As Declan Bonner stood in the middle of Celtic Park on May’s last Sunday, he was more concerned about the destination he had arrived at instead of how he had got there.
The Donegal minor manager had seen his team overcome a decent Derry minor team 1-10 to 0-8 to start their Ulster championship campaign on a winning note.
Donegal had made an excellent start to that encounter on the Lone Moor Road, racing into a 1-4 to 0-1 lead on 11 minutes with Jamie Brennan from Bundoran taking the goal expertly.
However, Bonner’s team began to unravel in the second half - losing their coordinates on the map for a spell - and required a block from substitute Conall O’Boyle from Danny Tallon to keep their lead.
Goalkeeper Danny Rodgers had some uncertain moments but acquitted himself well with two vital saves.
But Donegal concluded with wind in their sails and it was left to three substitutes, Gavin McBride, Stephen McBrearty and Ethan O’Donnell to score the late points that sealed it for Bonner’s side.
This week, the manager’s thoughts haven’t diluted from what he said into the microphones at Celtic Park last month when the blood was still galloping through his veins.
“I don’t know why we would be very negative because it’s not like we have a great record at minor level and any day you can go in and beat Derry in the championship, it must be a good day,” he said.
“Ok, we didn’t play as well as we might at some periods in the second half but sometimes that can happen at minor level. I was quite happy to leave Celtic Park with a five-point win.
“Derry have some very good underage players and they will continue to have because of the colleges and their set-up. We were delighted to get over the line.”
Donegal’s record at minor level - as Bonner correctly points out - isn’t good. Five victories in the province came in 1956, 1985, 1991, 1996 and 2006, a team that included current senior panellists Michael Murphy, Martin McElhinney, Leo McLoone and Declan Walsh.
In fact, since that 2006 final win, 2-12 to 1-5 against Antrim at Croke Park, and the victory this term against Derry, Donegal have fallen at the first hurdle in this cut-throat championship in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013.
Bonner has long, medium and short-term goals - with the longer plans being the requirement, in its most naked form, of a minor manager in trying to progress a panel of players to give the senior manager options to promote who he sees fit.
Murphy, McElhinney, McLoone and Walsh all went onto win Sam Maguire six years after winning Ulster under Sean Clerkin and in Patrick McBrearty, Ryan McHugh and Darach O’Connor, Jim McGuinness showed he isn’t afraid to elevate from the minor bracket.
Medium-term, or the goal for 2014, from Bonner was a simple one: an Ulster double.
Donegal won the Ulster Minor League in the spring, a run of successive wins that saw his side overcome Antrim 5-15 to 0-8 in Ballymena in April.
As well as that victory, Donegal defeated Fermanagh 1-16 to 1-5 in Convoy, before edging Tyrone 1-11 to 2-6 at the same venue and getting the points against Derry, who were inundated with players having college commitments, on a walkover.
Armagh were beaten 1-9 to 0-5 in the semi-final in Letterkenny and Tyrone, at Brewster Park, were accounted for 1-15 to 2-7 in the Ulster Minor League final.
Now, the minors will act as the curtain-raiser in Clones and like the seniors, Antrim are the opponents following their quarter-final win over Fermanagh, in this case on a 5-10 to 2-8 scoreline.
And whatever about the medium and long-term aspirations, it’s the short-term that is the undoubted priority for now.
“We set our goals at the start of the year and it was to win the Ulster Minor League and the Ulster Championship,” Bonner continued. “We’ve won the league and are into the Ulster semi-final so let’s hope this good run can continue. We knew we had to set the targets high.
“We’ll not be underestimating Antrim as they’re a decent side with some very good players. We need a big performance and need to be on our guard.
“There’s a great motivation for players at stages like this. There’s an Ulster final place up for grabs and with that a spot in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
“We’ve not won an Ulster minor title for eight years but some of the lads who won on that team are now in possession of All-Ireland winners’ medals.
“There’s no doubt in my mind there’s players on this panel now that will go on and have good inter-county careers. We’d like to think we’ve given the best platform we could have and from their point of view, their attitude has been A1.
“There’s been success with the Donegal senior team in recent years and our basic job is to try and get as many as we can through. Even since Jim McGuinness came in, he’s given a chance to Patrick McBrearty, Ryan McHugh and Darach O’Connor. That’s the long-term goal for all these lads.
“In the short-term, we’ve eyes only for Antrim and that’s been the case since Celtic Park. It’s a matter of concentrating on that now. With both teams playing it gives the Donegal fans a good opportunity to go to Clones for the day and to support both their teams.”
Since the win in Derry four weeks ago, the majority of the Donegal panel had to switch their attention toward the Leaving Cert. Ahead of last night’s training session at O’Donnell Park, the main doubts ahead of Sunday are the Gaoth Dobhair duo of Cian Mulligan and Gavin McBride, who have respective hip and quad-muscle injuries.
“It has been (tough) but we got a good bit of work done but it hasn’t been the easiest,” Bonner added. “The exams will be over on Thursday so fingers crossed everything will be fine and they can concentrate on the football from then.
“We’re just going about it one day at a time really and that’s the approach that has served us well all year. We’re not looking past Antrim - of course we know there’s a big prize awaiting the winners - but we know they will bring a big challenge.
“We’ve been together for a good number of years as most of the lads have come in at U-16 level. There’s been a few changes, which happens, but most of the lads have been there a while.
“We know our strengths and know what we are capable of. We have had a good season so far but now we want to push on.
“Let’s hope the Donegal support can get in early and support the young lads, as it’s as big a game as they have played and a good support could make a huge difference.
“I was at the Tyrone and Monaghan quarter-final last Sunday and St Tiernach’s Park in Clones is a place with a lot of tradition in Ulster football. There’s a huge reward in reaching an Ulster final.”
Donegal Minor Panel: Andrew McClean (Kilcar), Colm Kelly (Aodh Ruadh), Niall Harley (Aodh Ruadh), Paddy Byrne (Naomh Columba), Lorcan Connor (Downings), Caolan McGonigle (Buncrana), Shane O’Donnell (Ardara), Daire Quinn (Four Masters), Conor Morrison (St Eunan’s), Danny Rodgers (Dungloe), Gavin McBride (Gaoth Dobhair), Stephen McMenamin (Red Hughs), Jamie Brennan (Bundoran), Eoghan Ban Gallagher (Killybegs), Kieran Gillespie (Gaoth Dobhair), David Tyrell (St Eunan’s), John McDyre (Na Rossa), Tony McClenaghan (Moville), Cian Mulligan (Gaoth Dobhair), Michael Miller (St Eunan’s), Gary McFadden (Gaoth Dobhair), Sean Daffan (St Eunan’s), Ciaran Diver (Moville), Conall O’Boyle (St Eunan’s), Stephen McBrearty (Kilcar), Christian Bonner (Na Rossa), Niall Friel (Gaoth Dobhair), Adam Neely (Dungloe), Michael Carroll (Gaoth Dobhair), Conor Doherty (Kilcar), Cormac Callaghan (Glenswilly), Danny Monagle (Carndonagh), John Campbell (Buncrana), Ethan O’Donnell (Naomh Conaill).