It’s been a frustrating couple of months for Declan Bonner and his Donegal under 21 panel, but they will look to put that all behind them when they face Derry in the Ulster Championship quarter-final at MacCumhaill Park tonight at 8pm.
Donegal senior manager Rory Gallagher called up eleven under 21 players into his panel for the McKenna Cup, and those players have been dividing their time between the senior and under 21 set-up.
Bonner’s team have trained in Sligo in an attempt to cut travelling times for the panellists studying away from home.
The weather and a host of injuries have also provided challenges, but Bonner feels his team have prepared well and he says there will be no excuses on Wednesday night.
“It’s been difficult,” said Bonner, who steps up to Under 21 manager after two years as minor boss.
“Listen, we always knew it would be challenging, but I suppose we were hoping it wouldn’t be this challenging.
“Logistically, it’s tough because the lads are spread out all over the country.
“We have nine lads in Dublin, six in Galway, one each in Belfast, Athlone, and Dundalk, and five fellas in Sligo.
“Trying to work around that is not easy, and the wet weather has made things even more challenging, as so many pitches have been unavailable.
“We also have injuries to key players, but we just have to get on with it. There’s no point complaining or making excuses. We have prepared well and hopefully we can do the business.”
Donegal reached the Ulster Under 21 Final last year, but lost out to Tyrone in the decider.
Thirteen of the team that played that night in Celtic Park are eligible again this year, but a few of those will not feature this week.
“Rory Carr, Lorcan Connor, and Darach O’Connor were all part of the under 21 forward line last year, and they are missing.
“Tony McClenaghan will also miss out, and Mark Coyle, who has been playing well for us, looks like he will miss out too.
“Then you have Jack O’Brien, Kieran Gillespie, and Ciaran Thompson who have done nothing over the last couple of weeks.
“We’re hoping that they will make it, but the reality is that they’re going to be lacking in sharpness.”
The North West Cup proved to be a very useful pre-season competition for Bonner’s team.
It gave him a chance to have a good look at his squad and try out players in different positions.
The team were beaten by Fermanagh, but still qualified for the final, where they played out an enthralling draw with Mayo after extra-time.
The Mayo side were not keen on finishing the decider, so Sligo took their place, and Donegal beat them comfortably last week.
“From our point of view, it was a very worthwhile experience,” the Na Rossa clubman commented.
“It gave us game time in January, and we got to look at a lot of lads.
“When you consider how many lads we have out injured, it was actually a blessing because a lot of lads got a good taste of what it takes at this level.
“To be fair to the Sligo County Board, it was a very well run tournament.
“We got really good games against Sligo, Fermanagh and two against Mayo, which will hopefully stand to us.”
Getting scores has been a problem for Donegal, with so many of their prolific scorers out injured.
With that in mind, Bonner and his backroom team have come up with a plan to work to their strengths.
“We have had a couple of good challenge games against Galway, Roscommon, Dublin and Castlebar Mitchels over the last couple of weeks, and we have done well.
“We have developed a system, and to be honest, it has had to change because of the injuries.
“But the lads have worked hard and they are keen to learn. It’s been three months of tough work, and it hasn’t been plain sailing, but I think we’re ready for Wednesday night.”
The majority of Bonner’s team were part of the 2014 minor squad that reached the All-Ireland Minor Final.
Ensuring those talented players don’t drift away from the game or drop their standards is paramount to the management, who want to bring through successful players to senior football.
“I think it’s a very important age group. It’s a stepping stone to senior football and it’s a crucial stage in the development of a player.
“I was a great believer in getting the under 17 development team up-and-running before the minor championship and that worked well.
“A lot of these lads are underage next year, but things can change quickly, and quite a bit has changed since 2014.
“Players develop at different ages and at different levels, but most of the lads have stayed committed and are determined to push on.
“We have always set the bar high, and our target is to win the Ulster Championship.
“The overall aim is to bring through lads to the senior team with a winning mentality. Some of them aren’t quite ready to make the step up yet, but they are getting there.”
Bonner knows all about the danger of teams from the Oak Leaf county after his much-fancied minor team were knocked out of the Championship by Derry last year.
Fergal McCusker is in charge of the Derry team, and they recorded a comfortable 0-16 to 0-11 win over Antrim in the Preliminary round.
The final scoreline flattered the Saffrons, who registered a couple of late scores, and Bonner is expecting a formidable challenge from Derry.
“I was in watching Derry last week, and they are an impressive team.
“They have played challenge games against Down and Crossmaglen Rangers, and they have a lot of talented footballers.
“Their full-forward Niall Loughlin delivered the best free-taking performance I’ve seen in a long time.
“He had ten shots, and scored nine of them including four 45’s, so we’re going to have to be disciplined in defence.
“They have other good forwards like Terence O’Brien, Danny Tallon, and Meehul McGrath in midfield. Peter Hagan, who captained Maghera to a MacRory Cup scored two points from wing-back and he will need watching.
“It will be a tough test for us, but we’re capable of winning. Hopefully a big crowd will come out to help us get over the line.”