BY CHRIS MCNULTY
DONEGAL minor manager Declan Bonner is sweating on the fitness of several key players ahead of Saturday’s Ulster Minor Football League final against Tyrone (Brewster Park, Enniskillen, throw-in 12noon) and the 1992 All-Ireland winning forward believes that his players are being exposed to ‘too much’ football.
Donegal go in search of their eighth Ulster Minor League crown when they face the Red Hands, with Donegal bidding to make up for the disappointment of twelve months ago when they were pipped by eventual Ulster Minor Champions Monaghan in the final.
Bonner, who succeeded Stephen Friel in the minor hotseat in the aftermath of the 2013 campaign, has something of a headache ahead of the final. The Donegal boss says he will give ‘every chance’ to his injured players, although he will definitely be without Conor Doherty, who has picked up a suspected medial ligament injury and Andrew McClean, who has a calf injury, while Colm Kelly and Christian Bonner missed the semi-final win over Armagh and will remain sidelined for the final.
The Donegal boss is rather more hopeful on the prospects of Jamie Brennan and Niall Harley, however, and hopes the duo will be able to play some part.
Brennan and Harley came through light training on Tuesday night, while the Na Rossa clubman is also monitoring Conor Morrison and Tony McClenaghan who have been hampered by calf injuries this week.
“We have a few men with calf problems that are down to the ground being hard and the amount of football they’re playing. The demands on these young lads is something frightening,” Bonner said.
“Last Saturday a lot of our lads left Letterkenny after the semi-final and headed in the evening to play for their clubs. The St Eunan’s last, for example, played for us last Saturday, played for their club seniors on the Sunday and then on Monday night played for the club’s minor team. They were then expected to come to us for training on Tuesday and other lads had minor games on Wednesday night.
“At the minute our training sessions are basically taken up with injuries that have occurred because of lads playing too much football.
“I’m a great advocate of lads playing for their clubs – but there appears to be an awful lot of minors now playing for their club seniors. You have emigration and the drain of lads in their twenties, which means these young lads are having to step up. It’s an awful lot of football for young lads to be playing and it is bordering on being too much.”
Bonner has been with this crop of players since Under-16 level. Under his watch, Donegal has won the Buncrana Cup (Under-16) and Jim McGuigan Cup (Under-17) titles, defeating Tyrone to claim the prize on each occasion.
However, his squad has been beset by injuries. In addition to the aforementioned, Bonner has been playing the League without leading forward Stephen McBrearty, who is on recovery’s road from a cruciate injury sustained a year ago.
“We had a great run up to a fortnight ago. In the last two weeks it has been bedlam,” Bonner said.
“We had twelve of our squad on the sideline unable to train on Tuesday and a good majority of those have started games. It is frustrating more than anything because we have done a huge amount of work with them. Now coming into the business end of it with a League final and the Championship looming, it makes recovery time all the more important – but they’re not getting that.
“We’ve got a decent size of a squad, but it is really being tested now. It’s important that the lads who are in training are up to speed. It means that we aren’t taking men in from the cold and overloading them with information. They know exactly what we’re about.”
Donegal’s manager is preparing for a difficult assignment in Mickey Donnelly’s Tyrone who can call on the likes of Ronan Nugent and Conor McKenna. Tyrone were All-Ireland minor finalists in 2013, losing to Mayo in the final, having been beaten by Monaghan in the Ulster final.
Donegal recorded a win over Tyrone in Convoy during the group stage, coming from a six-point half-time deficit to claim a hard-earned win.
Bonner said: “Our lads won’t fear Tyrone. They will respect them, but there won’t be a fear because we know we’re as good as them on our day. Tyrone have been the benchmark in terms of underage. It’s a great test for us.
“It will give us a really good test. They’re looking forward to it.”
Last weekend, Donegal overcame Armagh in Letterkenny. Donegal failed to score for the first 25 minutes, but John Campbell’s goal late in the first half saw them take control. Against ultra-defensive Armagh, Donegal had to be patient with the Orchard purposely conceding possession from all bar one kick-out.
“We found it hard to break Armagh down. It was something that we’d never faced before,” Bonner said.
“We coped well after we got our first score on the board. Once we went ahead we never looked like losing.
“We were reasonably comfortable.
“It’s a rare match when you’re basically just given possession of the ball. It was a matter of being patient and wearing it down. It’s so difficult to just hang onto it when you’re the defending team. Once the opposition get on top, like we did against Armagh, the system just starts creaking. Once John got the goal we were well on top.
“It’s just like a game of chess – you need to get the moves right.
“It was a different task for us but we got through it.”
Donegal lost last year’s Minor League final to Monaghan, who were Ulster Champions later in the year.
Donegal’s previous two Ulster Minor League wins, in 1996 and 2006, coincided with the last two occasions on which they’ve won the Minor Championship.
Bonner said: “The lads should feel good about it. These days can pass you by very quickly.”
DONEGAL’S MINOR LEAGUE WINS
1962 Donegal 3-06 Down 2-07
1963 Donegal 3-06 Down 2-04
1982 Donegal 2-07 Monaghan 0-11
1984 Donegal 2-09 Down 1-07
1985 Donegal 5-06 Cavan 2-11
1996 Donegal 0-11 Armagh 0-09
2006 Donegal 1-08 Armagh 0-08