As Manchester United discover this weekend, the FA Cup can force players away from the luxuries of Premier League training grounds to the rudimentary facilities of League Two. For Matty Bondswell that journey was his decision this season, and one he certainly has no regrets about.
Bondswell, at 21, could have stayed at Newcastle this season and may have been included in Champions League squads but chose to go out on loan instead, travelling more than 300 miles to Newport County after getting the feeling that Graham Coughlan’s squad was the place for him.
His thought process is a window into what United will face on Sunday at Rodney Parade. Players like Bondswell looking to make a name for themselves. Others fighting for win bonuses and others looking to seize their moment to make their families proud in front of the cameras against one of the biggest teams in the world.
“We weren’t together when the draw was made but we were all watching and the group chat was kicking off,” said Bondswell. “One of the lads was saying he was waiting all his career for this. That is what it means to them.”
‘It was a bit cold but really fun’
Bondswell is at the start of his career compared to some of his team-mates and his route has not been conventional. At 16 he went to RB Leipzig, following the route of Jadon Sancho in going from an English Academy to Germany. Newcastle moved for him almost three years ago and this is his second loan for first-team experience at left-back.
The reasons for joining Newport was the band-of-brothers unity that United will be facing when Newport look to pull off one of the great FA Cup upsets. Bondswell made his decision based on the squad he will be in, and has relished the changes from Academy football. Their team-spirit was forged at a pre-season bonding session at a water-based assault course.
“It was a bit cold but really fun,” said Bondswell. “There were climbing frames and jumping into water. That set the tone. Wanting to enjoy each others’ company.
“After speaking to the manager before signing, it was an easy decision. I’m coming to an age where all you want to do is play football. The way he spoke to the players here made me want to be a part of it. Game-time is part of it as well but I wanted to be around a good bunch of lads as you want to be enjoying your football.
“Coming from a Category 1 Academy to League One or Two, a lot of players have to adapt as Under-23 football isn’t the same. This level can’t be replicated. Players are playing for their win bonuses and their families. In an Academy, you are playing to impress and try to make the next step. Here, this is the step. They want to show that they are playing for their families and the passion comes with that. Adapting to that can only help me as a player.
“Now this tie is on TV, adding to the amount of people watching it. There will be players wanting to make a name for themselves and to do well for the team. We’ve managed to earn this tie and now is our chance.”
‘Added sense of physicality’
What else is in store for United? There will be the dressing rooms which may be a little different to Old Trafford. And Erik ten Hag’s team can expect a physical game against a team looking to catch them on the counter-attack.
“With our home dressing room, we have no complaints,” said Bondswell. “It will be different in the away dressing room but that is normal in every stadium. It could be in for a shock but that is the beauty of football and is part of our advantage, if you like, as the home team.
“It’s not been necessarily different this week but there has been added detail here and there, what we can expect. We are smart enough to know we won’t be on the ball for a long time and will be doing more defending than attacking but we have attacking qualities and we have looked at details at how we might hurt them.
“There is definitely an added sense of physicality, that just comes from change from Academy football but at the same time that is not what League Two is all about. There are teams and players that like to play with quality. You have to find different things they are not used to playing against.”
“That was definitely what I was looking at personally. Jadon Sancho had gone out there and did well and set an example that a lot of people looked at, so that was at the forefront of my mind and at the time it was the best option for me, to be in a new culture and even the training was completely different. It helped with maturity,” Bondswell said.
“When I travelled to sign my contract my parents were there but after that, as soon as the football started I was on my own. I had lads helping me out but my family were at home. I had to learn the language as well and that was something they were really keen on me doing and helped integrate and made life easier. I’ve still got some German.”
With Sancho back at Dortmund on loan, the player Bondswell would gladly swap shirts with is Marcus Rashford because of the England forward’s work off the pitch helping children get free school meals.
“When you get an opportunity to get a shirt, you take it. There are plenty trying to get to get their shirts but Marcus Rashford would be amazing to get because of everything he has done off the pitch.
“But we know before the final whistle it will be a long match. Even though it is a difficult game, we will play to win and we can’t go out there giving too much respect. We want to make it to the next round. We will need a bit of luck and we will have to show quality.”