Is this to be it for Donegal? queried RTE’s Ger Canning with a dangling expectancy as James McHugh broke forward with possession a minute before the end of the 1992 All-Ireland final.
Underdogs Donegal led Dublin by three points and seemed to have weathered the Leinster champions’ storm. But a kick of the football was all that divided the sides. It wasn’t over yet.
All day, McHugh, his brother Martin and Joyce McMullan in the Donegal half-forward line had found profitable little corridors of opportunity when they opted to carry ball in hand and run at Dublin. Delcan Bonner stood off to the right, not far in front of the shadow of the old Hogan Stand.
“I threw a bit of a dummy and cut inside,” he says of the most important insurance point in Donegal’s history. “Tommy Carr was the Dublin captain and a man I knew well. He played at half-back and half-forward but was in the corner as James played the ball to me. It was probably the last place he wanted to play.
“I had missed an opportunity, kicking the ball when off balance no more than 90 seconds before that, but when the last one went over, well, for the first time I think we knew it was it. The stewards were coming in around the pitch. The rest, as they say, is history.”
While Bonner claims the events of that historic day have since changed his life, it is also true too that a change of plan made that history possible. Everyone has their own opinion of where Donegal’s pioneering All-Ireland was won or where the foundations were laid but for the Na Rossa forward it wasn’t at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones or Croke Park in September.
“We beat Fermanagh reasonably comprehensively and had qualified for a fourth successive Ulster final,” he recalls. “Donegal had lost to Tyrone in a replay in 1989, beaten Armagh in 1990 and then were well beaten by a Down team that went on to win the All-Ireland in 1991.
“It was familiar territory, an Ulster final, and we were about to get another chance. But we felt we needed something different. For maybe an hour that day in the Healy Park dressing room we sat with the door closed afterwards.
“That team was full of leaders with Matt Gallagher, Martin McHugh, Anthony Molloy and Martin Rambo Gavigan. Nobody was afraid to say what they thought and the players and the management all got their chance to speak.
“We knew we weren’t too far away but we needed to up it a gear or two. Everyone bought into it. That was it. It was really tough but we knew it was necessary to get where we wanted to be. The training and in-house games were very competitive.”
With scant few heads shaking in disagreement in Omagh, they were soon rolling in training as Anthony Harkin’s sessions became sterner and more frequent. Each get-together possessed the intensity and the physicality of a championship match. Dust-offs and flare-ups were soon part of the routine. The temperature was rising.
That increased level of fitness, combined with courage and heart, enabled a 14-man Donegal to topple Derry on Ulster final day in Clones. John Cunningham had been sent off approaching half-time but the collective nature shown by his teammates more than compensated for the numerical disadvantage.
Donegal, having lost four All-Ireland semi-finals from four beforehand, were understandably tetchy for spells against Mayo. On what was largely an uninspiring afternoon of football, though, Donegal felt their way into the script gradually and topped the Connacht kingpins 0-13 to 0-9.
“Between the semi-final and the final, we had five weeks,” Bonner adds. “We were living in one another’s ear, training every other night. About two weeks before the final we were playing in a charity match and stayed overnight in Letterkenny. Con Barrett from Milford had died tragically in a car accident.
“Brian McEniff sensed the apprehension between us, which might’ve been starting to build and we got a private room in the Mount Errigal so we had a few pints and blew off some steam. We never looked back after that. To be honest, the preparation was ideal.
“The week afterwards we played an incredibly tough in-house game in Donegal Town the Saturday week before the All-Ireland final. There were four or five positions up for grabs and nobody wanted to give an inch. I had a collision with John Joe Doherty and don’t remember it. I was told afterwards I got a bang and ended up concussed.
”John Joe wasn’t sure of his place by then and I can totally understand the effort people had to put in. We stayed in Finnstown House in Lucan the night before the final and just as we were having breakfast on the morning of the All-Ireland final the word made it back that Martin Shovlin had failed a fitness test that morning and John Joe would be starting.”
Donegal started shakily and could’ve been in further arrears had Charlie Redmond not passed up an opportunity from a penalty to put Dublin five points ahead. In retrospect, that incident proved to be the turning point and Donegal flowed from there, going in 0-10 to 0-7 in front.
Dublin’s gameplan centred on booming balls into Vinny Murphy and when that failed, thanks to Anthony Molloy dropping back alongside Matt Gallagher, their ideas disintegrated. Bonner kicked three points before his final score. With Donegal 0-18 to 0-14 up, he nestled on the ground and as match referee Tommy Sugrue made his way across to the sideline, he called for the ball.
“It was some feeling,” Bonner adds. “Just beforehand, I actually was the last man to have the ball as the whistle went, having just got it off Barry Cunningham. I went down when I was fouled by Paul Bealin and the referee came over straight away. The man who reacted the quickest of all was Martin McHugh, who ended up with the match ball.
“I still remember the first man out from the crowd to this day. It was Charlie McClafferty from the Beach Hotel in Downings. I often say it to him even now and there’s a few famous photos of us right after the whistle, one even hanging on the walls inside Croke Park I believe.”
That night as the team made their way to the aftermatch reception at the Grand Hotel in Malahide, Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher called Bonner over and handed him a chunky piece of plastic.
“It was a mobile phone and I’d never used one before,” he said. “But there I was talking to my mother Bridie. It was one of those big heavy phones. The whole week afterwards was mad. I think it was about Friday before I made it back to my own bed.
“I was totally wrecked by then. Every club, village and town was brilliant but of course it was very special for me, on the Thursday, to go over the Gweebarra Bridge and into Dungloe and the Rosses and Gweedore. In many ways it feels like only yesterday but at other times it seems the 20 years it is. They were brilliant times and let’s hope Jim McGuinness and the lads can replicate them.
“I’ve a theory there’s always a chance when the year ends in two - they’ve always been good ones for Donegal. In 1972, we won Ulster for the first time, before taking home the All-Ireland U-21 title in 1982. We’ll not forget 1992 of course so who knows what 2012 will bring?”