Donegal minor football manager, Declan Bonner, has guided the county’s fortunes at senior level and led them to an Ulster final.
That was back in 1998 when victory was snatched from Donegal with a late Joe Brolly goal for Derry. Sixteen years on, the 1992 All-Ireland winner takes the Donegal minors to Celtic Park this Sunday for a quarter-final clash in the Ulster Minor Football Championship.
And after winning the Ulster Minor Football League in some style with five straight wins including a double success over Tyrone, Bonner has his sights firmly set once again on another big day out in St Tiernach’s Park.
“We had a very good league. We set our stall out from the start of the league to do as well as possible and hopefully win and we achieved that and at the same time we experimented a fair bit,” said Bonner, the holder of an Ulster Minor Football League winners’ medal from 1982.
He was on a team that included later All-Ireland winners Brian Murray, Gary Walsh and James McHugh. Donegal defeated Monaghan in the ‘82 final and then went on to beat Armagh in Ballybofey, in the first round of the championship, before losing to Antrim in the Ulster semi-final, in Clones.
“We looked at 27 players in the league so we have a fair idea what is available to us and we had a fairly settled starting 15 by the latter stages of the league.
“Overall the league was good but once it was over we parked it up and our focus turned to Derry and Celtic Park. There is a big difference between league and championship football and this is a one off game.
“There is no second chance at minor so we have to make the most of it or else we are out and it is all about going out and giving it our best shot on Sunday.
“We have prepared well since the league final and have played a couple of challenge games against Leitrim and Galway. We beat Leitrim who won the Connacht Minor League, by a point, and we played Galway, last Saturday, in Ballyshannon. It was a good workout for us. Galway are a good, big and strong and they beat us by a couple of points.”
Donegal and Derry did not meet in the minor league after Derry conceded the points. In what was a poor league campaign the Oak Leaf County were forced to field weakened teams, due to St Pat’s, Maghera’s, run to the All-Ireland Colleges final.
They suffered a heavy defeat to Tyrone, while they went down by a goal to Antrim and suffered a two point defeat by Fermanagh.
“You cannot read anything into Derry in the league. They didn’t have the St Pat’s, Maghera, boys for any of their games and there are up to eight of them in Richard Ferris’s squad. They have them all back so they will be a different proposition altogether in the championship.
“We’ve had them watched in a few recent challenge games and going on reports the are a decent outfit. They are backboned by the St Pat’s boys Conor Glass, at midfield; Danny Tallon and Cathal Mullholland in the forward line and the St Pat’s centre half-back Peter Hagan, is also at centre half-back on the minor team.
“They’ve played Sligo and Dublin in recent weeks in friendlies and they also beat a strong Mayo, outfit last Saturday, in a challenge and Mayo are no slouches at minor. They won the All-Ireland last year.”
Bonner, who was an advisor/mentor to his predecessor Stephen Friel for two years, has been working with this group of players since they were U-15.
“I first got involved with them at U-15 and I have worked with them over the last three years and I suppose you could say we enjoyed a fair amount of success.
“We won the Buncrana Cup (Ulster U-16 championship) with them two years ago and we won the Jim McGuigan Cup (Ulster U-17 tournament) with them last year. So we know them fairly well and we have done a good bit of work and coaching with them over the last three years.
“They are a talented bunch and are all good footballers and are also very committed and an ambitious bunch. They won the minor league and now they want to go on and give a good account of themselves and do well in the championship.
“But there is a big difference between league and championship. We may have been the form team in the league and Derry had a poor league. But now that they have the Maghera boys back they will be a different prospect altogether and besides Derry are renowned for good underage teams and they are at home and it is a one off game.
“The league was just a building block for the championship and the fact that we are champions will count for nothing on Sunday, unless we take that league form and winning mentality to Celtic Park.”
Bonner has reported no major injury concerns. “We have a few niggles alright but nothing too serious and I expect everybody to be fit and we will be selecting from a fully fit squad when we finalise the team on Friday night.”