Friday 18 January 2019

Bonner looks to young guns to deliver

Eoin Bán Gallagher played in all of the winning finals and is well placed to feature against Fermanagh. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
Eoin Bán Gallagher played in all of the winning finals and is well placed to feature against Fermanagh. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile

Chris McNulty

It was only by chance that Declan Bonner returned to inter-county football in 2011, but everything since has been by design.

His son, Christian, was on a South Donegal development squad and he agreed to help his former Donegal team-mate, Paddy Hegarty, one night in Ardara. Soon, Bonner was appointed Donegal's U-16 manager.

Donegal won the Buncrana Cup (the Ulster U-16 title) in 2012, Bonner's first season, and he was quick to point out that it was the start of a process. At a function to honour that U-16 team, in a time when Donegal was still toasting the capture of Sam Maguire, Bonner told them to push on.

He would make sure they did.

Tomorrow in Clones, Bonner is aiming to collect a full set of Ulster titles as Donegal manager, having won at U-16, U-7, minor and U-21 levels.

"We set our targets high from day one," he said four years ago. "It wasn't a case of me coming in and just shouting from the roof about winning an Ulster title. We had to set the bar high.

"We have tried to create a winning mentality and you can see that has rubbed off on them. They have such a strong desire to keep winning."

Eoin Bán Gallagher, Cian Mulligan and Jamie Brennan have played in all of the winning finals and are well placed to feature against Fermanagh. Bonner created a conveyor belt and embedded a culture. Stephen McBrearty, Conor Morrison, Tony McClenaghan and Kieran Gillespie have also risen with Bonner through the ranks from that Buncrana Cup squad six years ago.

Says Bonner: "It's no harm coming up in a winning environment. Ulster medals aren't handed out cheaply. How they've reacted has been very good. That's been important for us. We took on this project eight months ago and we wanted to get to the Ulster final. We've made a lot of progress."

Bonner spoke openly about creating a winning habit, of bridging the age gaps between the key groups - something that meant entering the Jim McGuigan Cup at the outset of 2013.

They won that, too, and Caolan McGonagle, a strapping midfielder from Buncrana, was discovered in that squad. McGonagle will be part of the senior squad tomorrow.

At minor level in 2014, Donegal went where no other Donegal side had gone before or since - an All-Ireland final. They lost to Kerry, but the journey taught them what was possible. Bonner, in the dressing room of the Cusack Stand, went around to each of his players individually, and told them to make it their mission to return.

Gillespie, McClenaghan, Mulligan, McGonagle, Gallagher, Brennan, McBrearty and Morrison, along with Stephen McMenamin and Micheál Carroll were central players in the cast. Carroll has opted out this year and is in America, but played in the Ulster SFC last year, while McMenamin is one of those battling to fill the void left by Neil McGee's suspension.

The core of his group were making waves in 2015 and senior calls were evident.

"It didn't take much work for us to have our men become leaders," he recalls. "Some of those men are natural-born leaders."

That leadership will be key if they are to pass their Fermanagh test.

Irish Independent

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