WHEN DECLAN BONNER took on the Donegal job in the autumn of 2017, ‘transition’ was the buzz word of choice.
Heavy Championship batterings by Tyrone and Galway that summer felt like a jolt; throw-backs to the bad old days.
For the first time since 2010, Donegal would not contest the Ulster final. The buntings were lowered, no stage erected in Donegal town and a real fear that the progress made had been zapped in a summer.
Some experienced warriors had called time. Karl Lacey – Donegal’s most decorated footballer – pulled the plug after that Galway loss, for instance.
Bonner wasn’t keen on the notion of transition, however. He convinced Neil McGee and Frank McGlynn – who seemed at the end of their tethers when Galway lowered the curtain in Sligo for Donegal – to stay on. Neither were interested, at their ages and stages, in ‘long-term plans’.
Bonner, appointed on a three-year term, was to the point of what he wanted and expected.
“I would hope that we would be competitive,” said Bonner, who coaxed Odhran Mac Niallais and Leo McLoone back from the wilderness.
“We have taken a step or two back in the past couple of seasons and we have to take a look at that. We have to adapt. We have become too one-dimensional and too predictable and that will take work on the training field.
“We have a fair idea of what is out there. I have been very close to the club scene and we hope to get players together sooner rather than later.”
Bonner predicted a bright future and insisted that reaching the Super 8s was the target – via the front door entrance.
“The best way to do that is to win the Ulster Championship,’’ he said at the time.
Bonner guided Donegal to the Ulster crown last summer with a new attacking wave, but the rug was pulled by Tyrone in their final Super 8 game, just when Donegal seemed to stand on the threshold of an All-Ireland semi-final.
The departures of several players – many of them who were firmly in the shake-up for places in his team – didn’t take a shake out of the Lettermacaward man.
Bonner has made some ballsy calls in his time as Donegal’s manager.
Think of the recruitment of Shaun Patton – who had played only two club games for St Eunan’s (both in the 2014 Ulster Club Championship) and who was forging a League of Ireland career when Bonner knocked.
Patton played for St Eunan’s College in a MacLarnon Cup final and his club was famously listed as Finn Harps, such was his seeming disconnect. Patton has become one of Donegal’s most important assets and his kick-outs are now one of the best weapons of choice.
On Sunday, Bonner handed rookie Odhran McFadden-Ferry his senior debut in the Ulster final. The Gaoth Dobhair man – who shackled all comers to great affect during this club’s surge to an Ulster title in 2018 – vindicated his manager’s faith.
Players like Jamie Brennan, Stephen McMenamin, Jason McGee and Hugh McFadden are flourishing under Bonner’s regime.
Last winter, he recruited Stephen Rochford, the former Mayo manager, to his backroom team as the Head Coach. Rochford’s imprint on the team is clear and many are crediting his arrival with Donegal’s success so far this year.
But the man in the Bainisteoir’s t-shirt has shown his worth before.
More silverware at minor and U21 were missed, but Sunday’s Ulster SFC final win over Cavan gives Bonner his tenth title as a Donegal manager. The haul is more than any before him.
Bonner, who had a previous spell as senior manager, returned somewhat by chance rather than design in 2011 when initially helping a Southern Development Squad.
Bonner, who took Donegal to a minor All-Ireland final in 2014, has now won: Two Ulster SFCs; one Division Two; one Dr McKenna Cup; one Ulster U21; one Ulster MFC; two Ulster Minor Leagues; one Jim McGuigan U17; and one Buncrana Cup U16.
It’s no wonder that when he predicted a bright future two years ago, he did so with real conviction and belief.