Born-again Donegal turn on the style
The second coming of Declan Bonner as Donegal senior football manager wasn't a surprise, after he earned favourable notice with the county minors and under 21s in recent years. It is just that the gap between both tours of duty is unusually broad. Twenty years divide his first appointment, which fell on his 32nd birthday, and his return for a second shot, and in football terms that is an eternity.
In 1997 his playing career ended at 31 with two cracked ribs against Cavan in the Ulster semi-finals. When he returned to the field after treatment Cavan were on top and in a matter of weeks they would be crowned Ulster champions, managed by one of Bonner's old comrades, Martin McHugh.
The day after Cavan won that last Ulster title 21 years ago, Bonner received a phone call advising him to run for the Donegal position left vacant when PJ McGowan stepped down following their championship exit. Bonner's management cv was exceedingly modest. In 1989 he managed Na Rossa to an intermediate title, and there was mention also of him guiding Keadue Rovers soccer team to promotion to the Ulster senior league.
He had a wife and two young kids but you know the line by now - the chance might never come again. As it happens, it has. "That time when appointing county managers," says former Donegal player Brendan Devenney, "if you were a county player you would get a job; that would not happen now. He probably had a lot to learn. But it was different times then, not as tactical."
In his first year managing Donegal in 1998 they were closing in on a provincial title when a late Joe Brolly goal turned the Ulster final. It proved his closest shot, with Donegal unable to reach Ulster finals in the remainder of his tenure before he made way for Mickey Moran in 2000. He went back into club management for a while before being drawn into the Donegal development squads, starting with an under 15 team.
That began a new relationship with the county. In 2014 the same group of players reached Donegal's first ever All-Ireland minor final under Bonner, and a host of talented players now on the senior squad rolled off that assembly line. They included Cian Mulligan, a goalscorer when introduced against Cavan in the recent preliminary round win in Ballybofey and one of their brightest prospects, as well as Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Caolan McGonagle and Jamie Brennan. Last year Bonner followed up with an Ulster title at under 21 level. He is still club chairman at Na Rossa, justifying Devenney's claims that he has always been embedded in the GAA. "He's never been away," Devenney says.
His first championship match on his return, the win over Cavan, was like his first National League match, the trip to Kerry in January, high-scoring and open, although this time they ended up on the right side of the result. Their final tally of 2-20 is the highest the county has recorded in the championship since the qualifiers were introduced in 2001, with the exception of last year's 3-19 against Antrim. Cavan earned promotion from Division 2 this spring, however, while last year Antrim went into the Ulster Championship having been relegated to Division 4. After the ultra-defensive counter-attacking football of Jim McGuinness, followers were led to expect a more adventurous approach from Bonner and more entertainment. That promise appears to be holding true.
Cavan weren't able to exploit the defensive frailties that exist but there were signs. The Cavan goal was a soft concession for the home team and poor finishing at times allowed Donegal off the hook. Donegal worked hard when not on the ball but their defence won't be judged on this performance. They may get past Derry today, as is expected, with little more learned on that score.
Having looked at the Monaghan-Tyrone match, Devenney saw a level of intensity they haven't encountered yet, with players coming off the shoulder at serious pace and liable to exploit gaps and weaknesses more ruthlessly. Cavan, who will have been very disappointed with their performance, still managed 1-15.
The positives were there too, though. Ciaran Thompson, troubled by injury last year, scored some sweet points with his left foot and managed one on the right. Mulligan came on and showed blistering pace, and gumption to go for the goal when a point was there for the taking. Michael Murphy bestrode the middle of the park with a lofty air, spraying balls around, shooting the odd point himself, and almost scoring a wonderful goal. He looked to be enjoying his football.
Most noteworthy of all perhaps was young Michael Langan, on his debut, hitting over three scores from long distance, fielding ball and looking a player utterly composed and cut out for the big stage. In the mix were the more familiar names: Leo McLoone, Frank McGlynn and, with a storming show at full-back, Neil McGee. With Odhran MacNiallais to return, Donegal are not short on attacking options.
The favourites are on the other side of the draw in Ulster, but Donegal are scoring freely, and are still producing some of the most naturally gifted footballers in the country. "If Cavan had played Donegal in the last few years the score would have probably been 0-12 to 0-9 to Donegal," says Devenney. "It was probably too open. The one positive for me was that Patrick McBrearty didn't play one of his better games. They have been so dependent on him that it was good to see others stepping up."
That said, McBrearty, scoreless for an hour and after missing one relatively straightforward free, finished with four from play. When a team is playing football as freely as they were, nobody wants to be left out for too long.
Sunday Indo Sport