Declan Bonner’s Donegal minor assignment continues to reap major rewards

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Declan Bonner’s Donegal minor assignment continues to reap major rewards
On Sunday evening at Croke Park, Jim McGuinness said that facing Kerry in an All-Ireland final was something of a dream.

On Sunday evening at Croke Park, Jim McGuinness said that facing Kerry in an All-Ireland final was something of a dream.

The Donegal manager produced a tactical masterclass to see his side halt the Dublin juggernaut 3-14 to 0-17, while his players performed heroically to implement the committed yet composed game-plan.

It was the second act of a most memorable day as a couple of hours beforehand, the sealing a place in the All-Ireland Minor final for the first time ever was a fitting testament to the work being placed at underage level in Donegal.

Again, Kerry are the opposition as the Donegal footballing fraternity pinch themselves just to make sure it’s real.

Declan Bonner has overseen the journey of the talented teens, making the most of the policy of continuity at underage level with the manger working with a given team through the age brackets on the production line.

Like McGuinness, Bonner, ably assited by a back-room team including Anthony harkin, Gary Walsh xxx has been able to change the mindset and that in turn has helped change the fortunes.

“When you see some of these lads who came into me at 14 and 15, we’ve had a brilliant journey,” Bonner said following Donegal’s 1-12 to 1-11 victory over Dublin at Croke Park.

“You look at Donegal underage teams. I know the people who have worked hard there but there was always excuses.

“Colleges football is strong in Derry and Tyrone, and Tyrone have a great record underage. I felt any day we went out to play Tyrone at minor level, we were beat already and that was basically it.

“Nine times out of 10, they were right, we were beat. When we came in, the one thing we made sure was that we were not going to be afraid of anyone.”

Bonner has taken his pool of players to the (U-16) Buncrana Cup in 2012 and the U-17 equivalent, the McGuigan Cup, 12 months later. Now in their third year together, Donegal have still to suffer so much as a defeat.

When Bonner gathered his panel at the start of this year, the power of that changing mindset was obvious.

The goals laid out were considered lofty but obtainable - win the Ulster Minor Football League, target lifting the Ulster Championship and then aim for a first All-Ireland title.

McGuinness spoke in 2012 of his aim to see a synergy - an intangible effect where success would breed success - develop in Donegal football. It’s been trademarked in Kerry.

Donegal’s All-Ireland success of that year certainly helped inflate those aspirations, which was something that Bonner felt was missed out on the first time Sam Maguire visited Donegal some 20 years beforehand.

“We probably didn’t build on 1992 when we won the All-Ireland back then, in terms of not following it up by putting the right structures in place,” he said.

“I’m still not entirely convinced we have the right structures at all levels, but I think we’re getting there and there’s a lot of good work going on.

“It’s in a good place at the minute and you have to keep building on it. Okay we’re in two All-Irelands in a few weeks, but the work has to gone on at U-14 and 18 level.

“We know it doesn’t come easy and we’ve put in a lot of work in three years, have a big backroom team helping out in every aspect.”

To show the level of professionalism now involved as Donegal GAA evolves, Bonner and his panel travelled to Dublin following their 0-10 to 1-5 All-Ireland quarter-final win over Roscommon.

Croke Park, as its number of attendees and decibel level starts to rise, can be a daunting place for a young man.

The panel were taken to the stadium to familiarise themselves with their surroundings, returning the following day to watch the Donegal against Armagh and Dublin versus Monaghan All-Ireland quarter-finals.

“I felt we had a lot of work done with the lads in terms of mental preparation but until you actually get there and play in it you don’t know how you will react,” Bonner added.

“And we didn’t react for the first 20 minutes and maybe the nerves set in but once they got over that they were okay. At least they’ve done it now, both teams are equal in what we’ve done and played a match in Croke Park.”