Published 23/08/2011 | 05:00
DECLAN Bonner has an All-Ireland winner's medal safely tucked away at his home in Lettermacaward, Co Donegal, but behind the glory of 1992, a faint shadow of regret still lingers in his psyche.
The flame-haired Bonner played corner-forward on the history-making Donegal side which shocked the Dubs in the final 19 years ago and will always savour the memories of that epic Sam Maguire Cup success.
But if Bonner, a former Donegal boss and now manager of Dungloe, has a message for the present generation, it would be: "get the most out of your team and of yourselves."
It's true that no medals will be handed out in Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final but, win or lose against the Dubs, a resurgent Donegal squad needs to bed in for the long haul.
Jim McGuinness and his merry men have taken the championship by storm and won an all-too-rare Ulster title for the county. Is that going to be a flash in the pan, or a step towards making Donegal a force to be reckoned with for the next few years?
Bonner hopes it's the latter and from his own experience he reckons the county's record should be better in terms of winning trophies.
The facts reveal that in 124 years at senior level Donegal have won just one All-Ireland senior title (1992), one NFL Division 1 title (2007), and six Ulster championships (1972, '74, '83, '90, '92, 2010).
Bonner has the distinction of having won Ulster medals in 1990 and '92, plus that precious All-Ireland memento, but reflects that more might have been achieved following the All-Ireland win.
"That '92 team, as far as titles were concerned, we totally underachieved," he says. "I felt we definitely should have won more. After that final, the players were still young enough and maybe if Brian McEniff had stayed on longer we might have won more.
"We did play a National League final in 1993, but lost it to the Dubs. We reached the Ulster final that year as well, and though we had a number of players who had injuries there definitely was a title there to be won, but we lost to Derry who went on to win the All-Ireland.
"As a group of players, we felt we had another big title win in us, but after 1994, when we lost to Tyrone, some of the players retired and the team began to change. Definitely, after '92 we should have progressed more.
"It wasn't all down to the players or the managers. A lot of that was down to leadership which wasn't there from the county board."
Bonner, who made his senior debut in a league match against Westmeath in 1983, lasted until 1997 when he retired as a county player.
The previous year he had suffered a serious injury which kept him out of action for over 12 months. By a strange twist of fate, his final game was an Ulster championship defeat to a Cavan side managed by his old All-Ireland-winning comrade Martin McHugh.
Fate decreed, however, that Bonner would not be long away from the centre of power in Donegal football as just a month after the loss to Cavan he was appointed Donegal manager on August 11, 1997 -- his 32nd birthday.
"It was a big step, but in fairness it was enjoyable," he says. "I was probably one of the youngest managers around. I don't think anyone at that time would have been younger.
"Management was much tougher than playing. There's nothing better than playing at the highest level but if you can't do that any more, then managing is the next best thing.
"I had three years. Probably the best chance we had of achieving something was in 1998. We were beaten by a very good Offaly team in the National League semi-final.
"Then we went on to reach the Ulster final against Derry, but we lost to a late goal by Joe Brolly when time was up on the clock and we were two points up."
Present team boss McGuinness was one of the players introduced into the senior team under the management of Bonner, and it's tantalising to speculate that if the county board had made different decisions a few years ago, the latter might well have ended up in charge of the present team.
Three years ago, Bonner and Charlie Mulgrew were candidates to take on the Donegal senior team following the end of Brian McIvor's reign. They understood that the job was theirs -- only to find that it was subsequently offered to JJ Doherty, who was also a former team-mate from '92.
That controversy made headlines for the wrong reasons.
"At the end of the day it's an amateur organisation. It's not easy to get the right people involved, but that situation caused a lot of bad feeling for a lot of people. JJ Doherty, myself and Charlie had been players together, and we didn't want all that.
"Our situation was that we (Mulgrew and Bonner), met that committee on a Wednesday night. We were asked by people: 'are you going to accept the position as senior team manager?' We said 'yes.'
"Next morning we heard the job had been offered to JJ Doherty and basically, all hell broke loose. It was badly handled, that's the bottom line. There were people on the county board at that stage that had their own agendas, but it was a total lack of respect for us.
"So, if you ask could it have been me as manager of this Donegal team if things had worked out differently, who knows?
"Maybe I could have been, but a lot of things could have been different. As players we could have maybe won another All-Ireland or National League. As a manager, we could have won against Derry in '98.
"Sometimes luck goes for you, or maybe you make your own luck, but you can't change the past."
And that brought us on to the subject of the Donegal side that is preparing to take on Pat Gilroy's Dublin.
"As regards the present team, I fancied them for Ulster at the start of the season and they've proven themselves by coming through five tough matches to be only 70 minutes from an All-Ireland final," Bonner says.
"I would say quietly within the camp, the Donegal boys are in a very good place. At the end of the day, it's all about winning. They've been probably holding it tight in the first half of matches and then opening out in the second half.
"They are very fit and players are playing well. Neil McGee has been outstanding, and Michael Murphy has been great. Jim (McGuinness) has them going about their business in a very quiet manner.
"At the top level now, I don't think there's very much between any of the teams. There's one more step now to go for a place in the All-Ireland final, and Donegal have as good a chance as anyone else."
Incidentally, Dublin's powerful midfielder Michael Darragh Macauley has special links with Lettermacaward.
"Michael has relatives who live there, and I know them well," said Bonner.