So this is a story all about how Harrison Dunk’s game got twist-turned upside down.
Well, we get to that eventually anyway.
A year, as they say, is a long time in football. It wouldn’t be a semi-retrospective without that cliché floating around somewhere, so I thought it best for us all if I got it out of the way early.
Richard Money has got a lot of things right in his reign as Cambridge Utd manager so far. Over the course of the 12 months, he has been part of a fundamental change in the management structure of the club, carried out a major cost-cutting exercise and presided over a record run of consecutive clean sheets in league matches as well as our best ever start to a season. We’ve not lost a home game in the league since February, are unbeaten in 13 matches, have by far and away the best disciplinary record in the division and are sitting a there-must-be-some-kind-of-mistake-are-you-sure-you-can-actually-count-properly seven points clear at the top of the league.
The point here is that Money – having made some tough decisions and ridden out a stormy period in the latter half of last season – has started to achieve things at our club, supported ably and backed fully by a committed and united board off the pitch.
But if I were asked to pick the one thing that’s really been the difference between Money and the five other managers who have been permanently in charge of Cambridge United since our time in the Conference, it’s the fact that Money was appointed our head coach rather than our manager.
It’s a distinction that, in the case of Money’s skill-set, run much deeper than a simple job title.
Rob Newman did an admirable job under very difficult circumstances but his team was a functional unit that relied on the unpredictable brilliance of flair players in order to get results.
Jimmy Quinn was heavily backed and tactically adept but focused on systems, rabble-rousing and fostering a dressing room camaraderie in order to get his results. Gary Brabin was cut from similar cloth, although funded from even more unsustainably deep pockets.
Martin Ling was… well, Martin Ling was a reasonably proficient scout, able to identify good players but lacking in most other areas of management (though he remains the manager to have got the most out of both the prodigal son, Robbie Willmott and now-non-league-journeyman Chris Holroyd).
And then there was Jez, another manager who was able to identify talent but who perhaps lacked the experience of managing senior professionals to get the most out of them and whose team was a compact, attritional, functional and effective unit rather than an inspirational or hugely entertaining one.
Money, first and foremost, is a football coach. It’s plain to see in the way the team sets up and plays under his stewardship – the increased attacking fluidity, the hugely disciplined and hard-working defensive displays, the ability to mix deft one-touch, patient build-up play with both direct, strength-based football and Blitzkrieg counter-attacking – that where Money truly earns his corn is on the Clare College training pitch.
This is embodied most fully, where the progress of this team under Money and the reasons why he was appointed in the first place are laid most clear, is in Harrison Dunk.
Dunk has always been an exciting player (did you know we love wingers by the way? We’ve kept it pretty quiet but subtle hints may have leaked through). He’s always demonstrated skill on the ball, just usually it’s been in the pre-match and half-time warmups rather than during an actual game. In his first season with us he was, in a team as well-drilled, compact and difficult to beat as Jez made us, Dunk was an anomaly. His game was based almost solely around his incredible pace. We wrote at almost interminable length previously about what he offered that team.
From a fan’s perspective he was a breath of fresh air; from a tactical one he was a vital out-ball, someone who could be relied upon to move the game out of our own half and further up the pitch. That season, too, he was also a huge goal threat, bagging eight in total generally by arriving late in the back corner of the box and striking across the keeper into the bottom corner.
He was talented, exciting but also one-dimensional and raw. There were clear signs of a player who had spent time in the proper footballing academies of Fulham and Wimbledon but also of the player who had been released from them before time, before the edges had been fully smoothed out and the more cerebral side of his game had been satisfactorily developed.
There were clear areas of his game that needed to develop: we lamented his return of one assist in 30 games in his first season and his more miss than hit crossing ability.
It’s been an absolute pleasure then to witness his performances this season; he is blooming under Money. Partially this is a product of his age and increasing experience but there’s no doubt in my mind that he is finally getting the coaching he needed to elevate him from being a raw young winger whose pace meant from a young age he was rarely required to learn to do anything more than get his head down and run, to a fully rounded footballer who remains as thrilling to watch but has become increasingly versatile and effective in his play.
During Money’s reign he’s added crossing, beating a man with quick feet and deceptive body movement rather than pure pace, passing, and clever link-up play with Greg Taylor. His striking technique has seen him share responsibility for corners and free kicks with Ryan Donaldson and his ability to whip in a dangerous cross from a dead ball is something that has become accepted so quickly it has more or less passed without being remarked upon.
He’s joint top of the assists chart (with… two, but that’s more an indication of how well we attack as a team rather than any slight on the end-product of any of our players) and finally broke a long goal drought against Nuneaton. But here’s the thing about Dunk, so much of his contribution to our attacking threat isn’t measured in statistics. Well, it is, but the kind that won’t show up unless someone is willing to fork out for a Pro-Zone suite secreted somewhere in the Main Stand.
You can look at his assist and goal return and say he’s been doing okay but that’s akin to looking at Maxwell’s contribution purely in terms of clean sheets and opposition shots on target, or Cunnington’s purely in terms of his goal return.
How many corners does Dunk win? How many throw ins? How many metres does he carry the ball? How many dribbles does he complete? How many kilometres does he cover in a game? How many ‘secondary assists’ does he get? How many times does he enter the final third?
Money himself recently made the distinction between ‘opportunities’ and ‘chances’. Dunk creates the former with frightening regularity, whether that’s a cross that’s blocked or that someone couldn’t get on the end of, a misplaced pass (either by Dunk himself or by someone he’s played in), or a counter-attack that breaks down after ground has been made. Reducing ‘end-product’ to the black and white of ‘goals and assists’ masks the real story – one which, without the benefit of expensive software, really is best read by the naked eye rather than related via numbers on a page.
Dunk, along with almost every other member of our first XI, is having a tremendous season. But what has really delighted about watching him this year has been seeing him develop: he’s as exciting to watch as he ever was but, using the multitude of new strings to his bow, he’s proving there are so many more ways to skin a cat (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?) – and he seems to be delighting in methodically working through them.
Dunk’s game has come on leaps and bounds under Money but what’s really encouraging is that the same is true also of Liam Hughes, Luke Berry and Josh Coulson. Without having previously seen them regularly there’s no way of telling how many of our summer signings the same applies to. Tom Elliott’s performances will be a good barometer (although I’m sure I’m not the only one beginning to think he may have been the product of a collective fever dream). My instinct though is that almost everyone’s game will probably improved since joining us.
At a club that is finally, we are told, being run sensibly and sustainably off the pitch – that aren’t relying on throwing money around to lure a lot of older, well-established players to the team – the value of this coaching, of throwing Money at a group of slightly less finessed players in the hope of improving and developing their abilities, simply cannot be overstated.