BY CHRIS MCNULTY
DECLAN Bonner is well aware of the fine blade that cuts between a slice of complacency and a cut of confidence.
And despite Donegal’s record in the Ulster Minor Championship being less than satisfactory, former senior manager Bonner insists that there is no reason his minor class of 2014 shouldn’t enter Celtic Park for Sunday’s joust against Derry strolling with some measure of a swagger (throw-in, 12.15pm).
Donegal last won an Ulster Minor title in 2006 and their previous success to that was away back in 1996. Donegal has won only five Ulster Minor titles in history and has never so much as contested a Minor All-Ireland final. In the years since the Michael Murphy, Marin McElhinney-led team of ’06 tasted glory, Donegal’s minor representatives have won only two out of nine Championship games.
From the moment the t’s were crossed and the i’s dotted on his appointment last year, Bonner has set the bar high for this group.
These may be his first steps in minor management, but he was a member of Stephen Friel’s backroom team for two years and guided the Donegal seniors between 1997 and 2000. With this group, Bonner won a Buncrana Cup (Under-16) in 2012 and a Jim McGuigan Cup (Under-17) in 2013.
“It’s something we have talked about is the ambition to do well in the Ulster Championship,” Bonner says.
“Too often, when Donegal minor teams have gone to play the likes of, say, Derry or Tyrone, people look and think to themselves about the great traditions of these counties. The Derrys and the Tyrones walk with a swagger. Why shouldn’t Donegal have that swagger, too?
“To me, we have as good footballers in Donegal as anywhere in Ulster and maybe it has been a confidence or a self-belief issue in the past that has stopped them from getting over the line in games.
“We have set these players goals and targets. Now, we may not get there, but the thing is that they are achievable. We know we have to be ready for Derry on Sunday and we know we’re going in looking for a big performance.
“A lot of people will look at me and say: ‘Jeez, you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself and the team’ but that isn’t the case. We should be as good in terms of underage teams because we have good players in Donegal. We won’t underestimate Derry by any means and we’ll need certain things to go for us, but we’re capable of being competitive.
“We’re preparing these guys as best we can and we’re looking for that performance that’ll get them over the line. Let no-one turn around and say that complacency has been an issue. Definitely not. There is a fine line between confidence and complacency and we touch a lot on that with the players. They’re aware of the hard work that we ask for and they’re aware of what it’ll need to get them over Derry on Sunday.
“Anything can happen on the day. We’re going as favourites, but that doesn’t wash with me. We’re demanding a performance and demanding hard work and effort. If we do get that performance then we won’t be far away.”
Paddy Byrne, Colm Kelly, Cian Mulligan, Lorcan Connor and Jamie Brennan played against Tyrone twelve months ago on a day when a tale of 19 wides told a bitterly disappointing tale for the minors, beaten 1-9 to 1-3 in Ballybofey.
“Tyrone won in Ballybofey, lost to Monaghan in the Ulster final, but it was Tyrone then who played in the All-Ireland minor final (losing to Mayo) – that just shows how tight the margins are,” Bonner says.
“In Ulster, there is no safety net and no backdoor until you reach the provincial final. It really is just a case of having to go out and do it.”
Donegal won the Minor League this year. In three of the five times they won the Ulster Minor Championship, they year began with a Minor League win. Last year, Monaghan defeated Donegal in the Minor League final and they went onto lift the Ulster title in July.
“This is a completely different animal,” Bonner insists.
“We won the League and we set out to do well in the League, but that has no bearing on Sunday. Since winning the League, they have been in training with the eyes firmly on this one against Derry. We need to be switched on.”
Donegal defeated Tyrone twice in their League campaign, including an excellent performance in the Brewster Park final, a game Donegal won 1-15 to 2-07. The end scoreline on that day didn’t do justice to a dominant Donegal performance.
Bonner says: “The League campaign was encouraging because it proved we can win at minor level. Tyrone were the benchmark and we played really well in the final. We need to take that form into Sunday’s game against Derry.”
With Stephen McBrearty now putting his hand up when Bonner is picking the team having returned from a cruciate injury, the news on the fitness of his squad is good, although it remains to be seen whether or not McBrearty will start, given that he only played competitively for the first time in eleven months within the last fortnight.
The base of the Tír Chonaill team was pretty consistent in the spring and is unlikely to be altered with Danny Rodgers as the goalkeeper, Ciaran Gillespie at full-back, Tony McClenaghan at centre-back and a midfield partnership of Caolan McGonagle and the team captain Niall Harley. Donegal are not shy on big-game players with John Campbell, Brennan and Connor among the main protagonists in the forward division.
Places remain up for grabs, though, and it’s expected that the Donegal team will not be made available for public consumption until Sunday morning.
Donegal’s short, sharp system has evolved through the age groups and Bonner hopes it’ll culminate in this minor campaign – starting at Celtic Park.
He says: “I’ve been with this group for three years now and this game, this Championship has been the ultimate goal.
“When I sat down to take these guys in the development squad the plan was to see it through to the minors. I have had 85-90 per cent of them all the way up. It means I know what to expect from the lads and they know what to expect from the management team which has, by and large, been the same. There is never a night where we have to complain about a lack of effort or discipline. That just doesn’t come up. They’ve give us their best so far.”
Derry had a difficult League campaign, hindered in many ways by the march of St Pat’s, Maghera to the Hogan Cup final. Those college players have only recently linked up with Derry’s minors, although manager Richard Ferris can call on Cathal Mulholland (Derry captain), Conor Glass, Jack Doherty, Danny Tallon, Caolan McNeill, Paul McNeill and Peter Hagan.
Their exploits with Maghera are sure to count for something and Bonner is not taking this one as a foregone conclusion.
He says: “You can never take anything for granted and Derry have got back some brilliant footballers – a player like Conor Glass would be a massive addition to any side, for example – from Maghera. These boys have played in Croke Park on the big stage and we certainly won’t be underestimating them.
“We have worked hard on our system, but we’re always looking for improvement. We worked well in the League, but that’s gone now and we need to bring it on a bit for the Championship.”
Midfielder Glass is one of Derry’s aces, while forward Tallon is another to watch out for, as is Dean Curran. Castledarson’s Niall Keenan will start at corner-back, but is tipped for a big future with an oval ball: He played rugby for Rainey Old Boys and is a part of the Ulster Under-17 academy.
Bonner has urged Donegal supporters to get to Celtic Park early and lend their voice to his side: “I think people will appreciate the hard work these lads have put in. It would be great to see a good Donegal support come out. This is the future of Donegal football. Sometimes in 50-50 games, the voices from the stand can act as a real spur for a team. Hopefully we’ll get a good crowd in to cheer us on.”