Tuesday 20 November 2018

'We've got to be able to surprise people' - Donegal boss Declan Bonner

Donegal boss Declan Bonner
Donegal boss Declan Bonner

Martin Breheny

The clock is running quickly and Declan Bonner has a lot to do. The start of the McKenna Cup is only four weeks away, the Allianz League launches before the end of January and will be completed over the shortest-ever time-scale.

And if that weren't hectic enough for a new manager, the Ulster Championship draw dropped Donegal into the preliminary round against Cavan on May 13.

Exceptionally busy times for the 1992 All-Ireland medal winner then?

You could say that but I knew that would be the situation when I took over. I wouldn't have gone near it otherwise," he said.

Bonner knows the management scene well, having been with Donegal development, minor and U-21 squads in more recent years after a three-season stint as senior boss in 1998-2000.

It seems a long time ago now, since he walked from the playing pitch to the sideline to take charge at the age of 32.

He played his last championship game in the 1997 Ulster semi-final defeat by Cavan and a few months later was appointed Donegal boss. It seems like a lifetime ago in a game that has evolved so much.

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That process is ongoing and, judging from Bonner's comments when he was appointed to the Donegal job for the second time last September, the need for change is greater nowhere than in his own county.

"We have to adapt. We have become too one-dimensional and too predictable. A lot of things will have to be done differently," he said.

It's a view he still holds three months later as the countdown quickens to the start of the new season.

"I think it's fairly obvious we have to adjust. We need to be more adaptable and better able to give the opposition things to think about. It will take a lot of work on the training ground but we'll do it. We have to," he said.

His assessment of the current state of play in Donegal is not meant as any reflection on the systems deployed by Rory Gallagher over the last few years.

Many of them were based on patterns from the Jim McGuinness era, which was understandable after yielding so much success.

It would have been difficult for Gallagher to dismantle everything that had gone before - especially since he was involved in creating it with McGuinness - but experiences this year have left Bonner convinced that a fundamental re-assessment was required.

Losing to Tyrone by nine points in the Ulster semi-final was disappointing enough but the qualifier demolition by Galway (4-17 to 0-14) left fans dismayed to a degree not experienced for many years. There were no early signs that the summer would be such a wash-out. Donegal finished third in Division 1, losing out to Kerry on a three-point differential for a place in the final, after beating Roscommon, Cavan, Tyrone, Monaghan and drawing with Dublin.

"It's hard to know why the season turned out as did. They looked like a squad that had placed a lot of emphasis on the league and didn't have that much left in the tank later on. The usual energy wasn't there," said Bonner.

Does that mean he will pay less attention to the league next spring?

"No. We'll be looking for a balance but you try to win every game, whatever the competition. We play Kerry and Dublin 'away' in two of our first three games so we couldn't have a harder start.

"If you're not ready for games like those, you get found out very quickly. We want to build confidence during the league, not lose it," he said.

Despite that background requirement, he intends to tweak Donegal's style of play.We can expect more emphasis on kicking skills, although that too will take time to develop in a county noted for its keep-ball philosophy.

"Most of the clubs play a similar game to the county team so their players are used to that. We will need to work on being more adaptable, better able to vary our approach as the occasion demands. We don't want to have the opposition knowing what's coming from us all the time We've got to be able to surprise them," said Bonner.

He believes that a combination of experienced players, who enjoyed big-time success since 2011 and an influx of young talent, provides a solid foundation.

"Expectations are high in Donegal, which is understandable. Already people are talking of May 13 and the Ulster first round game with Cavan. That's my big target too. Of course, we'll do all we can to win league games but ultimately you're judged on the championship," he said.

Bonner's first foray into senior management came very close to delivering an Ulster title in 1998, only to be denied by a late goal from Joe Brolly in the final.

Some of the players with whom Bonner had won Donegal's first All-Ireland title six years earlier were still aboard while the new crop looked promising too. However, reaching that 1998 final was as good as it got. .

"I went from playing to managing in a few months. That meant I was managing lads I'd played with, which brought its own challenges. We did well in 1998 and could so easily have won the Ulster title but got caught late on by Derry. A lot has changed on every front since then," he said.

"The time involved now is huge. I'm lucky that all my family are behind me and my employers (Findlater & Co) are very good to me too. I'll give it everything I have and see where it takes us."

Irish Independent

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