BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE first thing to ask Declan Bonner is: Why?
When the job of Donegal minor football manager came up last summer following Stephen Friel’s departure, Bonner jumped at the vacancy.
He’s given club management a wide berth and had nurtured the talents of a group of not just promising footballers, but boys who were committed to a common cause to winning Buncrana Cup and Jim McGuigan titles at Under-16 and Under-17 level in successive years.
Underage football does not always follow the grain, but Bonner could sense that an Ulster Minor title was Donegal’s if they wanted it bad enough.
The Lettermacaward man has managed the Donegal senior team, in a reign from 1997-2000, and been in charge of club sides at Gaoth Dobhair, Dungloe and his native Na Rossa.
Why, then, delve back into the coalface of inter-county management.
“It’s just there and it’s in the damn blood,” he says in a quiet corner of Letterkenny’s Glencar Inn.
“Being half mad helps along the way: It’s good to put that on the CV.
“Sometimes you wonder why you do it, but I’ve really enjoyed working this group. It has been very gratifying seeing the lads grow into men and develop as footballers. Every one of them has improved over the last couple of years.
They have got good grounding and will be ready to make the next step to under-21 or senior football.
“It’s been an education for me too.
“You can talk about management structures and methods until you’re blue in the face, but what you need above everything else is a squad of players willing to buy into what you’re doing.
“Anytime I go to take on a job, if I don’t get that then I don’t hang around. You have to demand that. There’s no point in me giving it 120 per cent and some man landing to only put in 90 per cent. It doesn’t work. When I go in, it’s all or nothing.
“These lads want to be better players and they want to be out training.”
Each one of his thirty-three man squad has played for their clubs at senior level. It has become problematic for the fixtures planners and, in some cases, for the clubs concerned, but for the grander picture Bonner feels that it shows where his group has gone to.
He says: “The players they’re playing with and against are helping take them on. Take, for instance the lads from Gaoth Dobhair who are playing alongside Neil and Eamon McGee every week and they’re coming up against the likes of Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy. That can only bring them on.
“There are huge demands put on players. There’s no doubt about that. To prepare them properly, we need time with them to develop them. It has been difficult over a period of time, but we’re getting there.”
On the day of his 32nd birthday, namely August 11, 1997, a flu-ridden Bonner sat upstairs in the Sean MacCumhaills clubhouse in Ballybofey. The County Board were interviewing for the job. An All-Ireland winner as a player in 1992, Bonner had thrown his hat in the ring.
It was getting late when Pat Conaghan, then the county chairman, appeared and informed him that he was the new Dongeal senior football manager.
“I learned a huge amount in that time with the seniors,” he says. There are times when he still curses Joe Brolly for that goal in the Ulster final of 1998, depriving Bonner of a perfect opening campaign.
He says: “We were unlucky in 1998. We played some great football that year. We lost the League semi-final against Offaly, a very good Offaly team actually. We were beaten by a last-minute goal against Derry in the Ulster final. This is all part and parcel of it and we rolled on.”
He had spells as senior team manager with his native Na Rossa, Gaoth Dobhair and Dungloe.
“With the minors, now, this is different in that I have had a chance to previously develop these players with the under-16s and the 17s,” he says.
“That has been the best thing. It’s been an enjoyable journey but hopefully there’s a lot more to come.”
He cut his teeth as a manager in 1989 when he was player-manager on the Na Rossa team that won the Intermediate Championship.
It was a year that saw him feel the sharp disciplinary edge of Tom Conaghan.
“I went to Boston in 1988 and over-stayed my welcome,” he says.
“I had been playing with the Donegal senior team. I came back a month late from Boston. Myself, Matt Gallagher and Manus Boyle were out of the Ulster final in ’89.
“I was at a loose end when I came back and the club asked me if I’d manage the senior team so I did. We won the Intermediate Championship and I went back to Donegal when Brian McEniff went back in 1990 and we won Ulster.
“I was disappointed with how it finished with Tom because I had played all the Championship games under him up to then. I think I played every competitive match for him for the couple of years previous. I missed out in late ’88 and ’89. Tom was a real no-nonsense manager.”
Bonner has that edge to him too and he’s taken a lot from all the managers he played under.
It was the summer of 1990 when he and Catherine were on honeymoon in Austria. Bonner had played against Cavan in a 0-13 to 0-9 win and McEniff was getting ready for a joust with Eamon Coleman and Derry.
He says: “Brian was on the phone constantly, even ringing the hotel to make sure I was doing a spot of training. I came back fitter than I ever was – I was out running every day. A good friend of mine got married on the same day, Joe McFadden from Gweedore. he was in the same hotel for the two weeks. When he came back he reckoned he was never as fit.
“In the days long before mobiles, Brian was always on the phone. He was always ringing the house to make sure this was done or that was done. He always had the personal touch.”
He laughs when he begins to talk about the difference in managing the Donegal minors of now and the Na Rossa seniors of 1989.
“Oh Jesus,” he says, “you’d be looking out the window on the day of a match just wondering if everyone would turn up. There were no mobile phones. We trained Tuesday and Thursday, but you’d be lucky to get a dozen out for it. That was the first time ever we won a Championship and it was a great occasion for the club.”
He won titles all the way up at underage with Rosses Rovers and it was his late father, Dan, who sowed the seeds.
“He was a huge influence,” he says.
“At underage level he took us to all the matches. We had a very successful Rosses Rovers team. We won so much on the way up in four to five years. That was great grounding because we knew what it was like to win things.
“He was also involved with Na Rossa. I remember going away to play at under-10 or under-12 level and he could have nine or ten lads from Doochary and Lettermacaward packed into the car. That was the way it was then.”
Dan Bonner passed away last August. The graveyard Mass in Doochary was last Sunday. It was with a heavy heart that Declan missed it. He was at the Connacht football final casting an eye over potential opponents, Mayo and Roscommon. Dan Bonner would’ve understood. After all, in 1981, Declan, Sean and Michael Bonner played for Donegal’s minors in a 2-8 to 2-7 loss against Armagh.
And on Sunday, Armagh are again the opposition as Declan aims to lead the minors to an Ulster title.
The locals of the Glencar, one by one, are wishing him well. Football is the talk on every lip and Bonner is in his element. That he’s enjoying it is the answer to the why.
He says: “I’ve been about management for a long time, but if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t be here.”
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