BY CHRIS MCNULTY
AT one of those memorable press conferences of his, in the lead-up to the 2012 All-Ireland final, Jim McGuinness told the story about the explorer Scott going to the South Pole.
Scott talked about selecting his team for the expedition. ‘Hire the character and teach them the skills,’ was the line that struck McGuinness.
Declan Bonner takes a leaf out of that same teaching.
The Na Rossa man’s return to inter-county management in 2012 was understated, but now the 1992 All-Ireland winner stands on the verge of history as Donegal seek a first-ever All-Ireland minor title.
Character has been key for his group.
Not just in games, from the late Gavin McBride goal that sealed the 2012 Buncrana Cup win to the recent All-Ireland semi-final and Ethan O’Donnell’s magical match-winner, but in terms of his personnel, Bonner has looked for character first. The skills have followed.
Take Buncrana’s Caolán McGonigle, who was better known as a goalkeeper up until the last two years. Now a midfielder of renown on the Donegal minor side, he’s also made a name as an accurate free-taker.
“Caolan McGonigle came into us at under-17 level and had played most of his football in goals, but we have worked a lot with him and he has developed into a very fine midfielder,” Bonner says.
Danny Rodgers looked to have drifted away from Gaelic football, but Bonner found the Dungloe man’s calling again. A string of important saves have outlined his importance to Bonner’s plans this summer.
The Donegal manager says: “Danny was playing soccer, but I knew that he could really add to the thing. One of the first things that I did was speak to Danny.
“He’s a really good, athletic ‘keeper who stands at 6’4″. He has a really commanding presence. We had him at under-16 level in this squad but by the time the Buncrana Cup came he was away playing soccer. He has been superb since he’s come back in and he’s given superb commitment.”
Bonner identified full-back as a problematic position last year, but in Ciarán Gillespie from Gaoth Dobhair he found a diamond in the rough.
Bonner says: “We didn’t have a commanding presence at full-back, but we worked with Ciaran and he has been outstanding for us. He has come up against top-class players and will do again in the final against Killian Spillane. He has really lifted his game.”
Gillespie learns his trade from Neil McGee in Magheragallon, so he’s getting tips from the top, but the rugged number 3 has had a remarkable journey.
“It’s been a great experience,” Gillespie says.
“It’s hard to believe where we are. It’s even better to be the first Donegal team.
“I was in with the 16s but didn’t get any game time. I broke into the team last year at under-17s. I got in for this year and Declan kept faith with me. He stuck me straight in at full-back. I usually played out the field, but he put me in there. I like it in there. I’m still learning.”
One of Bonner’s first tasks was to assemble a big squad and he regularly talks about the importance of his A versus B games.
At the start of the 2014 Ulster Championship, Stephen McMenamin and Conor Morrison weren’t part of the matchday squad. McMenamin started the All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin and Morrison came on as a sub early in the second half. Both had big influences on the bearing of that encounter.
Bonner says: “They’ve come in and got their chances – and taken them – but the door is never closed. We are looking at players who are on form and who are showing well in training. We could have a ‘surprise’ for the final because that’s the way we have picked it all year – the man on form is the man who plays.
“Training has gone well and has been very intense.
“We have a big squad and that was one of my aims when I first came in. Any night we have had an in-house game – we have one maybe every second week – they have been really outstanding matches. Even if we have had a couple of men injured we’ve still been able to play fifteen v fifteen, which has been a huge help.
“It has been brilliant. This wasn’t a six-month plan – it started back three years ago.
“We came in and looked at what we needed to do to move Donegal football forward at underage level. We had underachieved in the past and it was down to a lot of work being done in those early stages that we have built up to where we are now.
“We have had an awful lot of training sessions since we first came in and the amount of players we have had in is phenomenal.
“We have seen a lot of these lads develop so much in the last three years and that has been very gratifying.”
For Bonner, the lightbulb moment arrived the last day the Donegal and Kerry seniors met in Croke Park. It was the All-Ireland senior quarter-final of 2012 and Bonner took his under-16s to Parnell Park for a challenge game against Dublin earlier that day.
He says: “When you first go into a squad of that age you don’t really know what you have on your hands. At under-16 level we felt we were getting there but we didn’t know where we were. At an early stage I got word that Dublin had a red hot under-16 team. I didn’t have a clue who the manager was but I got in touch.
“We went down to Parnell Park and we beat them. That game told us a lot. We knew they could match up with the best in the country. I was happy that day and knew I had the material there for a special side.
“We left at 6 in the morning, played the match in the afternoon, headed to Croke Park and weren’t back home until 2 in the morning. It was well worth it, though.”
In the last couple of weeks Bonner has seen several of his squad begin their third level education and now has eleven players at six different centres to return for training.
McGonigle, Stephen McBrearty, Niall Friel, Cian Mulligan and Sean Daffan have started in Dublin, Andrew McClean and Colm Kelly are in Galway, with Gillespie in Dundalk, Danny Monagle in Athlone, Lorcan Connor in Belfast and Daire Quinn having the arduous trek from Limerick.
Bonner says: “Any of those journeys are lengthy and take a lot out of you, especially when you’re coming back, doing a training session and then heading off again.
“It’s tough on the boys too because they’re dealing with being away from home for the first time. It’s a massive time in their lives and it’s huge upheaval for them.
“They’re in a new environment and on their own – their mothers aren’t there to cook the breakfast or dinner. Seriously, that’s some change for a young lad to be dealing with.”