BY CHRIS MCNULTY
IN the moments after his side won the Ulster final against Armagh, Declan Bonner gathered his Donegal minors in a huddle on the pitch at St Tiernach’s Park.
The old ground was filling close to its capacity in advance of the senior final between Donegal and Monaghan and the minors had soaked in the adulation on a lap of honour.
With the Fr Murray Cup in the middle of the circle, Bonner uttered the words ‘All-Ireland’ to his group.
Their focus had turned before they left Clones.
Having won an Ulster Minor League and Championship double, Bonner now plots an assault on a Minor All-Ireland title.
Their three steps to heaven start with a tricky assignment against Fergal O’Donnell’s Roscommon at Markievicz Park, Sligo on Saturday.
“We know what’s in front of us and the incentive is huge for us,” Bonner said this week.
“We are looking forward to a performance and if we get that performance we are capable of winning the game.
“We had a huddle on the pitch just after the Ulster final and immediately the focus was turned to Roscommon – even before we left the pitch in Clones.
“We took this season in three stages: The League, which we won; the Ulster Championships, which we have won and now is parked away; and now we have the All-Ireland series.”
A magnificent first-half display saw them blow Armagh out of the water as John Campbell thumped in an early goal. They could afford a saved Lorcan Connor penalty early in the second half, but Jamie Brennan netted late on to secure a comfortable and impressive win for Donegal’s first minor title since 2006.
The win hasn’t come without its cost.
Tony McClenaghan’s Achilles remains under medical observation and the Moville man is regarded as a doubt, while Andrew McClean has sustained a knee injury. McClean’s knock hasn’t been responding too well and, although the Kilcar man will be given every chance of making it, his chances are said to be as slim as less than 50-50.
The two front-runners in the event of any changes in those positions are said to be Christian Bonner and Stephen McMenamin. Bonner has been downed by a bout of tonsillitis lately, but is expected to be fit enough by the weekend while Red Hughs man McMenamin is said to be flying in training and inching close to a berth in the starting XV.
Bonner has been encouraged by what he’s seen in training as the pressure is put on his first-choice team.
He said: “Some of our in-house games have been very competitive. The standard of the lads who are trying to get into the team is very high. Any of those guys are well capable of moving into the starting fifteen.
“The whole squad has stepped up to the mark.
“People have said that we have too many players in the squad because we should only be carrying twenty-eight and that it costs too much, but what is the price of success?
“The reason we are carrying thirty-three players is so we don’t have to bring in players cold for matches who don’t know our systems and set-up. We have each and every one of them on the same page and have had half-a-dozen absolutely cracking in-house matches in the last couple of months.
“We have had fifteen v fifteen in each and have never dropped the numbers below that. The intensity levels have been huge and everyone has been bursting a gut to make the 24 for the matchday.”
Victory on Saturday will fire Donegal into an All-Ireland minor semi-final and give this group the chance to play at Croke Park. Surely an incentive if one were needed.
“That is part of the carrot, but really it’s just getting to the next stage if we want the ultimate goal,” Bonner said.
“That’s the bottom line on it. We’re not making any apologies for saying that’s what we want to achieve. That’s the third and final stage of our season and for some of them it’s the last go before they pack up their minor gear for the last time.
“We have to try and improve and get percentage improvement out of every player in that squad over the next period. We have done that in training in the last week and a half. The attitude has been brilliant.
“We aren’t resting on our laurels by any means.”
Roscommon were only beaten by Tyrone at the All-Ireland semi-final stage last year and only a late flurry by Mayo beat them in this year’s Connacht final. O’Donnell, who was manager when Roscommon won an All-Ireland minor title in 2006, can call on a wealth of experience.
Goalkeeper Shane Mannion is in his third year with the minors, while centre-back Evan McGrath is one to watch and the full-forward line of Noel Gately, Kevin Smyth and Hubert Darcy have been quite prolific.
Luke Carty plays underage rugby for Connacht and is another for Donegal to keep the tabs on.
Bonner said: “We need to have the preparation spot-on because we know what lies ahead in Roscommon. Fergal O’Donnell has done great work with Roscommon and we’ll be really tested on Saturday. We have prepared accordingly.
“We have gone through the same procedure in terms of the opposition. We know that if we get our performance levels right then we won’t be far away from any team. We will always analyse the opposition and we’ll treat Roscommon as we have any other team.”
With just thirteen days between the Ulster final and the All-Ireland quarter-final, time was short. The evening after the final, the squad gathered at the Aura Leisure Centre in Letterkenny for a recovery session and they held a team meeting.
Bonner said: “With all the highs that go with winning an Ulster title there were a few knocks, but our preparation has gone well.
“They were on a high, but that was one of the reasons I took them in on the Sunday night. We had them in for a recovery session and also we had a team meeting for about forty minutes to lay down a few things.
“We have watched the video of the final and we have had a number of things to work on.”
Donegal’s has been a collective effort so far and they have outstanding players all over the field.
Danny Rodgers has made a string of fine saves in goal, while McClenaghan, Colm Kelly and Danny Monagle have given them a solid foundation at the back, with captain Niall Harley and Caolan McGonagle offering the drive from midfield, the intelligence of Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher has been there for all to see and the likes of Brennan, Lorcan Connor and Stephen McBrearty adding the scoring power.
From early on, this team has had to deal with being the favourites, but they’ve dealt with it perfectly.
Bonner said: “We brought the expectation ourselves. We took the success along the way with the Under-16 and Under-17, but the lads have carried that expectation really well all the way through the campaign.
“It has been a great journey and it’s a journey we don’t want to end. It’s a great time to be involved in Donegal football and I’m really enjoying the season.”
The Tír Chonaill boys are capable of continuing their voyage.