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Departing head of performance Matt Walker proud to become a lifelong Cambridge United fan

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Matt Walker who is moving on from his posititon at Cambridge United . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56388651)
Matt Walker who is moving on from his posititon at Cambridge United . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56388651)

Even on the coldest of days in the depths of winter, there was always a warming presence to meet you at Cambridge United.

Be it at Clare College Sports Ground or on matchdays at the Abbey, no matter how busy or difficult things would be, Matt Walker would take the time to say hello and check on your health.

In many ways, during his 10 years at the U’s, Walker has become the embodiment of the values of the club – friendly, welcoming and conscious of the wellbeing of others.

But we are reflecting on that decade as the U’s head of performance departs the club to move to Manchester United as part of the athletic development staff.

He has seen a lot during those years, helping to build the performance side of the club, from nine-year-olds through to the first team.

As we chat at the Abbey Ian Darler is working on the pitch, which is perhaps symbolic given that the stadium manager is one of very few still at the club that can also remember the Conference years.

When the U’s dropped into the non-League, in 2005, Walker was a physical education teacher at Hills Road Sixth Form College with an interest in coaching.

He had discussed helping at Cambridge City so when their youth section moved to United, he took on a part-time, midweek role within what is now the shadow academy.

That developed to being an age group coach within the Centre of Excellence, and eventually leaving teaching to run the Centre of Excellence, from nine to 16 year olds, and teaching the BTEC sport programme.

Walker looks back with fondness on those times.

“I remember Lewis Simper being a seven-year-old going to the north west tour, carrying his tray nervously and me having to tell his mum when he came back that he hadn’t brushed his teeth for three days!” laughs Walker.

“Now I see him in the first team, working with him every day. Ben Worman was the same, one of the best eight-year-old kids you will ever meet.

“I am really proud of them for what they’ve achieved, and I was there at the start of their journey.”

It was a struggle to keep everything afloat though.

Walker, alongside Jez George, walked from Torquay to Cambridge to raise £100,000 for the scheme.

Given such a battle for survival, you wonder what motivated Walker to leave the relative security of teaching and whether it was hard to do so.

“Yes,” he swiftly replies. “Looking back on it, financially it was a terrible decision! But I just felt so passionately about how good we could make it.

Matt Walker who is moving on from his posititon at Cambridge United . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56388644)
Matt Walker who is moving on from his posititon at Cambridge United . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56388644)

“I remember standing up in front of parents when I was running the nines to 16s programme, with Tom (Pell, the former U’s academy manager) sitting next to me, saying we’re going to try to be the best Centre of Excellence in the country regardless of having zero funding.

“You’re trying to convince them that in 10 years time it’s going to be brilliant, but there are going to be some tough days ahead.

“They were just brilliant kids who you just wanted to give the best footballing start, and then see where the rest went.”

That devotion to developing youngsters came through teaching, and in many ways is the essence of what drives Walker.

On graduating, he first taught at Highfield School in Letchworth, doing the B licence coaching badge to take district and county teams.

And while playing for Barton Rovers there also came a brief spell in charge for six games, which crystalised his thinking.

“I realised I didn’t want to be a manager, so that was good for me,” he explains. “I loved coaching, loved taking sessions, loved age group coaching, but I think you just have to find where you fit on the bus and that wasn’t my seat that I was really going to get to the level I wanted to get to.”

In late 2009, Walker left the U’s to become assistant academy manager at Watford but, for a number of personal reasons, he returned to teaching at Hills Road.

After two years, there was another Abbey calling, this time to create a sports science department and run the education programme, teaching the BTEC to the scholars.

It was a time when everyone was doing two jobs to try to help United get back into the Football League.

“It was just what you did because you wanted to make it work,” he explains.

“It was a tough time, but a brilliant challenge. The staff was so small then. Tom Pell and I talked about that all the time, how many things we used to run.

“Everything from development centres all the way to a scholarship scheme, and there were two of us doing that with Jez (George) and Nolan Keeley, who was here at the time. The full-time academy staff all the way from eight to 18 was literally five people – we did recruitment, everything.

“Mark (Bonner) was spinning plates, looking after digs, literally everything to do with the scholarship scheme apart from teaching. I was doing all their strength and conditioning, and for the first team.

“It was just crazy really, when you look back on it, that the five of us were doing all those things. But that was what it was, we were not shy of a day’s work and we believed in it.”

Matt Walker and Jubril Okedina warm-up before Cambridge United's match against Cheltenham Town. Picture: Simon Lankester (56385366)
Matt Walker and Jubril Okedina warm-up before Cambridge United's match against Cheltenham Town. Picture: Simon Lankester (56385366)

With Walker, Pell and Bonner being constants during the past 10 years, it has probably helped provide a sense of perspective to each obstacle they have faced.

The trio have no doubt kept things grounded when the going has got tough and, on an individual basis, you always sense that Walker has been a huge source of support to players and staff.

Yet, when you suggest it is a trait that cannot be taught, he plays it down.

“I think it sums up the people that you work with,” he contends. “Tom Pell would be no different, Mark Bonner would be no different, Martin Davies would be no different, Gary Waddock would be no different.

“I think that’s the success of the club at the moment, that it’s never been more aligned – and I don’t mean that in a negative way about what’s gone before, I just mean from Paul Barry, the owner, all the way down to wherever you want to stop on that list.

“There are just shared values, set values, beliefs. That’s not to say people in the past didn’t care, because they did, lots, and they maybe didn’t get the credit they deserved.”

It is as we discuss this more that you realise the devotion to which Walker puts into all his work.

You can feel the empathy when he talks about seeing the impact on students whose parents are separating, or youngsters going to school without breakfast or whose clothes have not been washed, or going to the funeral of a student.

It is a grasp that helps you to understand why pastoral care is something that resonates so strongly.

“Everyone’s got a story, everyone’s life is riddled with episodes that have shaped who they are, and I suppose that is just how I have ended up as I am,” he suggests.

It is a very modest assessment, but gives further understanding to the mark of the man.

The job may be head of performance, but looking beyond the highs of winning or scoring, or the lows of defeat, has been just as important to develop deeper relationships and understanding of the individuals.

“You care about them as people,” he says. “They are footballers on Saturday at 3pm when the whistle goes, but you see them as someone who is having relationship problems, their children aren’t well, they’ve lost a relative, they’re worried about where the next contract is going to be, they’ve got a significant injury.

“When it’s going well, it’s really easy to support them because you’re just trying to keep that going but you know that the inevitably of football is that something is going to happen.

“Whether that’s a minor injury that keeps them out for a few weeks, you keep them motivated, or something catastrophic, which means sitting with them in the medical room.

“I think if you want players to trust you, you have to invest in them and let them know that you’re there for them, and at any given moment everything you’re trying to do to help them is going to help make them better.

“I’ve tried to make sure we’ve got performance staff who are really empathetic to the players, push them definitely but also understand when they’re feeling low there is a reason behind it.”

Walker has clearly built a rapport with hundreds of players in his decade at the club.

He has worked under six managers and five assistants, and there have been many highs, and lows. He gives nods to the matches against Manchester United and Newcastle United in the FA Cup, the two wins at Wembley but, in his own words, has “probably unorthodox highs”.

Matt Walker who is moving on from his posititon at Cambridge United . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56388639)
Matt Walker who is moving on from his posititon at Cambridge United . Picture: Keith Heppell. (56388639)

One was Greg Taylor’s goal in the 1-0 win at Notts County in 2019 under Colin Calderwood and the 1,600 U’s fans at Meadow Lane singing like they had won the league.

It helped ensure safety and Walker says: “It was just a turning point of ‘OK, we’re going to be OK’.”

Expanding on the highs, he continues: “Even the debuts of young lads makes me feel delighted because I know how hard the academy staff have worked to make that happen, and their parents who have driven all over the country for years.

“Seeing a player come back from injury and get back in a kit makes me feel really happy.

“A player who has maybe been struggling and can’t find a bit of form and has gone through a period of self-reflection to help themselves and we’ve helped that happen suddenly becomes talk of the town to play every week, those sort of things.”

It is why the decision to leave was so difficult.

He had considered it in the past, during the “dark days”, but a stubborn nature came to the fore and a dedication to other members of staff, who have become lifelong friends.

“If you’re saying it’s a team ethic and we’re all in it together, then I don’t think you can bail out when the going is not very good – that’s not in my personality,” says Walker.

It is why now is such a good time to depart as he believes that the U’s have never been in a better position during his time at the club.

“I would say that if you’re a lifelong fan, like I’m going to be now, it’s a great place for the football club to be in – such as owning the Abbey again,” he adds.

“I can look back with real pride at what occurred in my time here, and the short chapter of the club that I have worked at is going to end really well.”

And there is no doubt that Walker will be welcomed back at the Abbey just as warmly as he has welcomed everyone else down the years.

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