Alex Tunbridge brings focus and determination to role as Cambridge United’s new chief executive officer
When sitting in the company of Alex Tunbridge, what is most striking is his calmness.
It is tricky to describe such a trait in words, but it comes across in a measured, considered, almost analytical response to any question.
From a football perspective, the easiest way to think about it is a goalkeeper.
You obviously get some that are as mad as a box of frogs but at the other end of the spectrum are those that offer stability and a reassuring presence which is fitting for Cambridge United’s new chief executive officer, whose devotion to the game started between the sticks.
Tunbridge talks with exacting detail about what drew him to the Abbey Stadium, which meant leaving behind a similar role at his childhood club, Stevenage.
“The city, the owners, and the board, the outlook in particular of Paul (Barry) and how he believed the club should be run, and its values as being an asset of the community and ensuring the club operates in a stable manner,” he explains.
The U’s adherence to the Crouch report recommendations, community engagement, culture, values, sustainability, custodianship of the club, evolution, development and all the stories that sit around that are mentioned.
“Be it somebody who engages in the walking football programme at the age of 70 or 80 years old,” says Tunbridge, “or volunteers day to day or whether that is a young supporter who engages with the club at four years old on a community course and over the course of 10 to 15 years old becomes a fan, and that evolution grows a new generation of supporters.”
It is far more than just a tick list for Tunbridge, those ideals are framed around his football upbringing.
For all the considered responses, when asked why community means so much there is an instant answer. “Because of the journey I went on as a young child,” he says.
Growing up in Knebworth, his father used to watch Spurs week in, week out during the 1960s and 1970s, and so Tunbridge junior was taken to a game at White Hart Lane, but a few weeks later, in 1996, they went to watch a match at Stevenage, who were then in the Conference, and that was the game-changer.
“I just fell in love with that experience,” says Tunbridge. “You were closer to the pitch, you were closer to the players, they were accessible and it was affordable.
“Having grown up on that for probably the rest of my childhood through to a teenager, I think I gained a value about what a club brings to its community and supporters.
“Suddenly you belong to this community and almost this family. I think that’s a huge value of a club at this level and what it’s about.
“I think Cambridge United’s culture and the value it’s got, which has been instilled by the ownership and directors, is about harnessing that. There is more to a club and its value, particularly social value, than what happens on the pitch at 3pm.”
Tunbridge has now worked in football for 15 years, starting immediately after finishing a degree in sport and business management at the University of Southampton.
As he explains the process of getting a role as young fans co-ordinator at Bournemouth, you get an instant handle on his focus and determination to succeed.
His heart had been set on a career in football as “if you do something you love, you’re not working” so, on completing his studies, he wrote to every club in the country asking for a job.
It was an ambitious move. Responses were minimal, with two replies saying no, but there was a reply from Bournemouth, and an opportunity to combine a community coaching role with being a young fans’ coordinator.
“I accepted the role, then pretty much the day I started they went into administration,” explains Tunbridge.
“At the time, you were too far removed from anything from a business perspective but what you learned were people’s emotions, feelings and the threat of losing their jobs and the threat of supporters losing their football club, and the value of what that meant to them and their lives.
“I think that was quite an early lesson which probably grounded me very quickly. Football isn’t about what you see on the telly or the Premier League, it’s about these volunteers at the club thinking ‘are we going to have a club to come to every day?’.”
This, you come to understand, is the foundation and motivation for the drive to succeed. It is almost altruistic, learning from each situation and experience which are wedded to the football landscape.
Of course, there is ambition as well. Take, for instance, his first move to Stevenage. Tunbridge had seen the chairman talk about wanting to grow the supporter base, so touted himself by dropping off an article from a Bournemouth programme in which he featured to the club’s reception.
After being invited to a meeting, he was appointed community development officer.
“Ultimately, it became really clear that the club wasn’t bedding itself into the community,” he explains. “It had no outreach so it was decided that we create a community scheme, like a trust, and we would go and embed the club further into the community.”
That would lead to carving out the role of head of foundation.
“In that six years, I got a great grounding into leadership, management, community engagement, working with local government, working with funding partners, business, finance, working with a board of trustees but at the same time I also became very exposed to how a football club runs through virtue of the size of it.”
After a spell as academy managing director, Tunbridge headed overseas to work as managing director at an indoor soccer centre in Tampa, Florida.
Having moved into a completely new environment, a year away made him “realise how much 3pm on a Saturday means to your life, and what was sat around that” so he returned to these shores.
With a certain degree of serendipity, and highlighting the recurring theme of carving out opportunities, he had seen that Newport County were in need of a new club secretary and got in contact with former Stevenage boss Graham Westley, then in charge of the the Exiles.
He became club secretary and head of operations in a dual role, before being appointed CEO.
But, after two seasons in Wales, the opportunity arose to take over as CEO at Stevenage.
“The project was to reposition the club, rebrand it and to drive commercials and have some fun with it,” he explains.
“We carved a niche out that we would be the club that would be slightly different, we would embrace technology, we would do things differently, we would think outside the box.”
During that time, Burger King and Amazon Prime Gaming became sponsors, they had a world title fight featuring boxer Billy Joe Saunders on the pitch, and a funding initiative to help build the new stand at the Lamex Stadium, which included a share equity offer.
So why leave Stevenage, especially as it was his boyhood club?
“I felt in the four years I was there I had achieved what I could achieve in terms of what the club could do and where it could go,” says Tunbridge.
“I probably needed a bigger vehicle to go on and help evolve, develop and also one which probably had some areas of the club which it strongly believed in that I also strongly believed in.”
Among those values were the community aspect, building and developing a sustainable club, the mental health work, buying back the Abbey, redeveloping the Newmarket Road End, the training ground plans and growing the fanbase.
It all adds to that impression of someone of focus and determination.
Tunbridge describes it as “willing to succeed, seeing a path to a long-term objective and fulfilling that objective”, but it seems more than that. Application to a role is one thing, but to be so single-minded from such a young age is something else.
He was managing a group of people from his early 20s, in an industry that is filled with headstrong individuals, and that meant having to mature quickly.
“In more recent times, it’s about 100 per cent commitment,” he says.
“It’s not a job, it becomes your life. You buy into the ownership, the directors, the staff, the culture, the people, the supporters, you have to buy in whole-heartedly otherwise it doesn’t work.”
Is there an escape though? What is the switch off? Football is all consuming year-round, as once the end of one season arrives there is no let-up in planning for the next.
Success is not an arbitrary measure to fans either – the consumers judge you week in, week out. So what is the ‘off’ button?
“It is football a lot of the time,” he remarks. “The break from that is probably you go and walk the dog or, if you get the opportunity to go away, you go away for a week.
“You try to relinquish as much as you can from your phone and you just put yourself in a completely different environment to counter balance that.”
You imagine that Tunbridge thrives under pressure, but when that is put to him, he turns it on its head.
“I think I have always worked in a pressured environment so there is a difference between enjoy and thrive, I suppose.
“I think football is a pressured environment. You can do as much as you can as a collective behind the scenes to make sure that come Saturday the group of players on the pitch have got the best chance of winning, but that’s out of your hands.
“What’s in your hands is a great match-day experience, getting as many people there as possible, engaging people in the community.”
It goes back to that notion of calmness to keep everything on track.
Tunbridge could have quite easily ended up on the other, more eccentric extreme of the goalkeepers’ union, but fortunately for the U’s he ended up on the reliable, dependable side of the divide.