DECLAN Bonner stood, freezing and soaked, surrounded by a handful of reporters and concluded that his team had been on the end of a ‘very harsh lesson’.
It was in January of this year and Donegal were on their way to an opening night League win over Mayo.
Eight minutes into added time, Donegal were three points up.
Then, James Durcan got the ball and the script was shredded. Durcan’s goal, with the final kick of the night, earned Mayo a draw.
“Sometimes you learn the hard way,” Bonner said.
“We didn’t see it out and that’s the disappointing thing.”
In the weeks that followed, Donegal managed to blow a seven-point lead against Galway, losing by a point in Letterkenny. Bonner’s men were five up against Dublin at Croke Park, but came down the M1 reflecting on a 1-15 to 1-14 loss.
In Bonner’s three-year term, Donegal have won two Ulster titles and were Division 2 winners in 2019.
Many saw it as a rebuilding job in the wake of a 4-17 to 0-14 hammering by Galway in 2017 – a defeat that drew an end to Rory Gallagher’s spell as manager.
Bonner has kept Donegal among the country’s leading sides. There have been many harsh lessons for a relatively inexperienced group to digest.
In the 2018 League, Donegal lost narrowly to Kerry (2-18 to 3-14) and Galway (1-12 to 0-14) before Kevin McLoughlin’s point, in the fourth minute of added time, earned Mayo the draw that would relegate Donegal, who were three up with six minutes to play.
In 2019, Tipperary came from two down to win 3-9 to 0-13 and a four-point lead over Gallagher’s Fermanagh concluded in a three-point loss. During the course of a Super 8 game against Kerry last summer, Donegal were level 13 times in all. A cracking contest ended 1-20 apiece and it would prove not enough as Donegal bowed out a couple of weeks later after a 1-14 to 1-10 loss to Mayo in Castlebar.
Two years ago, Tyrone visited Ballybofey for a Super 8 game. It was winner-takes-all, effectively an old-fashioned All-Ireland quarter-final. The stakes were such that it was the biggest game staged at Sean Mac Cumhaill Park.
Ulster champions Donegal were four to the good with 15 minutes to play.
The day and the campaign unravelled before the eyes of a packed stadium. Harry Loughran and Declan McClure scored the goal as Donegal hit 2-7 in the closing chapter to win.
“We were in control of the game,” Bonner said. “There were four points in it and we were trying to push on. The goal came at a crucial stage for Tyrone and we didn’t react well to it.”
Last summer, Donegal powered past Tyrone in an Ulster semi-final in Cavan, but when the teams crossed swords at the weekend, Donegal must have been feeling a little deja vu.
Michael Langan’s goal had Donegal 1-5 to 0-6 ahead at half-time.
Darragh Canavan’s goal for Tyrone, seven minutes into the second half, rocked Donegal, but Bonner’s men showed their mettle, reeling off the game’s next four points to take charge.
“That was the winning of the game,” a drenched, but delighted Bonner told the assembled media in a strangely empty main stand.
The Covid-19 delayed Championship has gone straight knockout and is being played behind closed doors.
The ugly conditions, the heavy pitch and a ferocious Tyrone all asked questions of Donegal. When Joe McQuillan shrilled the final whistle, it was Donegal who were still standing after a 1-13 to 1-11 win.
There was a real feeling that there was something new about Donegal here.
“We knew that it would come down to the small margins and luckily we got over the line,” the manager said.
“We stuck to the task and the lads dug really deep when they had to.
“It was about rolling the sleeves up. You can have all the best tactics and top-class players, but there comes a time in Championship matches when you have to roll up the sleeves and really dig deep, Our lads did that today.”
Donegal needed new leaders at times on Sunday.
Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh were held scoreless by Tyrone. Murphy was content to drop deep and conduct the orchestra.
The Glenswilly man has played 158 times for Donegal and Sunday’s was only the fifth time that he finished scoreless after starting a match.
Since drawing a black in the 2013 Ulster final loss to Monaghan, Murphy registered in all 38 Championship matches until Sunday. A 2008 qualifier loss to Monghan, the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Dublin and this year’s League win over Monaghan were the others. Only seven other times, as a substitute, has Murphy not scored for Donegal.
Ciarán Thompson stepped in as Donegal’s chief marksman on Sunday, clipping seven points, including five nerveless frees.
“Everything was on the line,” Thompson said.
“It was either win or go bust after a long year. We always knew the game was going to be a dogfight. It was that and more.”
Veteran Neil McGee – in his 185th game for the county – was enjoying a real ding-dong with Tyrone’s man of the moment Conor McKenna when the Gaoth Dobhair man had to be withdrawn at half-time. Stephen McMenamin rolled the sleeves up and curbed McKenna in the second half.
Langan – a rookie midfielder in the forgettable 2017 reversal by Galway – scored 1-2 and Hugh McFadden moved the earth in the second half.
Caolan McGonigle joined McMenamin, Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Jamie Brennan from Bonner’s 2014 minor team in Sunday’s starting XV and the Buncrana man is another who brings real presence around the middle sector.
Bonner had been waiting on the wings, having shaped the path for several of Donegal’s budding youngsters and it was the Na Rossa man who coaxed Shaun Patton into the county squad. Patton’s monster 80m kick-out that led to Langan’s goal was among the real highlights on Sunday.
That Sunday’s win came minus their man-marking specialist Odhrán McFadden-Ferry – who is on leave from the squad due to his work with the Irish army – and Patrick McBrearty, who Bonner says will be back for the semi-final, sends Donegal forward with real confidence.
Bonner said: “We had some big performances out there and the lads really, really dug deep when they had to.”
The meaning of it all wasn’t lost on his players.
Thompson said: “A game between us and Tyrone will always come down to who wants it more. We showed that wee bit more around the breaking ball, driving forward and getting the crucial scores and crucial times.
“By hook or crook, it was just about getting over the line.”Tags: