Declan Bonner has achieved the unimaginable at Donegal
Manager has changed mentality of squad and transformed them into an attacking unit
Donegal manager Declan Bonner celebrates with Caolan Ward after beating Fermanagh last month in the senior football championship at St Tiernach’s Park, Clones. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Last winter, the super-structure of the Donegal county team had never looked more fragile: it was like a fortress suddenly marked down as condemned. In July, a team comprising slender youngsters and the veterans who had done it all in the Jim McGuinness era had been absolutely obliterated by Galway on a hot evening in Markievicz Park.
Among the guests in the boutique Sligo arena that evening was Maurice Fitzgerald, who moved through the crowd with the same stealth he had exhibited as the supreme stylist and he lounged against the back wall in the stand to observe proceedings in that low-key way of his. He was joined by Mikey Sheehy. Kerry would play the winners in the All-Ireland quarter-final and at least the pair had the luxury of dispensing with their Donegal notes from early on.
It was hard to believe that this was the same county they had met in the All-Ireland final three years earlier. For the first time since 2011, the Ulster men would not be going to Croke Park. The defensive system that had become the hallmark of Donegal’s championship approach was evident in shape but the maroon shirts tore through the barriers as if they were non-existent. If it felt like the end of something, that’s because it was.
One of the abiding images of the day was of Karl Lacey inconsolable on the field: he retired a few weeks later, adding to the cast of redemptive figures that had suddenly disappeared. Rory Gallagher, unfairly blackguarded by a small section of the Donegal support, resigned his post as manager shortly afterwards. All of a sudden, Donegal seemed as vulnerable as they had ever been. It was as if the bulletproof aura had never existed and it raised a series of questions, with the matter of how Donegal should play the game being the most obvious.
The list of candidates eager to take responsibility wasn’t exactly exhaustive and although Declan Bonner was in the frame because of his work with the minor and U-21 teams, there was a retrospective echo to his name. Bonner had been a phenomenal footballer; a metronomic free-taker and a strong, bustling corner forward with as sweet a strike as you could imagine.
But his first term as Donegal manager had been 20 years earlier, when the game – not to mention the world – was very different. He was 32 years old when he took over, just weeks retired as a player. The team he inherited was a jumble of survivors from the 1992 All-Ireland winning team and younger players like Brendan Devenney, Damien Diver and Adrian Sweeney, who didn’t know then that all of their Donegal summers would end in crushing disappointment. Bonner led the county to the 1998 league semi-final, when they lost to Offaly and the Ulster final against Derry which was decided by a goal at the death; Geoffrey McGonigle’s inimitable arse-of-god moment and then the flourish by Joe Brolly. The tantalising moment was as good as it got and in some ways, Donegal spent the next two decades trying to recover from that blow. Not long after he was ratified by the county board last September, Bonner was asked what he would say to those who might doubt his suitability for the role.
“I dunno because in terms of the process . . . at no stage did I head not the right man for the job,” he told Charlie Collins in his first interview, on Donegal Sportshub.
“I know they wouldn’t say it directly to my face. But to me, I felt I was the right man for the job and I am confident enough in my own ability to lead this team. I have a fair idea in terms of what is there looking at clubs over the past few years and working with the U-21s and minors. It is going to be a hard couple of months in terms of the work we do but I think it is going to be enjoyable.”
The words have proven prophetic. Even though Donegal were relegated from division one in the league, there was something bright and optimistic about the way that they carried themselves through spring. In fact, it was during their pre-season games that the score lines they began to post were eye-catching. It has become fashionable to dismiss the usefulness of the early January competitions but it is arguable that the McKenna Cup was more important to Bonner than the league.
It was in that competition that Bonner’s team delivered its clearest mission statement by posting 4-17 against Monaghan in Clones. At the other end, they had conceded 0-19. This was hallucinogenic stuff from two counties who had effectively re-invented their fates on the foundation of rigorous defensive diligence. Here they were in deep mid-winter, with nobody watching, shooting the lights out. Something was up. A 0-20 point score and win over Armagh and a 1-16 to 1-12 win over Tyrone in the McKenna Cup final gave Bonner the boon of an early bit of silverware. More importantly, it may have given him the imprimatur and confidence to carry through his vision for Donegal into the unforgiving theatre of division one football.
“Declan Bonner promised he would play an attacking brand of football,” says Donal Reid, his team-mate on the ‘92 side.
“He promised the players that. Donegal players don’t like to be stifled. And last year they were probably playing a brand of football that probably didn’t suit that mentality. I happened to meet a few of the players last week and they are really, really enjoying it because he is giving them the freedom to get forward and to express themselves and they are not hemmed in by negative football.”
Such a stark, clean departure from the defensive orientation took courage. On the opening day of the league, Donegal turned up in Killarney and scored 3-14 in a performance that almost earned them a famous win and did, in defeat, earn them plenty of general plaudits. But it was their February date in Croke Park against the All-Ireland champions Dublin which provided the litmus test of the new approach.
The risk of sending out an inexperienced team to have a go at Dublin was an unholy walloping. Moreover, Bonner resisted the urge to start Michael Murphy, holding the team captain on the bench until the 55th minute. By then, something surprising had started to happen on the field. Donegal were resurgent, attacking the champions with a wave of scores that reduced a seven-point lead to just one.
Ironically, Murphy’s appearance almost disrupted the flow: the totemic all-rounder misfired on an early shot and then missed the kind of free he habitually knocks over. Dublin took a breath and reeled off a string of injury time points to win 0-20 to 0-15. It was, however, the inverse of what had happened under McGuinness: the more Donegal lost, the more people approved of them. They got sucked into a relegation battle that was eventually decided in the 74th minute against Mayo in Ballybofey. Patrick McBrearty, the lodestar of their league, dropped a ball short and from the counter-attack, Kevin McLaughlin fired a defiant score which relegated Donegal. But despite that, there was no real gloom about the situation around the county.
“I don’t think so,” says Reid.
“I remember speaking with Declan after he took the job on and he agreed that we were going to take a few hits along the way. He was introducing a lot of inexperienced players and he didn’t mind getting beaten along the way because the championship was his focus all along. Our supporters were spoiled for a long time. McGuinness spoiled us: we expected to be in Croke Park every year. But to get to where we are now, we were going to have to take a few hits. And we did that in the league.”
As Reid says, Bonner is the only one of the 1992 players to remain continually involved with management, whether at club or county. The 2014 minor team he led to an All-Ireland final was the culmination of a project he had started several years earlier when he began coaching them as a development squad.
Last year, he was manager when Donegal won its first U-21 Ulster title since 2010, a victory he promptly dedicated to Pat Shovelin, the county goalkeeping coach who was, by then, fighting a battle with an illness that proved terminal. Bonner’s main focus was on following that up with a senior Ulster title. He couldn’t have imagined last January that it would arrive so comfortably: no team came closer than six points; 13 points to spare over Down in the Ulster semi-final and 12 over Fermanagh in the final.
It was something that Ulster had never before been for Donegal: a stroll, from start to finish. High scoring remained the trait of Donegal’s play: 2-20; 2-16; 2-20; 2-18. Bonner backed his squad to land those kind of totals in the championship, reckoning that other teams in the province couldn’t match them. He was right. When Reid heard Bonner was putting himself forward, it crossed his mind that his friend was taking a huge risk.
“Definitely. I often ask myself where he gets the energy and motivation to do this. Because the game has changed so much. The thing that Declan has going is that he has these lads from minor and U-21 level. He knows them very well. But he has Karl Lacey there as well, who goes very much unnoticed. I know from the players that Karl is very good with the players and is obviously very acquainted with the modern game. Paul McGonigle is there and he was there with Jim McGuinness and is a very calm presence. So he has a good backroom people about him.”
Another name in the background is John McElhome, the Tyrone man who Bonner secured as trainer. Everyone in Donegal knows that Saturday evening’s test against Dublin will be dramatically harder than anything they have faced to date. It is a fixture that is loaded with recent significance.
If Mayo has been the team that has given Dublin their best challenge, then Donegal has been the county that has come at them from unexpected angles. They remain the last team to have beaten Dublin in the championship. If they are to repeat that feat in their first Super 8s meeting, it will be through a style that seemed unimaginable a year ago: by attacking from the get-go. Regardless of the outcome, Donegal under Bonner has undergone a metamorphosis.