Bonner seizes his chance to make an impact on the big stage
The Glenswilly player has a chance to star in the Ulster final and rekindle his intercounty career
Glenswilly’s Ciaran Bonner and Caolan McFadden celebrate a goal against Killybegs. Photograph: Kieran Murray/Inpho
Any Donegal people in Ruislip that day must have sighed when the Glenswilly man came on as a substitute.
Donegal were then the Ulster champions and by the time the season was finished, they would be All-Ireland champions. There was little question that Bonner had sufficient game and athleticism to belong to the panel of his native county.
But above all players, his intercounty career seemed like the perfect metaphor for the volatility and unpredictability of the Donegal squad in general in the seasons before Jim McGuinness took over.
It is sometimes forgotten that Donegal won its first Division One league title in the spring of 2007. That burst of consistency was in curious contrast to their previous league form, when they used division one and two as if it was an elevator. But Bonner started on Brian McIver’s team that beat Mayo in Croke Park in that final and scored 0-2 from play.
He had not been greatly heralded as an underage player but impressed as Glenswilly, a young club, began to make colossal strides through the junior and intermediate ranks. Bonner was drafted into the county squad in the wake of Brian McEniff’s overachieving final term in charge of the county.
His stay was short and combative. In April of 2008, he opted out of McIver’s panel “for good” after apparently disagreeing with the management decision to withdraw him from a league game against Laois. He said he was going to concentrate on playing club football and appeared content with the decision.
A year later, he was back in the Donegal squad but was dropped during the All-Ireland championship qualifiers for a breach of discipline by manager John Joe Doherty. He has not been seen in county colours since.
Model of consistency
Flash forward to last month and Bonner’s name was among those listed in Jim McGuinness’s extended panel for 2014. Although Neil Gallagher and Michael Murphy have been the most obvious orchestrators of Glenswilly’s drive towards tomorrow’s Ulster final, Bonner has been a model of consistency throughout the season.
Back from London and restored to midfield for his club this year, his form has given a scintillating answer to the question sometimes asked in bars and GAA chat rooms: Whatever happened to Ciaran Bonner?
When Glenswilly met Roslea in the Ulster semi-final a fortnight ago, Peter McGinnitty was well aware of Bonner’s ability and was impressed by the midfielder.
“Well he was probably slipping underneath the radar of a lot of teams with Neil Gallagher and Michael Murphy and these boys about. He is physically very strong and he puts himself about and he is certainly an exceptional player at club level, where incidental strength is needed – just to hold on to the ball and make tackles. He is very effective in that role. And then he pops up every so often and does a special piece of work.”
It is precisely those qualities that make Bonner difficult to classify as a footballer. When Glenswilly emphatically claimed the Donegal championship with a storming second half against Killybegs, the grace note was a delicate flick from Michael Murphy which bamboozled two Killybegs defenders and left Glenswilly with a 2-1 attack.
Bonner was at hand to run the lane and was rewarded with a hand pass and an empty goal in which to shoot. All afternoon, he had been content with hard graft around the middle of the field, keeping the ball moving.
He has workhorse qualities but always looks to attack and every so often lights up games with some unexpected improvisation or a terrific score. There always seems to be more to this game than meets the eye.
“There’s no question that when you have Ciaran in the right frame of mind, he is a terrific footballer with a huge amount to offer,” says Declan Bonner, the former Donegal senior and current minor manager.
“And not just at club level. I suppose he has wasted a good number of years at county level and he knows that himself. The only person who held Ciaran back is himself and he is coming to a stage where he knows that in a few years time he won’t be able to play at that high level.
“But he is playing very good football for Glenswilly at the moment. He is involved in Jim’s squad now so it will be interesting to see how he adapts and copes over the next few months.”
Ciaran Bonner admitted that hearing from the Donegal manager was “a nice call to get”. “It was a bit of a surprise, to be honest,” he said. But his re-emergence as a potential county man offers Donegal a fresh option in the middle third of the field, a section where they were badly depleted through injury and loss of form during last year’s traumatic surrendering of their All-Ireland title.
But right now, Bonner’s return to the county side is strictly notional: the Glenswilly contingent will not return for pre-season training until their season has ended. And it remains to be seen if Bonner can operate at intercounty level as he did four seasons ago.
“I’m not sure I can make that comparison because I don’t know he would manage that step up,” says Peter McGinnitty.
“That is the problem. Where would he play for Donegal? Would he end up as half forward because he probably won’t play midfield. I could be wrong: but I don’t see him playing midfield on a county senior team. So then it is a question of whether he can slot into the other roles that are required at half forward or half back.”
There are other variables as well. The demands of the intercounty game have risen since Bonner last featured. And he is returning to a squad of All-Ireland winners smarting from last year’s championship and a group of players who made the decision to forsake old habits for absolute discipline and commitment. The environment will be very different.
“He has missed out on those vital years,” Declan Bonner says. “I know he has been working very hard but to get that standard of fitness is hard.”
Focus of ambition
The encouraging aspect is that Glenswilly mirror Donegal in the sense that they are hell-bent on making the most of their ability. The rise of the club, from an Intermediate title in 2005 to two senior titles, is remarkable and the gradual focus of ambition is something that Bonner himself alluded to before the county final.
“It’s not often that a club of Glenswilly’s size would get a group of players like this, a group of big players who have been together from U-16 right up and been successful at every age group,” he said in the Donegal News.
“When you win one county title you don’t want to stop at that. These county finals don’t come around too often. You don’t want to be remembered as a one-hit wonder.
“The first year, we got caught up in the hype putting the flags and bunting up. In 2011 it was completely different and the players were focused on the he job. It has been the same this year. You could say there’s a maturity about the team now.”
No Donegal club has won the Ulster club championship since it became an official competition and so Michael Murphy is one game away from adding that honour to an illustrious CV.
Glenswilly inevitably revolves around the strength and attacking prowess of the big attacker but as Peter McGinnitty warns, it would be foolish to categorise them as a one-man show.
“I think Ballinderry would be wise to regard Glenswilly as much more of a team than the marquee players. Glenswilly set up like Donegal did a few years ago and that is probably no accident because club sides often tend to mirror their county.
“I don’t know how this game is going to go but I don’t think it is the foregone conclusion that people were saying after the semi-finals. Ballinderry have their quality and experience and whether Glenswilly’s armoury can deal with that, I’m not sure. But I think it will be a lot more interesting than the casual observer has decided.”
In addition to Murphy and Gallagher, manager Gary McDaid has coaxed a terrific season out of Colin Kelly, an effortlessly smooth attacker who, like Bonner, featured for Donegal before deciding it wasn’t for him.
After the Roslea win, Bonner pointed out that even though Glenswilly has one of the high profile names in Gaelic games; their success has been based on the fact that their county stars revert to committed club players. “Everyone is treated the same.”
Bonner was captain when Glenswilly made it to the Intermediate Ulster club final in 2005, losing to Iniskeen. That campaign convinced Brian McIver that Bonner had the right stuff.
In the years since, he went on to become a classy if restless club player and an almost-star at county level. Glenswilly go into tomorrow’s Ulster final as outsiders and that will suit them fine.
It has all come full circle: Ballinderry, a powerful force in Ulster club football, is McIver’s home club so he will get to see his former protégé at close range. It remains to be seen if Ciaran Bonner can walk back into the county game as easily as he walked away.
“A lot of people would love to see him back,” says Declan Bonner.
“I do feel he could have a big role to play, even if he has missed out on four years. There’s no doubt he has it and let’s hope he gives it one big shot for next year.”