No Bones About It

Declan Bonner

Declan Bonner: ‘What if?’ The sorest question of all

 Donegal players watch the presentation of the Sam Maguire Cup to Kerry on Sunday.

Donegal players watch the presentation of the Sam Maguire Cup to Kerry on Sunday.

STARTING this column this week is not an easy task.

Last week we were so optimistic. So confident. So hopeful.

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After losing both the minor and senior All-Ireland finals on Sunday against Kerry we feel only emptiness and that nagging, horrible question that is perhaps the sorest of all for sports people to answer: What if?

In the minor final, we had five goalscoring opportunities and we also kicked an awful lot of wides from play.

We were up against a very good Kerry team, but I still felt that we were the better side in terms of the play.

Kerry were way more clinical than we were and it was our finishing that ultimately cost us. We were disappointed not to take those chances when they arose.

I’m devastated for the lads and for all the people who put in so much hard work.

A lot of those players will move on now from minor level, but the future for Donegal football is definitely very bright with these boys stepping into under-21 and then, hopefully, senior level.

It was disappointing that neither the senior or minor team performed like they can, but how often do we see that scenario where a team puts in a big performance in a semi-final only to be disappointing come the final?

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You’re nearly as well to crawl over the line in the semi-final because it is very hard to get a repeat performance three weeks later.

There was so much euphoria after the semi-final that it actually felt like an All-Ireland in many way. Both had beaten two very good Dublin teams at Croke Park and the hype and hysteria was understanable to a point. The Dublin teams were probably better teams than the Kerry sides we met on Sunday, but look we have to hand it to Kerry because they’re away back to the Kingdom with the Tom Markham and Sam Maguire Cups – what a year it has been for them.

On the honours list, Kerry are way ahead of the rest of the pack and the minor win moves them to the top of that leaderboard now too with Sunday’s their twelfth All-Ireland minor win.

I mentioned last week how I felt that Eamonn Fitzmaurice had added something different to Kerry. He has brought real steel to Kerry and he got last Sunday’s senior final spot on.

Donegal, to be fair, didn’t do much wrong in an overall sense in terms of how they lined out or how they were set up. The problem was that they just couldn’t find those energy levels or those scoring bursts we’ve become accustomed to watching. Bar Michael Murphy’s frees early on, Donegal struggled for scores, but I felt at half-time that Donegal would, as they usually do, kick on in the period just after the break. It just never happened on Sunday, for whatever reason.

Donegal are usually so reliable and dependable, but Sunday was just one of those horrible days on a football pitch when nothing went right and the wee breaks went against us. It happens, unfortunately, and sport sometimes has a habit of smacking you right in the teeth when you least expect it.

Goals, we had said in the lead-up, would be the key – and so it proved. Donegal conceded two and Kerry kept the slate clean, which proved to be the winning of the game for them. Paul Durcan will have been gutted on Sunday. Gutted, in fact, probably doesn’t even cover it. Donegal have had such a proud record defensively. What happened on Sunday was a freak, a pure and utter freak.

His kick-out was intercepted by Kieran Donaghy and at that moment, when Donaghy brilliantly placed the ball into the Hill 16 net, Paul surely must have just wanted Croke Park to open up and swallow him whole.
There is very little you can say to a player after something like that happens in a game.

You can say what you like, but the player is hurting so much the words mean nothing. I’ve been there as a player and been there trying to comfort a player. It is probably one of the worst positions to be in.

I spoke to Paul on Sunday night at the banquet and it was clear that the man was devastated. It will be of little consolation to him now, but he has had a brilliant season and without him, especially in the semi-final against Dublin, we wouldn’t even have been in the All-Ireland final.

You’ll get away, nine times out of ten, with a mistake like anywhere else on the field, but as the last in line the goalkeeper has no safety net. How many times do we see Durcan pull the embers from the fire after someone else’s mistake?

It isn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last time something like that happens to a player on such a big stage.

Hopefully we see Paul Durcan back in goals for Donegal next year because he has so much to offer us and he’s been a very safe pair of hands as his overall statistics will outline.

The Donegal supporters have really rallied around Paul and that was great to see.

Overall last weekend the support was magnificent and I must admit I had a lump in my throat when we got off the bus in Donegal town on Monday night and I saw the volume of people who had turned out for the homecoming.

When you lose games you generally don’t want to see people. I remember homecomings after we lost Ulster finals and All-Ireland semi-finals when I was playing and the last thing you want to do is stand up on a platform in front of so many people. But then you realise that these people are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you and it was so uplifting to see the people of Donegal out in their numbers on Monday night.

To me, Donegal’s supporters are the best in the country and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Even in defeat, the support last week and since the game has been unbelievable and we have to take a lot of heart from that. It is a great lift to the team and the people involved.

Mentioning people rallying around Paul Durcan and support, a couple of things from the end of the game last Sunday stand out.

Myself and Jim McGuinness both spoke last week about the characters in our teams and the personalities we have. A lot of our selections come down to the personality as much as the player. We’re lucky to have so many strong characters and good personalities within our respective dressing rooms. That is very important on weeks like this.

At the final whistle last Sunday in the senior game, one half of Croke Park was the scene of devastation while the other half was immersed in All-Ireland glory.

Karl Lacey’s first reaction was to seek out Durcan, his club-mate and colleague, to offer whatever words of support he could. Finding that in the moments after an All-Ireland final defeat tell you a lot about Karl Lacey and the qualities he has.

The same is true about Michael Murphy.

Michael stood at the edge of the Hogan Stand until every Kerry man had the chance to lift Sam Maguire and as the filed down the steps the Donegal captain shook hands and congratulated each one. Michael’s leadership and his own character perhaps never shone as brightly as it did in those minutes after the defeat.

All hope Jim stays

WHAT now, seems to be what everyone wonders.

Personally speaking I would love to see Jim McGuinness stay on as manager if he has the time to give to it. A lot of these players could walk away if Jim decides to call it a day.

I think if Jim stays the majority will be back. It can’t go on forever, but I hope he and most of the senior players stay to nurture through the young lads. There is a bit of team building to be done, but Donegal won’t be far away again next year I feel.

It will be Jim’s decision and his alone, but I think if he can do it, he will do it because he’s a proud Donegal man.

He has great time for the job and as a player he always loved playing for Donegal. His love for this county has never been in question. It would really lift the mood of the place if he stays.

I suspect he knows deep down what he’ll do, but is just taking some time to mull over it.

I feel he will come back – and I certainly hope he does.

UNDER-19 SQUAD POSSIBILITY?

I FEEL that we must get an under-19 development squad up and running in Donegal to aid our conveyor belt of talent.

Two age brackets I always felt were neglected were those at under-17 and under-19 level. The under-17 bracket has started up now and they’re being looked after – something that has really benefitted minor teams. They’re competitive and well set up. The same should be set up at under-19 level.

A lot of those players go off to third level while only some make the step to under-21s. I don’t think it would be right to bring them in every week, but to come in once a month and do a strength and conditioning programme could be of massive benefit to those players who don’t immediately go to under-21s.

I think it should happen that they meet every now and again for a collective session just to keep the wheel turning.

At first glance some people will look and give out about what it’ll cost – but if that’s where our ambitions are resting then we’re in trouble. We have something special in Donegal right now and we must ensure that we don’t rest on our laurels and miss a golden chance. This is a chance to make sure we keep the thing going for further down the line.

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