No Bones About It

Declan Bonner

The dressing room you leave the day of winning the All-Ireland will never be the same

Donegal huddle
THE POST-MORTEM hasn’t shed much light on just what went wrong in Croke Park on August 4th and, I suspect, we could be searching for the answers for some time.

The question I’ve been asked the most since the game is one that’s hard to sum up: How come we collapsed?

It wasn’t just the collapse against Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final. It was more of a gradual collapse and a culmination of a lot of things that happened through the year.

The dressing room you leave the day of winning an All-Ireland will never be the same dressing room again. That is because of a number of reasons.

There is so much stuff that goes on and a lot of it stuff that is hard to quantify in terms of performance.

In that build-up to an All-Ireland, there is a clear and common goal set: win the All-Ireland. when you get that and get over the line, it is so difficult to get back there. No matter how hard you prepare and no matter how many times you train, Gaelic football is still an amateur sport and guys have to go away to college or out to work soon after.

It is so difficult now to come back and win it again the following year.

There are any number of teams up to five, six or even seven who have ambitions, realistic ones, of winning Sam Maguire each year – and their hunger and desire will be, usually anyway, greater than the side that is the reigning champion.

For example, if Mayo go on now and capture the Sam Maguire you could nearly bet your bottom dollar that they wouldn’t go back-to-back.

It’s what happens afterwards that can be the issue for teams – and it is here from which I base my comment on the dressing room being an entirely different one in the weeks and months following the winning of an All-Ireland.

Players are seen as prized possessions and have invites coming for this, that and the other. All of a sudden, there is an expectation on them to be making all sorts of appearances.

But, and here is perhaps the crux of an issue, some players are more popular, if you will, and they get more of it. Some are more marketable or whatever and it leads to an imbalance.

That is extremely difficult to monitor.

Jim would have seen that when he was part of the Donegal squad after 1992. It’s nigh on impossible to keep all of that on an even keel.

As manager, Jim did his best to look after that. He stopped the appearances and the tours pretty much from the moment the plane touched down in Dublin airport from the team’s holiday in Dubai. But you can only manage it to a point.

There are a good number of players driving around in sponsored cars, there are players going here or there to carry out openings of whatever building or the other. After an All-Ireland win, you could get a player invited to the opening of an envelope!

It’s when certain players aren’t getting these things, the little perks, that it becomes a problem.
And then there is the old chestnut about hunger.

It’s more about putting in the same effort than a lack of hunger, I feel, though.

You think away within yourself that you’re doing the right thing, but you’re not. If, hand on heart, players were asked truthfully they would say that they haven’t been doing the same as what they did in 2012.

But it’s so difficult to maintain something as intense and as demanding as that. What happens from here?

To me, it looks like Jim will stay on. I doubt very much if he’ll leave on the note of a 16-point defeat in Croke Park.

What does he do to freshen it up?

The boys will get a break, but even when you’re on a break like that it’s important to keep working. A month, two or three out can make it extremely difficult to get back to a top level again.

It’s something that needs to be finely tuned and the programme for the players in the next six months is crucial. Never mind come next March or next May, it’s how the players react and what they do now when the agenda is laid out before them again that will tell us a lot.

The hope is that when they go back into the competitive environment that the group of players finds that hunger is within them and that they want to achieve something again together.

These will be the tasks and targets for Jim and his backroom team over the next couple of months.
Jim will be looking and mapping out where he and Donegal go from here. A lot of the work will be mental. The physical preparation can come, but it’s the mental side of it that will be the big one.

We were going on pure adrenalin in 1993. We got to a National League final and went to a replay with Dublin. We lost the Ulster final to Derry on a very wet day and that was fine, it was a lottery and we lost. But, it was downhill after that.

1993 would have been a relatively successful year for a Donegal side in that we got to two finals. I felt that adrenalin took us through.

I was 28 and should have been at my peak. But was I doing what I had been before the All-Ireland win? No, I wasn’t.

The current players must ask themselves that question and follow it up with: ‘Can I give it next season?’

A lot of players are coming to that age where they’ll be asking themselves what they have left to give. Is that same burning desire there? that’s the million dollar question.

It takes a really unique bunch of players and management to retain that and hold it. Cork in 1989 were the last squad and management to retain Sam. Kerry retained Sam in 2007, but had changed their manager after Jack O’Connor stepped down.

We don’t have that winning tradition in Donegal. Before Jim came in, we had only won five Ulsters, but he added two and got to a third final.

He won’t want his legacy to be a 16-point defeat to Mayo. A united front will be required from the outset in 2014. The prolonged break might just be the ticket to help that foster.
WE MUST WIN AT MINOR LEVEL

I have the task of looking after the Donegal minors in 2014.

A lot of people say to me, ‘at that level it isn’t about winning’ – but, to me, it is. It is about winning and about developing a winning mentality.

Saying that it isn’t about winning is a cop out, really.

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When someone comes and asks me about the aims for 2014, it is about developing players, yes, but mainly it is about winning an Ulster title.

That isn’t putting pressure on anyone – that’s just the way it is. The target has to be to win it.

That’s me talking ten months before we will play a Championship game in 2014 but, if we don’t win an Ulster minor title I will deem it a failure. You must have goals and targets. Of course, you’re looking to develop players along the way, but the titles are what count.

You must make sure the players are well looked after, doing the right things with their nutrition and psychology, but the other part of it is the winning.

A player who has been involved with a winning set-up will take so much with him on that journey. He will develop much faster and better than the guy who hasn’t been brought in with the winning mentality.
That is vital.

In the past we have missed out on development of players.

We have now won back-to-back Ulster titles at under 16 level with the Buncrana Cups (congratulations to Sean Paul and the team on their win).

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I have taken the Under 17s and have worked with them on a weekly basis over the last five months. That hadn’t been done in the past and the 17s would have been left to their own devices.

These players are the future. You need them coming through and hopefully we’ll see progress with them.
WE CAN’T FORGET ABOUT CLUBS

WE seem to shoot ourselves all the time in Donegal when it comes to fixtures.

It looks like a request was made from the county management to bring the games forward and that’s why the CCC made the decision last Tuesday to have the games scheduled for this weekend. Of course the decision was reversed and, it seems, there was little thought put into the whole process.

I keep on about this, but we cannot and must not forget about the clubs. The clubs are what make the Association and makes the players. These people brought through Colm McFadden, Michael Murphy, Patrick McBrearty and these sort of players. We cannot forget about them.

You can’t give clubs a Championship fixture at little more than a week’s notice. There was no thought process here at all and it’s unfortunate on the clubs.

The clubs are what make this great game of ours.

The correct decision was made anyway, and that was to play them on that original date.

Have you a comment to make on any of the above or would you like Declan to raise an issue in the column? If so, get in touch by email d.bonner@donegalnews.com

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