Donegal a study of perplexity ahead of daunting Croke Park trip

Declan Bonner was a player last time Donegal beat Dublin in Croke Park league game

When Donegal last beat Dublin in a league game in Croke Park, Declan Bonner was a player and the county was still basking in the after-glow of its first ever All-Ireland title. It was all of 28 years ago: a different sport in a different world. So the famous venue is no place to travel for a Donegal team seeking crumbs of comfort.

It’s a long trek eastwards this weekend from the football citadels of Donegal and the visiting support will gather in the vastness of Croke Park on Sunday afternoon in the hope of discovering a little bit more about their team. Because right now, Donegal are a study in perplexity.

During the six year period when Dublin were imperious at All-Ireland championship level, Donegal were fancied as a team that could make a breakthrough. When Declan Bonner took charge in the autumn of 2017, he quickly stitched together an appealing high-octane unit of fast, natural ball players revolving around the indispensable core of Michael Murphy, Neill McGee, Patrick McBrearty and Ryan McHugh.

They swept to consecutive Ulster titles in 2018 and 2019 with eye-catching scores, they entertained the nation with a riveting Super 8s tie against Kerry in Croke Park in 2019 (1-20 apiece). If they disappointed themselves in losing their 2018 Super 8s home game against Tyrone, the county with whom they'd developed an intense and acerbic rivalry over the last 10 years, they responded by winning the next four encounters: two league and two championship games. For the last few years, they have looked like the coming team.

But now people are wondering if they are ever going to arrive. The counter-truth for Donegal during this era is that they blew a golden chance to win the a rare three in a row Ulster titles by losing to third division Cavan during that fabulous, wintry lockdown upset in December 2020. Last year's Ulster exit was even more galling: another claustrophobic loss to Tyrone, who escaped from the suntrap of Ballybofey and bounded on to win an All-Ireland. Rubbing Donegal's nose was no way part of the master plan for Tyrone last summer. But it was an added bonus to lifting the Sam Maguire.

For all the pleasing football and potential, Donegal have not appeared in an All-Ireland semi-final since 2014 - the year they brought both senior and minor teams to the All-Ireland final.

Jim McGuinness was manager of the senior team that summer. Declan Bonner was in charge of the minors. He had started working with the group in their early teens and from that team which lost to Kerry in the minor final has taken Jamie Brennan, Stephen McMenamin, Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Ethan O'Donnell, Caolan McGonagle, Tony McClenaghan and Cian Mulligan through to the senior squad.

Bonner's four year term ended last year and he deliberated for a while before deciding to return. The sense of progress interrupted by the pandemic influenced his decision. But as he told Charlie Collins of DonegalLive in an in-depth interview shortly before the start of the season, there is also a sense of unfinished business emanating from that frustrating championship defeat against Tyrone. The result on that hot day hinged on a bizarre sequence which saw Michael Murphy having a penalty saved and then getting red-carded in the space of sixty seconds.

Unfinished Business

“With the top teams it is small, small margins,” Bonner said of that day, which is fair enough. “Things didn’t go our way, that is for sure. We lost Neil McGee early on and he is a huge presence for us in the back line. The penalty and the sending-off culminated in Tyrone winning the game eventually. We actually played well in the second half . . . until the last five minutes there was only a kick of the ball in it. So I wanted to reflect on it. There is a lot of work going on at the minute. It is not just about the seniors. It is about the academy being set up. The project still has a bit of work to get done. I still had the hunger and desire to go back in. Just a feeling that there is a bit of unfinished business within the group.”

But in the immediate league frame, Donegal have shown little sign of getting round to finish it. They've been a mysterious read in the league: on fire against Mayo but almost losing; flat-lining against Kerry; full of beans and ideas against an underwhelming Tyrone and, a week ago, simply dreadful against Monaghan - the jigsaw puzzle that Donegal teams have always struggled to complete.

Bonner is a hugely respected and liked figure within Donegal football circles. Securing Stephen Rochford as a coach was a smart and bit of improvised thinking. But the easily-read patterned nature of Donegal's build-up play has come to look like yesterday's news. Those lightning transitions to attack, which defined those back -to-back Ulster titles, are happening less often in games now.

The realisation for Donegal supporters that Michael Murphy is in the final phase of an extraordinary football career is sharpening - and with it the hope that they might see one last turn as a wrecking-ball inside forward rather than the superhuman utility player he has become. Finding a defined role to help Ryan McHugh catch fire has become a matter of urgency.

There are mitigating factors including injuries to key players like Michael Langan and Ciaran Thompson. But as Joyce McMullan, a former-team of Bonner's noted this week, there was something worrying about the body language in the defeat to Monaghan. McBrearty, in particular, cut a frustrated figure in the midst of a rowdy and cohesive Monaghan defence.

In five weeks time, Donegal will host the high-flying Armagh in the first round of the Ulster championship in Ballybofey. That day will be all about business, unfinished or otherwise.

Appearances can be deceptive but right now, there seems to be something fragile about Donegal. Running out in a half-empty Croke Park on a forlorn St Patrick’s weekend to face a Dublin team brimming with reasons to prove the world wrong is not the easiest task. For a team that has long been searching for a statement win-against-the-odds, the rare occasion of a win in Dublin would be a big step forward.