same season! Players need to get their arses into gear though!!! #Gills

@sixpointertom: Mark Bonner set to be announced as #Gills manager – some may say he’s “underwhelming” but let’s give him a shot. The last time he was in League Two, he won automatic promotion. Cant say fairer than that.

@KFG2003: Looks like Bonner it is as Manager. I thought we were going to go for a more experienced Manager, but he did do a great job at Cambridge. Got them promoted from this League too, with a small budget. With a bigger budget, hopefully he can get us up next season #Gills

@jcgfc11: Wouldnt be against this, experience of the league and getting out of it. Not the ‘marquee’ manager we hoped when Ainsworth and Warburtons names were rumoured but no guarantee they wanted us either

@mighty_gills: If it is him fair play I just hope he is given funds for his players especially up top but everyone deserves a chance

@Truebluejock: If #gills do appoint Bonner please stop staying “it’s the cheap option”. How do you know what any contract is? It makes you sound foolish.

@NH32563455: #gills The brutal truth is that Bonner would hardly be an advancement on Clemence. If we have ambitions to get to the Championship, the man who has the proven track record is Ainsworth. Just get him. @BradGalinson @ShannonGalinson

@Mgran62: A win percentage of only 38% and a massive lack of experience is not exactly what Brad was alluding too

@JonGreen81: He won promotion from this league & then kept Cambridge up in League 1.

@fin_pike: Happy with this as he has the experience of getting out this league which is exactly what we need

@jackbeeton02: Good luck mark 🙌🏻

@AmberArmy1912: Yeah so you boys will be fine with him

@KFG2003: Looks like Bonner it is as Manager. I thought we were going to go for a more experienced Manager, but he did do a great job at Cambridge. Got them promoted from this League too, with a small budget. With a bigger budget, hopefully he can get us up next season #Gills

@ZinedineF: Good project for Bonz and a good appointment for Gills and a good opportunity for him to take a couple of our cast-offs. #CamUTD

@freddieowers: All the best Bonz

@opoben1912: Very happy for him, gillingham have not only got a decent manager but also a great man.

@gfc_trenbog: Bonner it is then please for once just get behind a manager and don’t right him off before he’s even had a chance

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