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25 Sept 2022

Exclusive: Declan Bonner - ‘It will never be easy, but the desire and the hunger is still there’

Declan Bonner

Donegal senior football manager Declan Bonner. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

On Dooey beach, the sun had risen when Declan Bonner asked himself the question.

Nestled between the bays of Gweebarra and Traigheanna, Dooey is where Bonner goes to clear the mind. 

During the long weeks and months of the Covid-19 lockdowns, he’d grab a coffee from Joe Gallagher’s XL shop at Meenagowan and make for Dooey, spending a couple of hours catching up on his work as an area sales rep for drinks company Findlater & Co. 

An Ulster Championship semi-final defeat to Tyrone concluded Bonner’s four-year term as the Donegal senior football team manager.

The 56-year-old has spent the best part of his life involved at some level in Donegal football.

The hours and the challenges are more weighty now than in his first spell as the Donegal manager from 1997-2000.

He spoke to and listened to those close to him. His backroom team were a key part of the process and players, too, were consulted,

Lastly, he had to ask the searching questions of the man who matters most: Declan Bonner. He often paced the 2k stretch of Dooey’s golden sand wondering what the future held.

“It took a lot of thinking and a lot of talking,” he says. “It was a big decision. It’s a very full-on job. Even the off-season is busy, getting everything together.

“It will never be easy, but the desire and the hunger is still there. 

“Energy is a huge part of it. There are days where you’re flat but as long as the passion is there, you can get over those days. The day I get up in the morning and the passion isn’t there, that’s the day I shouldn’t be there.

“If I didn’t have that drive or see that drive in individuals around me ... there is no in-between at this level. If that drive and desire isn’t there, then it just won’t work.”

It’s just over 10 years ago now since Bonner got back - by accident - on the inter-county ladder.

His son Christian and Na Rossa club mates John McDyer and Odhrán Molloy were on the Southern Development Under-15 squad. Paddy Hegarty was in charge and had little to no assistance. One Saturday at Pearse Park in Ardara, Bonner mucked in.

A year later, he was managing the Donegal Under-16s to victory in the Buncrana Cup. A group that included current seniors Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Jamie Brennan began a rise that included Ulster titles at under-16, under-17, minor and under-21 levels.

“I can’t believe that 10 years have gone since then,” Bonner says. 

“So much has changed. If you look at where Donegal are at on the whole scale now and compare it back to then. 

“Jim McGuinness was just getting involved and the whole thing snowballed in those years. The seniors won the All-Ireland and we were building success at underage level. It was a period of real growth.”

Just last week, Donegal GAA announced a new full-time job was being advertised. The new Senior Athletic Performance Coach will work with all teams from senior to under-14 levels.

Bonner says: “Other counties have invested heavily and we need to get the proper structures to make sure that our players coming through get the best chance of being competitive at the highest level.

“We must be forward thinking. I do believe that we are moving in the right direction. We understand now that we need these things in place to compete at the level we need to be at.

“We want to make sure that Donegal stays competitive for years to come. The right steps are being put in place. We won’t see the benefits for a few years, but we will see those benefits.

“We have to make sure that we aren’t being left behind. If you’re left behind on stuff like this, there’s a danger you won’t be able to catch up.”

In January of this year, 2012 All-Ireland winner and four-time All-Star Karl Lacey was unveiled as the new Head of Academy. Since those days when he and Paddy Hegarty were putting cones down in Kentucky, it is a vision Bonner has held.

Finally, it is coming to fruition.

“We have to make sure that it works,” he says. 

“That will drive Donegal on over the next couple of generations, away into the future. Getting the right people involved, getting the coaching structure and other structures sorted is so, so important. 

“I won’t be the Donegal senior manager to see the benefit of this really, but it’s something I feel very passionate about. I spoke about this when I came back in at underage level. We needed better systems and structures. It’s getting there now.”

Bonner’s first spell as the Donegal manager is remembered in the main for how he was denied an Ulster title in 1998 by Derry. Joe Brolly’s late goal came like a dagger to his heart.

Back-to-back Ulster titles in 2018 and 2019 elevated Bonner’s stock considerably, even if Super 8 losses to Tyrone and Mayo left seeds of regret each time.

In 2020’s Covid-delayed Championship, Donegal were caught by Cavan.

With Dublin in wait in an All-Ireland semi-final and the prospect of a first provincial three-in-a-row dangling for Donegal, the stage seemed set. Cavan tore up the script, Conor Madden’s late goal securing a first title in 23 years for the Breffni.

It was a defeat that stung Donegal.

In May of this year, on the week of their return to action with a League game against Tyrone, one reporter at a press briefing in Convoy asked Donegal defender Paul Brennan about Cavan appearing ‘hungrier’. Bonner, sitting next to the Bundoran defender, interjected: “Can we move away from the talk about Cavan? We have moved away from that and we’re moving into what we are doing.”

“I felt that we performed really well in 2020 for the most part,” he says now.

“We fell against Cavan. It would be very easy to say there was complacency, but we didn’t see that or feel that. We just didn’t perform. And if you don’t deliver in the Ulster Championship, you’ll come up short.

“I’m a terrible loser. I always have been. It doesn’t just take me days, it’s weeks and nearly months even. That’s always been part of what I am.”

This year, Donegal scorched Down and scraped their way beyond Rory Gallagher’s Derry.

On a boiling July Sunday at Brewster Park, Donegal’s campaign unravelled dramatically. A series of key set-backs knocked Donegal for six and Tyrone took advantage. It is a day that will nag at Bonner for some time. 

“We never had those luxuries,” former Tyrone manager Mickey Harte said recently of the game. 

“With Donegal, Michael Murphy never missed a penalty against us and he never got sent off and Neil McGee was never carried off.”

They were moments - all three in the first half - from which Donegal would not recover. 

Donegal, 0-9 to 0-8 in arrears at half-time, stayed in touch until Tyrone flicked on the afterburners down the home straight: 0-23 to 1-14. 

Tyrone’s winning of Sam Maguire rubbed salt into a wound that was already gaping.

“The way the year ended was disappointing, no doubt,” Bonner says.

“Tyrone going on and winning the All-Ireland, it just goes to show how small the margins are.

“The lads actually dug deep that day against Tyrone. Any Championship defeat is disappointing and is difficult to take. Every year you go out, the ambition is to get to the very end. The last 12 months have been difficult. 

“The challenge for us is to get back at it. We’ll be on the pitch again in December and it starts again. We know that on any given day we can be competitive. 

“Watching Tyrone this year, they were able to build momentum. At the start of the year, they weren’t in the conversation when the All-Ireland was mentioned.”

With the benefit of hindsight, you wonder if he would take a different approach now if that game were being played out now.

“I would say no. We were down to 14 men in sweltering heat. We caused Tyrone problems with our running game that day. We had opportunities coming down the final straight and we didn’t take them.”

Last winter when he mulled over what 2021 would bring, Bonner and his backroom team came up with the concept of having a development squad working in tandem with the senior panel. Naomh Conaill’s Eunan Doherty is one example of the success of that venture, having graduated into the senior ranks.

Senior football has gone into a whole new world now and the development squad is intended as a means of bridging a gap for those who are close but just not ready to make the step.

“It’s about seeing how they react over a period of time,” Bonner says.

“Sometimes lads coming out of under-20s can be a wee step away so they’re brought in with a view to bridging the gap. 

“The door is always open. You look at how they react to training, how they recover, how they fit into the group. There are so many facets to an inter-county footballer now. It’s not just about what’s happening on the pitch. There is a lot of importance now on what a player’s life is like off the pitch. It’s a step-by-step process now to get them there to senior level.

“It’s so professional now. You wonder where it will all end. The buy-in for a player or anyone involved is total. There can’t be any half measures. Now, it’s 100 per cent or nothing.”

The make-up of the GAA season has yet to be decided. On Saturday, at a Special Congress in Croke Park, the matter will be up for debate.

One suggestion, a League-based structure for the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, known as ‘Proposal B’, has received the support of the Gaelic Players’ Association, but will need the backing of 60 per cent of the delegates this weekend.

The Ulster Council, as expected, have come out strongly against Proposal B, which would see provincial championships revert to standalone competitions.

“Ulster is the provincial championship,” Bonner says. 

“Look at it in terms of equality all across the board and there is a clear imbalance. 

“Ultimately, the Proposal B is something that is fairer for everyone. 

“Ulster is the aim all the time now, but would it have the same consequence or meaning early in the year? Probably not. It will lose it’s real meaning and the Ulster Council don’t want that, naturally. 

“I see the Championship being played as it was, to be honest. There are a lot of things to ponder, but whatever is thrown our way we’ll take it.”

When Bonner first dipped his toes into senior management 24 years ago, as a 32-year-old, the world was very different.

Comment and criticism might’ve been delivered via a newspaper column or a radio programme.

Even since his return to Donegal’s underage system in 2011, the world of social media has exploded. Now, everyone has a voice and can even hide behind the shroud of anonymity.

The often toxic comments were highlighted by the Mayo County Board in the wake of their All-Ireland final defeat by Tyrone. Mayo officials hit out at ‘unnecessary and unacceptable’ personal attacks on some players and team management.

Bonner uses social media, but keeps himself away from the negativity.

“One thing I always do is surround myself with positive people,” he says.

“I find it difficult to deal with negative people. One thing I always want is to build positivity.

“Anyone that throws up this kind of thing are nameless, faceless people, writing in under assumed names. It’s there and I know it’s there, but I live my life away from that world.

“It’s very easy for people to sit down and criticise and that’s the world now, in any walk of life. 

“No-one likes it, but it’s there. There are some people who just sit down and type in to criticise anything and everything to get whatever kick they do. 

“I try to avoid it, but I know it’s there. I always listen to people if there is something constructive. There is no issue with constructive comments. 

“There is always someone waiting in the long grass. I don’t pay attention to it much. When you have a family and they see it, that’s when it becomes a problem.

“When you’re the Donegal manager, you’re judged on your success. When you’re winning things, you’re up there, but when you lose games it’s the opposite. That’s always the way. That’s the game.” 

Bonner remains as committed as ever to Na Rossa and is the club chairman. 

A new development at Madavagh has opened and has acted as a rebirth for the club. Bonner first played for Na Rossa’s seniors as a 14-year-old and lined out just a few weeks after his 54th birthday in the 2019 Junior Championship.

The club’s former base was at Dooey, a commonage ground the club used until the acquisition of its new home, which opened in 2010. 

The old pitch at Dooey is a stone’s throw from the sand dunes that give Bonner his moments of clarity.

With a new two-year term agreed, the 1992 All-Ireland winner goes off down a familiar road, driven by Donegal.

“I want to win Ulster, I want to win the All-Ireland,” he says. 

“Do I believe we can? Of course I do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting here.   

“Those goals and ambitions are there. Every meeting with players, coaches, support staff is around that; about being the best that we can be and delivering that.”

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