English club snaring Celtic’s manager closed one door but steered Donegal boss down another path
For the teenage Declan Bonner, sporting success seemed almost pre-ordained.
It came true for him, but in a very different way than he thought it might have transpired.
When he was sitting his Leaving Certificate exam on June 30, 1983, a phonecall came through to the school. When Bonner took the receiver, it was his namesake, the goalkeeper Packie, on the other end of the line.
Packie broke the news to Declan. The Celtic manager, Billy McNeill, had left to take over at Manchester City.
Then, The Butterfly Effect. On his desk, or in some file somewhere in the office, was a two-year contract that McNeill had offered the promising young left-back from Donegal.
He had been over on trials that Easter and McNeill thought he was made of the right stuff when he watched him up against the likes of Danny McGrain, Roy Aitken, Paul McStay and Murdo McLeod. He was due to come over to start straight into pre-season.
But when McNeill left, he took his backroom staff with him. Davie Hay came in as the new gaffer and they dumped all the paperwork lying around.
In any event, a soccer career seemed unlikely for Bonner.
“The first game of soccer that I played was for the first year team at secondary school, that was the first competitive, organised game,” he recalls.
“My family were completely into GAA, my father had no interest in soccer. He played county football but he had no interest in soccer. So once that happened (McNeill leaving), there was no-one there.
“I wasn’t attached to any club, I played underage for Finn Harps and I played for the Republic Under-17 team, I was captain at the time. Niall Quinn played in it, Ken DeMange and Brian Mooney.”
At the time, Liam Tuohy was the manager. Brian Kerr was his coach. Experienced soccer men were entrusting the armband not with some of the bigger, established names from the Dublin circuit, but with this copper-headed kid from the wilds of west Donegal.
At Celtic, there was nobody there to get him back. In no time, Bonner was called into the Donegal squad by Brian McEniff. A sliding doors moment? Well, he wasn’t finished with soccer just yet.
Back when the National League was played either side of Christmas with a three-month break factored in, he would line out for Finn Harps.
One of the more bizarre events of his sporting life happened in 1988. Ireland was in the grip of soccer fever during Euro 88 but once Donegal were beaten by Armagh in the Ulster Championship, Bonner made for a summer in Boston.
He stayed on for a while, enjoying the scene over there and, by the time he got back, Donegal manager Tom Conaghan decided such tardiness was not to his liking, so he cut Bonner adrift. He took up again with Harps.
That January, the AGM for Bonner’s club, Na Rossa, was hosted. They couldn’t get a manager. Bonner took on the role of player-boss.
He was just 23. They finished that season winning their first ever Intermediate Championship. And not for the first time, McEniff came in having been appointed the Donegal manager once more and brought Bonner in with him to finish the 1990 season as Ulster champions.
At that stage, he had the taste for management though and, after damaging his kidney playing against Wicklow in Croke Park in 1995, he was out of action for a year.
His county strike partner, Tony Boyle, could see the possibilities and convinced him to take over the management of Keadue Rovers in the Donegal amateur soccer leagues.
They won the Donegal league, and went as far as the All-Ireland Junior Cup semi-final, where they lost 4-3 against Clondalkin.
Far from sate the appetite for management, Bonner knew where he wanted to go when he finished playing.
In the end, his mind was made for him. They were beaten in 1997 by Cavan and the Donegal manager job came up.
On his 32nd birthday — some would say much too young to be retiring from playing — he got the role.
In his first year managing, they reached the Ulster final. A wet day in Clones. And they were undone by a late, late goal from Joe Brolly.
“Thinking back on it, you wonder how the hell did you do that?” says Bonner now.
“I was managing and there were players older than me in the team. There were players that I played with. There were still a good number of the 1992 guys there.
“That was never going to be easy because some of those players were coming towards the end.
“Some would have thought they could play for a bit longer and I had decisions to make that they weren’t playing or whatever.”
He continued to manage for the next two years. In 2000, they met Fermanagh in a first-round game in Ballybofey. The visiting Erne men won the contest, with a sumptuous lobbed goal from one Rory Gallagher the difference at the end.
Come 2018, he made his second coming as manager. They won Ulster easily that year, beating Fermanagh — managed by Gallagher — in the final, and backed it up the following year against Cavan, before losing the 2020 decider in a reversal to Cavan.
Now, he is where he wants to be. Manager of Donegal, with the hot managerial property of Rory Gallagher down the sideline from him.
On a sunny Ulster final day in Clones. Born to it.