Declan Bonner surveyed the green and gold waves that swept over St Tiernach’s Park in the moments after the Ulster final and his mind flew back to 1979.
Donegal had strolled to their ninth Ulster title with Bonner following Brian McEniff and Jim McGuinness in guiding Donegal to the Anglo Celt.
In his first year back as the Donegal manager – 20 years after a late Joe Brolly goal robbed him of the prize in 1998 – Bonner had completed a turnaround and returned Donegal to Ulster’s throne.
The young Bonner watched in awe in ’79 as a 13-year-old upon the same terraces that emptied to toast glory three weeks ago.
1979 wouldn’t have the happy ending. Kieran Finlay hit 1-9 as Monaghan overcame Donegal 1-15 to 0-11.
“That was one of my earliest memories of watching Donegal,” Bonner says.
“I wasn’t old enough in 1972 to really appreciate it, but in ’79 I remember watching very closely and just being in thrall of what was happening and the players playing in that game.
“It’s been a long road…”
Donegal were left to wonder what might have been in ’79. Jim Brennan was teed up for a late goal chance by Eugene Sharkey, but he miscued and the chance was gone.
“What might have been never won a football match,” was how the Donegal News of the time summed it up.
Like Bonner, Brennan and Sharkey were from the Rosses, and Bonner was beginning to make hay himself. He won an Under-12, two Under-14 and two Under-16 titles with the Rosses Rovers and, in 1982, aged just 16, he steered Na Rossa to the Junior Championship.
At 17, he was recruited to the Donegal senior panel in late 1983 – but it came after he’d watched, as a supporter, Donegal winning the ’83 Ulster title.
“I was there in ’83 and seeing them lift the Anglo Celt was just brilliant,” Bonner says. “But I had to wait for seven years to win it as a player. I was away for the final in 1989.”
He felt the sharp edge of Tom Connaghan in ’89 when, as he says himself, he ‘over-stayed my welcome’ in Boston.
It was a year, though, when Bonner would sharpen his own managerial teeth as he was player-manager of Na Rossa who won the Intermediate Championship. McEniff was back for 1990 and Bonner was a key part of those halcyon days of the early ‘90s when Donegal were kings./
He says: “It was something I dreamed of growing up. That Championship feeling was always something I loved. Championship days were always huge for me. I always looking forward to them and I was very lucky as a player to experience that.”
And yet, this year’s Ulster final was ‘one of the best days I’ve ever had in football’.
“The amount of work that goes into the set-up is phenomenal,” the Lettermacaward man says.
“It’s huge, the work that goes on. We targeted Ulster from the start. Sometimes you have to sit down and reflect on what has actually been done.
“We didn’t get that chance through the Ulster campaign because the games were coming so thick and so fast.
“The momentum gathered and it was brilliant. We knew what was happening week-to-week and it was great for traction. When it’s all over, you have to sit back and celebrate that achievement.
“They have the Ulster medal they deserved, but that’s all parked up now and they move into the next chapter and the next phase. This is a work in progress and we have a long, long way to go. This bunch is far from the finished article and they know there’s work to be done. It’s going in the right direction.
“It’s very easy to go in and say: ‘This is where we’re going and this is where we’ll get to’. It’s another thing to do it and for the guys to believe in it. From an early stage, they did. The first challenge we had was the Kerry game in Kerry. We went at it down there and we should have got something from that game.
“We knew from that day on that we could play at a high level by playing this type of football. There were tweaks to be done, but we were aware of that. It’s been positive and the players deserve the credit.”
Bonner was just 32 when he took the reigns following PJ McGowan’s departure in 1997. He had three years in the job but, perhaps on reflection, it was a role that he wasn’t quite ready for.
He says: “I was a young manager in 1997, I had only finished playing about four weeks beforehand. It was a whirlwind after that, I just went in from one role to the next and kept involved.
“I never used to think about what was next. But when I got involved at underage with Donegal again, the bigger picture was there. It was only when that momentum started to roll that thought it might have been a possibility again.”
Bonner took over the Donegal Under-16s for 2012 and such was his success at underage level, he completed a clean sweep with this year’s senior title.
The Buncrana Cup, Jim McGuigan Cup, Ulster Minor and Ulster U21 crowns were all won under his watch.
“We got a system in place and I knew they could do something,” Bonner says.
“In 2012, we had a great Under-16 team and the Donegal seniors were winning Ulster and the All-Ireland. I threw the carrot to the young lads: ‘This is where you can get to. This won’t just happen. You have to live a professional life’.
“The guys who have stepped up have really put in the effort and the work. They had the belief that they could go the distance.”
Stephen McBrearty, Conor Morrison, Tony McClenaghan, Cian Mulligan, Eoin Ban Gallagher, Jamie Brennan and Kieran Gillespie have risen with Bonner through the ranks.
Gallagher, Mulligan and Brennan featured in Donegal’s U16, U17, Minor, U21 and, now, senior final wins.
Bonner arrived into a dressing room that was fractured after a difficult 2017. Heavy defeats at the hands of Tyrone and Galway planted the seeds of doubt. Once more, Donegal appeared at a crossroads. But Bonner had a clear idea of where he was going at the junction.
“One thing that I was adamant from the start was that these boys got a chance to express themselves,” he says.
“One of the jobs I had…The older boys knew I had a close affinity with the younger players. It was a matter of getting that blend and the mix in terms of the whole group. That can be difficult at times in a dressing room.
“There were times in dressing rooms I was in where it was obvious to spot a group here or there. That doesn’t work. You need that unity. That’s where our senior players have been absolutely brilliant. They have brought the young lads on and they have responded brilliantly.
“I met them all before I took on the job to see what their thoughts of the whole thing were.
“This was about Donegal football and what the best way was to take Donegal football forward. It was about getting Donegal football successful again and getting the hunger, the desire back to do that. To a man, they did it. But they are so, so driven. People don’t realise the drive and ambition that is in these men.”
Donegal will be without talisman Patrick McBrearty as they head for Croke Park to meet three-in-a-row All-Ireland champions Dublin in the first game of the new ‘Super 8’ series.
Last week’s headlines were dominated by talk of the venue with Donegal raising concerns about Dublin getting two of their group games in Croke Park.
That, again, drew echoes for Bonner from that ’79 final when there were strong calls for the game to be moved from Monaghan’s home in St Tiernach’s Park.
“At official level, there is no doubt that the County Board were wrong to accept Clones as the venue,” the Donegal News said the week after Monaghan took the prize 39 years ago.
“To suggest that not was a lucky ground for the county is alright – except when playing Monaghan. What a boost for any team to see a mass of blue and white flags waving up on that big hill.”
Bonner, though, has no difficulty facing the Dubs at the Jones Road.
“We have no problem going in and playing in Croke Park,” he says.
“It was about looking at us having two away matches. The issue revolved around where Dublin’s home venue actually was. Dublin do use Croke Park. We knew that was never going to change. As Ulster champions, we felt we should have got an early home game. It was never an issue about Dublin.
“Croke Park’s where all of the big games are going to be. It’s great to get in there to play Dublin in a Championship game. This is something we were aiming at and hoping for at the start of the year so it’s great to be here now. We have a huge four weeks ahead of us now.”
Bonner sometimes wishes he played county football in the current era.
He still togs out in goal for Na Rossa, due to a lack of bodies around Dooey way.
But at county level, things are in a different orbit from those times he danced around defenders in the 80s and 90s; and vastly changed, too, from his last term as the senior manager.
“It’s so, so professional now. It’s not even comparable to what it was 20 years ago,” he says.
“We wanted to be competitive and to win Ulster titles 20 years ago too, and we came very close in ’98, but the whole make-up of everything has gone to a whole new world. Those boys back then trained hard, but it’s a different level in every way from those times.
This group is totally professional. Gone are the days where drink bans are in place. That doesn’t even come into the equation. None of these guys need that. It comes from the players and from the group.
“The standards are set, that’s the bottom line. The guys in that group committed and went 110 per cent behind it. They are brilliant ambassadors for Donegal, but the work they put in for Donegal football is just huge; it would be overwhelming for some people.”
Not, though, for Bonner, who has always been content on the biggest of stages.Tags: